“Being trans, there’s such an urgency to beauty,” explains Munroe Bergdorf. “Beauty keeps us safe, it allows us to go through society being left alone.” The activist and model is contemplating “The Renaissance of Venus” (1877) – Walter Crane’s depiction of the goddess of love and beauty, born from the water in the shape of a woman.
The video – debuted here – is a collaboration between Tate Britain and Bergdorf, drag queen Sasha Velour and musical artist Leo Kalyan. Exploring the grand vaulted galleries of Tate Britain and its vast collection, the three LGBTQ+ advocates choose the artworks that speak of their LGBTQ+ identity, and describe their relationship with the pieces that most affect them. They’re seeking to see themselves represented in traditions that have often excluded them or negated their existence.
Leo Kalyan chooses Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies at the Base of a Crucifixion” (1944), explaining how he was initially drawn to the violence and humanity of the triptych without any knowledge of Bacon as a queer artist. “He was living at a time where it was illegal to be gay,” says Kalyan. “And myself, coming from a Muslim background, we experience the world as people who are on the outside of the outside.”
Sasha Velour selects an abstract compositional piece rather than a figurative work. “Composition in Yellow, White and Black” (1949) by Marlow Moss (also a queer artist) is a conceptual painting depicting an arrangement of colour and proportion. “I feel like as a non-binary person that’s more accessible because I find geometry more reliable categories than a man and a woman. In some ways, I can see myself more in a square of yellow than I can in a drawing of a woman or a man.”
The film shows how it’s possible – and why it’s vital – to reclaim repressed voices of difference from the gendered forms of the art canon. As Velour explains, “In many ways, the world of art history we are inheriting was written by a very cis patriarchal system that rejected otherness. It’s important for all kinds of reclamations to happen today because it was edited out of the history books.”
Sasha Velour is the director, producer, and star of visual art performance piece "Smoke & Mirrors” which appears in the film