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JARDINE, Bob ACP 1812 Not titled
Not titled (one of 14 photographs) (1984)Arts Council Collection, Southbank Centre, London © Bob Jardine

Exhibition highlights queer histories erased from art

Steve McQueen, Andy Warhol, Sunil Gupta, Zanele Muholi, and more, come together to create an epic dialogue about the LGBTQ community and its often ignored legacy within the art world

Already this year, various high-profile art institutions have presented tributes to the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary. The legislation partially decriminalised sex between some men in England and Wales, yet its rules and regulations were so strict that it arguably exacerbated existing homophobia.

Few exhibitions incorporate this level of detail; one notable upcoming exception is Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender & Identity, which opens at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery on Friday.

Curated by Charlotte Keenan McDonald in collaboration with the Arts Council Collection, the exhibition specifically aims to illuminate multiple queer histories which are often erased from galleries and museums. “It felt it was really important to acknowledge what the limitations of institutions historically have been and what they might be going forward,” explained McDonald. “There’s a risk of presenting these histories as one closed narrative; I wanted this exhibition to highlight that life isn’t like that, and that history isn’t like that. There are lots of stories to tell.”

“There’s a risk of presenting these histories as one closed narrative; I wanted this exhibition to highlight that life isn’t like that, and that history isn’t like that. There are lots of stories to tell” – Charlotte Keenan, curator

A refreshing mix of heavy-hitters and cult favourites align the walls, their work traversing various mediums including – but not limited to – video, collage, performance, and paint. Andy Warhol’s pop art portraits sit just metres away from Sunil Gupta’s “Exiles”, a series of arresting images depicting queer intimacy in India, a country whose law against same-sex intercourse remains in place despite being temporarily repealed.

These photographs saw Gupta return to his hometown of New Delhi after spending part of his life in New York and eventually settling in London. All the while, the artist revealed he was struggling to reconcile the composite parts of his own identity: “As a gay man in the west, I was in danger of losing my Indian identity,” he explained in a 2009 interview quoted in the exhibition catalogue. “There didn’t seem to be too many young gay Indians around, not on the gay scene, nor amongst the activists and certainly not in the art history circuit. Surely I couldn’t be the first?”

Gupta’s words allude to the whitewashing which often takes place in art institutions and queer spaces more generally. Even now, galleries will often claim to be diverse or intersectional while still depicting PoC as subjects as opposed to autonomous artists with the power to craft their own narratives. This is what sets Coming Out apart from its contemporaries; not only are there plaques explaining Crenshaw’s ‘intersectionality’ in terms accessible to young audiences, there are various new acquisitions purchased with funding from the Arts Council Collection. This money enabled McDonald to look beyond the works already available to her and to actively diversify the museum’s collection.

Some of the most powerful new works come courtesy of Zanele Muholi, a South African artist whose beguiling portfolio is filled with portraits of marginalised communities rendered beautifully human by her camera lens. In this particular exhibition, however, it is her defiant self-portraits which adorn the walls; excerpts from her “Miss (Black) Lesbian” series show the artist dragged up in pageant-style make-up, skimpy costumes and, in one, a sash which reads “Black Lesbian”. It’s a statement which still packs a punch, challenging our assumptions of femininity and questioning how race, gender, and sexuality intersect in the context of the ‘ideal’ aesthetics which still dominate society.

The exhibition spreads across various rooms, but there is one left deliberately untouched. Entitled “The Forum”, the almost entirely collapsible space is designed to be in flux; it is an empty vessel left open for the likes of Charlie Craggs, Joseph Cotgrave and Paul Maheke to stage pop-up events and performances over the next few months. By leaving the exhibition unfinished in this way, McDonald acknowledges that there is no one complete history of queer art: “We wanted a space where new stories could be told, so that’s why we created a space for people to come in, do that and have that discussion,” she explained. “We have a timeline in the Forum, but there’s also a blank sheet at the end that says, ‘What dates would you add?’ We wanted to give a space for personal histories to be written, and also to make people think about where those personal and public histories might intersect.”

Alongside the tongue-in-cheek “Build A Bae”, which allows visitors to queer the body by building their own unique hybrids, there are reading materials, colouring sheets and several books: just a few highlights are Juno Dawson’s “This Book Is Gay”, Juliet Jacques’ “Trans: A Memoir” and Innosanto Nagara’s excellent “A is for Activist”. In conversation, McDonald talks about the ways in which education often neglects to talk about LGBT+ history; this was designed as a space to facilitate discussion amongst younger audiences. It is, unfortunately, still desperately needed – although progressive, queer theory can often feel so academic that it excludes the communities it is supposed to be helping and humanising. The exhibition aims to tackle this, breaking down complex concepts into simple questions which provoke anyone – regardless of their own identity – to start actively thinking about these topics.

Impressively, the exhibition is both expansive yet focussed, concise enough to make a strong point. There are also huge names on show – one beautiful video by Steve McQueen is a silent, black-and-white film depicting men wrestling whilst sharing fleeting moments of intimacy. Rare drawings by David Hockney comprise part of the exhibition, whereas an immersive film by Pauline Boudry and Renate Lorenz brings to life a splintered narrative told through the collective voices of Kathy Acker, Jacqueline Onassis, and Chelsea Manning. John Walters even brings “Alien Sex Club”, a multimedia project which invites guests to step through a tinsel curtain for a tarot card reading; this unique experience is part of a wider psychedelic installation on the themes of HIV and, more specifically, PrEP.

This sense of interactivity is rarely seen in the notoriously elitist art world. In this sense, Coming Out is a clear breakthrough. Instead of presenting one linear, seemingly finished narrative, McDonald invites guests to contribute their own stories and add to an already rich tapestry of queer experiences. This is not only smart, it’s necessary; after all, the fight for liberation is far from over, even in the most privileged pockets of the western world. Still, even some of the histories shown as part of the exhibition exemplify the ways in which museums and galleries often erase certain voices. Coming Out creates not only a space for a spectrum of artists to tell their own stories, it aims to foster a new, more inclusive community space which offers real hope for the future of queer exhibitions.

Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender & Identity runs from 28th July - 5th November 2017 at Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool