Today, we had over to Nicky from the Art and Design Library team to tell us about LGBTQ+ connections found in the department’s collections.
As February draws to a close, I’d like to share my – new-ish, LGBTQ+ member of staff – exploration of our collections using LGBT History Month Scotland’s 2022 theme, ‘Blurring Borders’, of thinking beyond borders and about LGBT community and liberation around the world. Some of my discoveries can be found in this month’s Art and Design Library book display.
Framing the picture
Why does it matter that an artist or designer is or was what we’d describe today as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans (including non-binary and genderqueer), queer, intersex or asexual (LGBTQIA+)?
For some artists or designers their sexual orientation and/or gender identity have not been significant to their work. However, for many others, including those selected for the display, making visible aspects of their own life experiences, bodies, minds, feelings, identities, world views and spaces is crucial, and these lives and work often not only blur borders, but push and transgress artistic and societal, sexual or gender conventions and transcend geopolitical boundaries. Collectively, too, the act of making lives and work of LGBTQIA+ artists and designers visible can support community building, can represent shared histories and stories, desires, pain and joy that were previously ignored, censored or silenced by criminalisation and social and moral attitudes, can help counter stigma, and can enable and support activism and campaigns for liberation.
How do we know that artists and designers are or were LGBTQIA+?
Contemporary and 20th century artists and designers often explicitly acknowledge(d) or embrace(d) sexual orientations and gender identities that are or were not heterosexual or cisgender in their lives and/or as subjects of their work and so can be safely included under today’s rainbow umbrella. But, the language we currently use in English to recognise and (re-)claim the rich complexities of human sexual orientation and gender identity is relatively new, is continuously evolving and contested, and would be meaningless to like-minded folk of the past. For example, art created by LGBT+ people is often referred to as ‘Queer Art’, however, the term queer had, and for many people still has, negative and painful connotations, while for others still, myself included, ‘queer’ has been reclaimed as a positive term extending beyond sexual orientation and gender identity. Therefore, it’s important to consider the historical contexts in which artists and designers of the past lived and worked and, if they left behind any personal writing, how they described themselves or were described by their contemporaries. A film specially made by the National Galleries of Scotland for LGBT History Month 2022 addresses this topic and a resource created by Norena Shopland and Dr Daryl Leeworthy for Glamorgan Archives in 2018 explores the challenges of uncovering in historical documents the lives of people we would now describe as LGBTQIA+.
When considering artists and designers around the world it is also important to consider the cultural and geographical contexts in which they live(d) and work(ed) and the impact of imperialism and colonialism on people we’d today describe as LGBTQIA+ in those locations (more on that below). I also must recognise the position I’m viewing artists and their work from, as a white person educated in the UK with books, articles and interpretations about Western traditions and framings of art, design and architectural history. These themes have been addressed in a recent talk by Dr Churnjeet Mahn (University of Strathclyde) for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.
Finally, how much does it matter that I’m a queer person exploring LGBTQIA+ artists’ and designers’ lives and work? Does that give me greater or different insights and understanding than a heterosexual person? I’m still thinking a lot about all of this!
Getting to know artists and designers whose lives and work could fit with this year’s LGBT History Month theme and then finding books that were both available and fitted in the display case took quite a bit of work! I eventually settled on a display that highlights three themes: artists and identities in 1920s and 1930s Paris; HIV/AIDS advocacy and connections to cultural heritage; and everyday lives and individual and collective liberation.
1920s and 1930s Paris was the European centre of avant-garde art and literature, and along with Berlin, also of LGBTQ+ life (before it was described as such). Paris-born photographer Claude Cahun, Czech painter Toyen and Irish designer and architect Eileen Gray were all part of that world.
Claude Cahun (1894–1954; originally named Lucy Schwob) chose a new name for herself which suited her attitude to gender: in her book Disavowals, she wrote, ‘Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.’ Her own, changing image, her identity and performance were all a focus of her photographic and written work. Featuring in many photos was Cahun’s life partner, Marcel Moore (1909–54; originally named Suzanne Malherbe), who an artist in her own right. They, two Jewish, LGBTQ+ women, later moved to Jersey where, as members of the local resistance, courageously fought the World War Two Nazi occupation of the island and experienced its liberation in 1945.
Toyen (1902–80; originally named Marie Černova) was a painter and member of the Czech avant-garde group of artists, designers, architects and poets, Devětsil, during the 1920s and 1930s. Toyen, like Claude Cahun, chose a gender-neutral name and also used masculine pronouns. Toyen’s surreal and symbolic paintings, subject of a recent exhibition in Hamburg, have been described as composed ‘of unreal beings and strange objects’, ‘materialisations of latent psychic states’, with ‘emotive value’, ‘disturbing impact’ and ‘in many cases these enigmatic objects have a clear libidinous subtext’ (The Czech Avant-Garde of the 1920s and 30s, pp. 74–5.)
Eileen Gray (1878–1976), whose partners included women and men, renovated her own Paris apartment using modern, up-to-date forms as well as materials and accessories that recalled earlier tastes and dark colours traditionally associated with masculinity. Her design choices and style have been described as hinting at the privileged decadent, male homosexual aesthetics of the late 19th century; as a critique of the exclusively masculine world of Modern architecture and design; and of ‘creating an imaginative space’ for ‘a community of kindred spirits’ to make their emerging collective identity, as what we’d now probably describe as lesbian and bisexual women, visible. (Jasmine Rault, Eileen Gray and the Design of Sapphic Modernity, pp. 49–50.)
Beyond the Art and Design Library you can borrow books and read more about Paris’s community of wealthy, immigrant women with women sexual and domestic partners in the 1920s and 1930s in Diana Souhami’s books Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho and Art and No Modernism without Lesbians.
Rotimi Fani-Kayode’s (1955–89) 1987 photographic print with graphite and coloured pencil, Sonponnoi, brought together personal experience of HIV/AIDS, the skin lesions of AIDS-related Karposi’s Sarcoma and associated stigma at the height of the AIDS epidemic and his Yoruba heritage on his own body. In the figure of Sonponnoi, often also known as Shapona or Ṣọ̀pọ̀na, a Yoruba God of smallpox shunned by other Gods, Fani-Kayode ‘found a resonant symbol of an outcast God: one that embodies infection, carrying the threat of death, yet also offering protection.’ (Alex Pichler, A Queer Little History of Art, p. 99)
The rainbow, red-heart and denim costumes designed by Peter Minshall (b. 1941) for the ‘Sacred Heart’ band, to ‘play’ at Trinidad Carnival 2006 are featured in the book Erotic Islands: Art and Activism in the Queer Caribbean. The band’s performance showcased creatively political messages about mending the heart of Trinidad and Tobago broken by corporate greed and corruption and tackling stigma of HIV/AIDS.
Frida Kahlo’s (1907–54) powerful body of work, most famously her self-portraits, share many details from her life including her family and her Mestiza and European heritage; her revolutionary, left-wing politics; her marriage with painter Diego Rivera; and expressing the pain and vulnerability associated with her physical disabilities and miscarriages. Kahlo was known to have had relationships with men and women outside her marriage, including with Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, but few of her paintings seem to address this. One painting which has been interpreted in this way is Two Nudes in a Forest (1938): one of the women could be Kahlo herself with her lover. Other, different interpretations for this painting also exist.
The paintings of Bhupen Khakhar (1934–2003) celebrated everyday life in India and also provided a space for the artist to explore his own sexuality. His 1981 work ‘You Can’t Please All’ is considered his coming-out painting. It features a self-portrait and the re-enactment of a fable which is believed to reflect Khakhar’s desire to accept his sexuality.
In his book From Here to Eternity, Sunil Gupta (b. 1953) documents his everyday life as a gay man, with friends and family, his HIV+ status and his involvement in LGBTQ+ activism in Canada, the UK and India. He includes a photograph of a poster announcing a 2013 demonstration against the Indian Penal Code Section 377. This legislation was introduced by the British colonial government in 1860 and criminalised ‘unnatural offences’ such as ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. The penalty for these offences was imprisonment for life. Activism in and beyond India and a case at the Indian Supreme Court finally achieved a repeal of the Penal Code in 2018. For LGBT History Month 2022, the Human Dignity Trust has created a timeline showing the history of LGBT criminalisation around the world. In many countries including India, 19th century colonial legislation, such as the Indian Penal Code, imported moral standards that outlawed locally understood and accepted diversity in gender and sexuality. The repercussions of this aspect of colonialism continue to be felt today.
Find out more
In the Art and Design Library, you can find many more books on the lives and work of artists and designers under LGBTQIA+ umbrella and on wider themes:
A Queer Little History of Art (a very useful introduction!)
Tove Jansson (did you know that Moomin’s friends Thingummy and Bob represent Jansson’s relationship with Vivica Bandler and Too-ticky her long-time partner Tuulikki Pietilä?)
The Two Roberts: Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde
Art and Queer Culture
Decolonising the Camera
Sunil Gupta’s work as a curator in Disrupted Borders
Passions: Discourses on Black Women’s Creativity
A Queer History of Fashion
Radical Women: Latin American Art 1960–85
Trans Exploits: Trans of Color Cultures and Technologies in Movement
Beyond the Art and Design Library and links in the text above, I used the following resources to inform this blog post:
Art UK LGBTQ+ resources
Tate Queer Lives and Art online guide
Association for Art History resource portal on anti-racism and decolonial approaches to art history and visual culture
Disability Arts Online
Queer Migration and Intersectional Activism, London Borough of Newham LGBT History Month 2021 panel featuring artists including Sunil Gupta
Queering Black Britain, University College London
Carissa Chew, Inclusive Terminology: Guide and Glossary for the Cultural Heritage Sector, National Library of Scotland, May 2021
Churnjeet Mahn and Rohit K. Dasgupta, ‘Cross-border queers: how we’re digging up lost histories of LGBTQI+ South Asian migrants in Britain’, gal-dem, 24 February 2021
Arya Karijo, ‘Stop imposing your imperialist Western transphobia on my people’, openDemocracy, 31 March 2021
Kerstin Olsson, ‘Layers of (In)visibility: Remembering Eileen Gray’, Master of Architecture and Planning thesis, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, 2021
Many conversations with LGBTQ+ friends, former colleagues, and project contacts at West of Scotland Regional Equality Council, Edinburgh Caribbean Association, Thistles and Dandelions project and Next Step Initiative – thank you!