“Art can help us understand how society has changed … it can also enable us to see the world differently, offering insights into personal experiences beyond our own.” C.K McDonald
Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity is a touring exhibition conceived by Charlotte Keenan McDonald, firstly showing at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and now at our very own Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. In McDonald’s own words, “A lot of the work I have been doing to date is around LBGT+ history in [the Liverpool] collection and the way that it has been erased. I’ve been really interested in seeing what has been done in terms of research and who has been overlooked, as well as people who have been part of public histories.”
Coming Out is part of a trio of shows that began last year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales. This ostensible helping hand failed many within the LGBT+ community because of its complete lack of inter-sectional amendments which did not address the lesbian community and still demanded a differing age limit to the community’s heterosexual counterparts.
Tate Britain’s 2017 exhibition Queer British Art 1861–1967 kicked off this reconsideration of histories. Coming Out has been seen to respond to the drop off point of 1967, initially with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn, which won the John Moore’s Painting Prize in 1967.
In the Birmingham instalment of this realigning trio, there are a variety of different works, ranging from audio visual work, to a decaying commissioned installation from Anya Gallaccio, from a number of high profile artists such as Grayson Perry and Sarah Lucas to emerging artists such as Jez Dolan, who graduated recently from Birmingham School of Art with an MA in Queer Studies.
As you first walk in to the exhibition, you are made aware to the fact you are walking in to a space for the queer and the kitsch. Viewers are instantly exposed to the queer cigarette gnome by Lucas, juxtaposed against the pristine materiality of Perry’s Claire’s Coming Out Dress which he wore to accept the Turner Prize as his transvestite comrade Claire in 2003. There is noticeable gaze from Perry’s dress to Lucas’ gnome. This gaze mirrors the multiple histories and queer voices heard in this exhibition, some louder than others – but nevertheless a multitude of voices are represented.
The prevalent kitsch is extended by the use of colour within the space, paying respect to the Gilbert-Baker Pride flag, which formed part of the battle cry of the late 1970s gay liberation movement and represented magic, healing and the spirit. This further reconfigures the normative wealthy, white, industrialist history of the gallery world, moving it further away from the white cube to a colourful non-linear queer art space.
As well as the kitsch, the might of the Young British Artists (YBA) calls you home to roost. A neon piece from Tracey Emin is hung above Warhol. This kitsch element of design was brought into Warhol’s seminal Marilyn print. Emin hit the headline in the 1990s with her evocative intra-personal works that laid bare female sexuality through the subversion of craft. Emin and her fellow YBAs somewhat co-opted Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame model, just as the YBAs arguably co-opted the public gaze – but for more than 15 minutes and on borrowed time. This seminal print anchors you to the middle of the space, drawn in by Emin’s romantic swirly neon, and by the chanting oozing out of Isaac Julien’s film The Long Road to Mazatlàn, with the beauty of queer ballet juxtaposed against the backdrop of the Wild West.
Contrasting with the Walker Art Gallery’s Coming Out, the curatorial volume then dies down to a whisper when we are met with the arresting photographic series ‘Exiles’ by Sunil Gupta, depicting the cruising zones in his hometown of New Delhi, where the law against same sex acts still remains ironclad. This section is quieter in comparison, with the Walker Gallery display showing Gupta close to Warhol. This curation reflects the frequent white washing and the misheard processes that queer people of colour go through within the art institution.
These histories aim to be redressed and realigned by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery through a learning and engagement programme called FORUM facilitated by the Arts Council. FORUM’s programme breathes inclusivity as local artists and community groups were part of its development. Its aim is the realignment of queer within the art world so that its communities can continue and thrive.
The term ‘coming out’ has gone through a shift. It has been reclaimed, turned from a negative phrase to a moment full of colour, celebration and vibrancy. This is underpinned by the variety of gender identities and sexualities disclosed in the exhibition, brought to life by the sculptural and film works displayed particularly. These act as flag posts for the concept of the show. This latest instalment of pioneering queer British exhibitions is an important baton to carry into the main arena of the art world. More should be done to continue the realignment of queer histories through the lens of art.
By Leanne O’Connor
(This is an amended version of a review first published here.)