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Kiss My Genders, Hayward Gallery 2019
Juliana Huxtable, “Untitled (Lil’ Marvel)” (2015)

Photographers creating work through the queer gaze

In the Hayward Gallery’s new show, over 30 international artists interrogate the idea of the male gaze by forging an alternative

In the Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition Kiss My Genders, photographer Catherine Opie’s portraits of the queer community from San Francisco and LA in the 1990s stare out at you defiantly, from against their brightly coloured studio backdrops. The idea of the photos, said Opie, was to remove these people from the context in which they exist and explore how their body might convey their queerness to the viewer, through subcultural signifiers like piercings, haircuts, and tattoos.

Also in the show are the erotic self-portraits taken by the British photographer Ajamu – of a black laced glove stroking a penis, or the artist feminised in a trashy blonde wig – “a celebration of black queer agency”, he has said. Then there’s Martine Gutierrez’s multimedia work, in which the Latinx trans artist reimagines herself as different characters, unidentifiable from one series to another, and Chicago-born painter Christina Quarles’s portraits of many-limbed figures, the illegibility of which represent how, as a mixed race, queer and cis woman, her body is often misread as something it's not.

Kiss My Genders is a groundbreaking group show of more than 30 queer, trans, nonbinary, and intersex artists whose works explore gender, its title borrowed from a Planningtorock song. There are many more famous names in the exhibition, from Peter Hujar to Pauline Boudry & Renate Lorenz, Jimmy De Sana, Juliana Huxtable, and Zoe Leonard. But as well as dealing with gender, what unites all of these artists’ works is that they are somehow taking back the gaze – marginalised people calling the shots in how others see them or people like them.

“I am femme who has been socialised and looked at like a woman within western contexts their whole life, who is neither white nor a woman, and who is also attracted to women, so how do I think about my own gaze and what it’s doing within hegemonic systems of looking?” – Victoria Sin

When the feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey coined the phrase “the male gaze” in 1973, in her essay “Visual Culture and Narrative Cinema”, it referred to how much of what we consume in visual culture depicts women from a masculine, heterosexual perspective – representing women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the male viewer. This power dynamic was not a new one – just look at the lengthy history of the female nude – however, by putting a name to it, Mulvey gave us a snappy way to describe something insidious, ubiquitous, hard to put words to, and also a solid concept to deconstruct.

In the years since her essay, a counterpoint to the male gaze has emerged: “the female gaze”, describing the way that women picture women, from the individual filming, the characters within the film or artwork, to the spectator – the dynamic is supposed to be less sexist. Yet, even today, we hear little about what a “queer gaze” might look like.

“There is a violence and eroticism in the act of looking and consuming (especially gendered) imagery”, explains Victoria Sin, a London-based nonbinary artist who uses drag to interrogate ideas about gender, “but sometimes violence and eroticism are the same thing.” In the Hayward show, videos of Sin’s high glamour operatic performances beg to be gazed at but are projected onto white drapes, the image fluttering in and out of focus. “A lot of thinking in my work comes from a need to recognise the complexity of looking within systems of power, about being a looking and consuming body within that, and how things are rarely binary.” 

Sin read Mulvey’s text in their undergrad, but thinks it is ripe for a rethink: “If we think about how much feminist discourses have changed in that time to consider the fluid and constructed nature of gender, it makes sense to bring that into any discussions about the gaze. Mulvey spoke about the male gaze towards women, but I am femme who has been socialised and looked at like a woman within western contexts their whole life, who is neither white nor a woman, and who is also attracted to women, so how do I think about my own gaze and what it’s doing within hegemonic systems of looking?”

In other words, how do we make sense of the male gaze outside of a binary, Sin asks, when there are myriad dynamics? Kiss My Genders more broadly provokes similar questions: in a western world that’s not as heterosexual or cisgender as it used to be (as much of the work in the show documents), where more people are defining as something other than straight, where there are more ways to describe your gender than ever before, and where many of us have a firmer grasp on intersectionality (how aspects of your identity will privilege or disadvantage you in society) – does the male gaze still dominate? How are artists pushing a new type of gaze? And what tactics are used to queer the gaze?

Amrou Al-Kadhi – a British performance artist and filmmaker, who is pictured in the show in a photograph by Holly Falconer, their body fragmented by a layering technique – believes that it’s necessary to explore the queer gaze precisely because a male gaze still dominates. They use film as an example. “It is something I think about when watching films”, they explain, “I’m not a fan of the ‘Death of the Author’ theory in which we dispel that the film’s politics stand on their own for scrutiny without investigating who’s behind the lens.” 

In Al-Kadhi's experience, films by male directors most often (although not exclusively) conform to tropes of the male gaze – Amrou gives the example of Elle, which seems to trivialise rape into a narrative commodity, or Assassination Nation, in which they found rape to be glamourised and fetishised. Elsewhere, when selling their work to TV and film companies, there is an impulse from execs to bend queer stories in order to fit heteronormative narratives – which are usually assumed to be the “right” ones; “that often means painting queer people as traumatised victims.”

Al-Kadhi continues: “I think, as queer people, we have spent so long having our identities violated, and morphed, and twisted by dominant culture, that part of creating a QPOC specific gaze is battling everything you have learnt from the traditional narrative structure and trying to find a way of looking at things that is unmarred.” This is not easy, they say, because it involves finding a grammar or expression that hasn’t been conditioned. It also involves trying to be honest about the point of view of their own gaze when they make work, and creating an environment that is collaborative. “Sadly, many film sets often have the male director treating their perspective as an auteur-ish, Godly voice”, they add, “I hate that shit!”

When it comes to techniques for how to queer the gaze in an artistic landscape, the photographer Del LaGrace Volcano – who has been shooting subcultural queer communities across five decades – suggests that you’re implicitly more likely to have something closer to a queer gaze if you yourself are queer (they are an intersex nonbinary photographer), but adds that there is more to it than that; while the person behind the camera is important, subject matter is too, and even more so, subjectivity.

“It’s not seeking to enhance the status quo, or the beauty myth that we’ve all swallowed, aka, that the closer you can resemble a Barbie doll – tall, thin, rich, white, blonde, blue eyes – the more alpha you are”, LaGrace Volcano explains, “I think we are looking for the deltas and epsilons.” LaGrace Volcano’s work in the show is mostly from a series called Love Bites, picturing people they encountered in the S&M scene of the late 80s and early 90s in London – like Robin, a butch dyke staring up to the heavens in a leather jacket and tutu. They believe that a queer gaze is disruptive to conventional ways of seeing people, genders and bodies, and aims to valorise the lives of people that are otherwise considered decrepit. 

“It seeks to empathise and see beauty where other people see abjection. In the beginning, when I was doing more lesbian punk pictures like that, I would make them extremely beautiful by hand painting them. This would cause people to look and stay with the work because it wasn’t something they knew. It’s about working with people’s ideas of what is beautiful; we’ve all been trained through the media, Hollywood and advertisements to think we know – but that is a heteronormative male gaze at work. A queer gaze seeks to smash the status quo.”

“It’s about working with people’s ideas of what is beautiful... A queer gaze seeks to smash the status quo” – Del LaGrace Volcano

Sin points out that there are many dominant gazes to consider when we think about how to queer the gaze: it’s not just a male gaze that needs to be challenged, but the white gaze, the cis-gendered gaze, the classist gaze, the ableist gaze – and “how often these things are inseparable from each other”. Al-Kadhi agrees, pointing out that, even from a technical standpoint, the camera can privilege white subjects: “Bradford Young is a black cinematographer who has discussed that to privilege black skin on camera, he has had to undo a lot of the lens and lighting techniques he was taught were good at NYU, because they automatically privilege white skin.”

This point feels most prescient in Kiss My Genders when looking at the works by Canadian artist Kent Monkman, who paints large scale landscapes that “critique the way European settlers depicted Indigenous Cultures of North America”. What this means in practice, is paintings that seem to flip “coloniser–native” power dynamic. One painting, not in the show, is an image of a white, western army officer sucking the dick of a figure characterised as an indigenous person. “When I make these paintings I’m not necessarily repainting history”, Monkman has said. “It’s a way to reverse the colonial gaze.” 

That Monkman’s works jar with the viewer because we’re not used to seeing white bodies objectified like this, shows how far we have to go in undoing the power dynamics we’ve come to accept as a given in visual culture. The same goes for the feeling you get when you see the works in the show that deify or beautify genderqueer bodies. Even if they’re older and extremely well-known images, like Hujar or Opie’s, they still, somehow, feel transgressive.

LaGrace Volcano sees championing queer gaze as having a broader social function: “It’s a kind of remedy. It’s looking to show we’re strong, we’re powerful, we are looking at you, we will not be objectified,” explains LaGrace Volcano. “I’ve had a lot of feedback that my work helps people connect with what they might see as ‘the Other’, or the ‘exotic Other’, with a queer person or people of all descriptions. So part of what I do is to help people connect with communities they probably do not understand and think of as strange, or outsiders.” It encourages people to see those ‘Others’ as equals, LaGrace Volcano says. 

For Al-Kadhi, the queer gaze is all about multiplicity. “Queer spaces work best when they are non-hierarchal, and when they show the utter multiplicity of experiences.” Queer people, they explain, are good at celebrating individuality as part of collectivity: “We acknowledge that every single point of view is unique, every identity specific, and work as hard as possible not to homogenise – as a result, the process of decolonisation and resistance comes from revealing the infinite differences of experiences, so that people start to take away that there is no singular fixed gaze… but an ever-expanding universe of experiences.”

To celebrate Pride’s spirit of inclusivity, Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery will offer free admission to all visitors for its latest exhibition, Kiss My Genders from 11am – 7pm on Saturday 6 July.