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In Search for an Alternative Frame: The Recent Display of Queer Art

In Search for an Alternative Frame: The Recent Display of Queer Art

Queer expression in visual art practice in India appears as a continuing site of contestation and has been received with much prejudices, violence and structural discrimination as evident from the past occurrences within the mainstream gallery spaces. From bringing down Sunil Gupta’s show from its display in 2012, to the much-reported incident of attack on Balbir Krishan at Lalit Kala Akademi, curators and artists advocating in favour of queer expression in visual art practice has been responded with violence and moral policing. It is interesting to note that such acts of censorship towards queer expression are being administered in complex and diverse ways. Apart from the noted incidences of open threats as is seen in various cases, censorship on queer expression has been functioning in a concealed manner too. While speaking to a few artists, it emerged that the very denial of space for display of queer art, and to ask artists to make their art work palatable considering the preferences of the heteronormative viewership, are appearing instrumental to discourage queer art to be displayed within conventional gallery spaces.

The hurled-out insults towards queer art reflect two kinds of dominant narratives – blaming queer art to be an insult to Indian culture and levelling charges of obscenity for depicting queer sexuality. Both these allegations appear as significant narratives in structuring the nationalist homophobia (Dasgupta, 651)[i]. The history of nationalist homophobia traces back to the inception of Article 377 which criminalises homosexuality as an offensive unnatural act – a narrative which continued in independent India and has been instrumental in curbing the rights of the sexual minorities. The nationalist homophobia resulted in the attempted erasure of queer expression in many literary texts, visual art practices and in many cultural texts of our nation, with the possible intention to legitimise the view that homosexuality is a western import. In the last few decades, the increasing visibility of queer expressions across various disciplines, has been responded to with growing incidences of discrimination and violence. Under such restrictive conditions for queer expressions to flourish, artists have been reaching for alternatives, which are not only revolutionising the visual vocabulary of queer expression in visual art practice, but also interrogating and  reformulating the process of exhibition making.

Considering the mounting censorship and strong vigilance within the mainstream gallery spaces, queer expression in visual art practice has been reaching out for alternative sites. Under such circumstances, streets and public spaces have not only appeared as potential alternative exhibitory sites, but are also being used to register the very presence of the community to the larger public. From late 1980s onwards India witnessed a growing radicalisation of queer politics, and with the emergence of many support groups and organisations, the community gained a certain form of public visibility through staging protests and pride marches. Organisations like AIDS Bhedbhav Virodhi Andolan, from early 1990s onwards, began to stage multiple protests across the streets of Delhi, in support of the sexual minority rights. Claiming the public space as an act of resistance and dissent was felt more vividly with the emergence of the pride marches in India. The streets of Kolkata, on 2nd July 1999, witnessed India’s first ever pride march, with 15 participants coming from other Indian cities like, Mumbai and Bangalore to be a part of the historic walk. Then called by the name “Friendship walk”, the participants wearing bright yellow T shirts with caption reading “Walk on the rainbow”, made their claims to the streets of Kolkata through their walk[ii]. The public spaces which otherwise appear restrictive as well as discriminatory for the queer community was turned in to a performative site and an active space for dissent and resistance through events like pride marches.

In this context of reclamation of public spaces, “The Aravani Art Project” appear as an interesting initiative which uses public sites and the visual vocabulary of painted images to create public awareness about the transgender and queer community. Aravani Art Project is a “trans woman and cis woman led art collective”[iii], which attempts to mark the visibility of the trans community, by making huge wall paintings in various public sites. Public spaces are sites where the transgender community are routinely discriminated against. The very act of making murals on street walls, buildings and public structures appeared as a significant step for reclamation and trans affirmation.  Since its inception in 2016, the art project has travelled across the various cities in India, accomplishing around 60 projects while collaborating with St+Art India Foundation and with many MNCs like Microsoft, Wipro etc[iv]. In the art project, it’s not just the murals which features the portraits of transgender people, but it involves the trans women in the mural making process. Hence, besides the represented painted portraits on public sites, the very physical presence of the trans women involved in the mural making process, made their visibility more palpable. The streets which otherwise appear as a restrictive site for trans visibility, transformed into a performative site, through the very act of mural making. The huge murals done in public sites, featuring colourful portraits of trans women not only subverts the normative visuality of the urban space but also functions in declaring the ownership and reclamation of the public space through the power of the image. In the Kochi toilet Project, Purushi – a trans artist, chose a public toilet at Kochi to execute a mural which featured a portrait of a trans person (perhaps the artist herself) dressing in front of mirror[v]. Here, both the choice of the site for the mural and the image itself speaks of the desire to question the restrictive boundaries of the public-private. For Purushi, the public toilet appears as site for articulating her desire safely, as she uses public toilet routinely for changing her clothes before going to work[vi]. For Purushi, this particular public space appears as a comforting site for articulating her wish and desire, which gets reflected in the painted mural quite expressively.  Public toilets which otherwise appear as restrictive sites – considering their service only to cis gender people – here transforms into an active site to unfurl the desired identity for Purushi.

Aravani Art Project, Kochi Toilet Project.
Source: https://aravaniartproject.com/kochi-toilet-project#projects-21

For Kolkata, Aravani Art Project chose Sonagachi, the biggest red light district in Asia to realise a huge mural to be executed on the building of the durbar committee. Very interestingly, the issue of anticipated visibility for two minority communities got effectively conveyed in the selection of the site for the mural[vii]. The exterior walls of the durbar committee building got vividly painted with bright colours, featuring a huge portrait, which appears as a symbolic representation of both the transgender and sex worker community, declaring their vivid presence, which are otherwise ostracized by the larger public. 

Aravani Art Project, Sonagachi, Kolkata.
Source: https://aravaniartproject.com/sonagachi_19#projects-14

Apart from the site selection and the images depicted, the immense size of the murals with sharp and edgy colour divisions functions effectively in garnering the desired visibility which the project aims at. The immense size of the murals done on building walls force the onlookers to see the mural through an upward gaze which can be read as conscious subversion of the downward gaze inflicted upon the transgender community by the general public. Moreover, being executed in the public space makes the mural open to a much wider audience, enhancing its visibility with more possibilities of an open discourse, against the niche audiences of the gallery spaces. Here the painted portraits, whether anonymous or specific, function effectively in the identity making process for the trans community.

Aravani Art Project in collaboration with St+Art, Coimbatore, District Library.
Source: https://aravaniartproject.com/start-coimbatore-district-library#projects-24

Presently with the maturing of LGBTQIA+ politics, newer curatorial initiatives by curator Myna Mukherjee and Georgina Maddox, are creating avenues for queer expression in the mainstream gallery spaces. Exhibitions like ME WE, Awakening and Refracted Lives are some recent curatorial art initiatives which intend to create possibilities for queer expressions to thrive in conventional white cube spaces. The exhibition titled ME WE curated by Myna Mukherjee, was an exhibition of works by 25 visual art practitioners who addressed the issue of queer representation through their works[viii]. Curating the exhibition at American Center, considering the niche audiences the space might cater to, perhaps can be read as a conscious decision to counter the impending vulnerabilities and threats which have restricted queer art to be displayed at conventional gallery spaces. What came out interesting was the launch of a community library for LGBTQIA+ persons named “Resonance Through Reading” [ix] which included a wide array of literatures to narratives and anecdotes by persons identifying as queer individuals. The library appeared as an active space for repository of queer experiences in the form of books and written texts, which are consciously disregarded, censored and denied spaces within the mainstream institutional structures. Launching of the library at the exhibition site created an active space for queer readership, transforming the gallery space into an interactive space for queer communication through the very act of reading.

 Dialogues, which is one of the oldest LGBTQ film and video festivals in India, explored the possibilities of public space as potential site for display of queer art through the staging of the film festival at Basusree, Kolkata, in the year 2019. Very interestingly, from the year 2017, the screening of the film festival was shifted from Max Mueller to Basusree (one of the surviving single screen movie theatres in Kolkata)- leading to a dynamic shift in the curation of the festival. In 2019, artist Sumantra Mukherjee along with his team curated the cinema hall site with gigantic posters, installations, cut outs and makeshift structures, thus transforming the conventionality of cinema hall space in to an active space of dissent and queer resistance through the visual vocabulary of the images. The cinema hall opened into a long corridor/lane reaching towards the entrance of the huge hall which was transformed into an active exhibitory site with the artworks installed on the walls, windows, staircase and ceilings. The artworks, installations and makeshift structures installed at the site very poignantly raised the issue of surveillance on queer lives. The corridor drew the audiences towards a dark area with sentences flashing in neon colours saying “Now we record your silence”. The screening of the films as well as the curated space of the cinema hall, stationing the artworks, challenged the heteronormative history of spectatorial experiences generally associated with film viewing.

The curated space of Basusree, Dialogues 2019. Image Courtsey: Sumantra Mukherjee

It is interesting to note in the above-mentioned instances that display of queer art in public sites is not only asserting queer visibility, but is also re-orienting the conceived idea of exhibition making and art viewing experiences. The initiative taken by Aravani Art Project of transforming public sites as active spaces of queer affirmation, through mural making, reconfigured the normativity of public spaces. Instead of getting restricted within the spatiality of a white cube while catering to a niche viewership, the artworks on the mentioned site ruptured the normative visuality of the urban public space while getting registered in the minds of an immense number of everyday commuters. With heightened cases of discrimination against queer expression in public spaces, these curated events and spaces are appearing as a step forward for LGBTQIA+ reclamation, providing a comforting space for queer expression and communication. In many of the major metropolis in India, queer cafes have emerged not only as a comforting space for queer socializing but are also being used as an active space for queer expression through curation of exhibitions, film screenings and staging of performances.

In the last few decades, the digital media space has evolved as a potential alternative for the display of queer expressions in visual art practice. The emergence of social networking sites in the digital space has opened up avenues for articulation and construction of identities, building of communities and they have become an active space for queer communication. The making of identities for the queer identifying person in new digital media space has been realised through profile formation, membership, posting and sharing of images and texts, which are otherwise difficult to realise in the non-virtual realities considering heightened vulnerabilities to violence and censorship. Apart from using these platforms as an active space for queer communication, and solidarity making, a group of young emerging artists in India are considering these virtual sites as an alternative space to display their artworks.

Instagram, Facebook and Behance are being used by the artists for displaying art works, curating art pages, thus reaching to a much larger viewership through the interface of technology. The collective act of viewing queer art in queer curated art pages in online platforms creates a sense of community realised through an ‘imagined’ sense of belongingness and solidarity. It is not only the posted artworks  but the very image of the artists on the pages that function collectively in forming the identity of the artists. For instance, the Instagram page of Priyanka Paul with the page name “Artwhoring” is a curious blend of her artworks and the photograph of the artist’s self which collectively functions in the making of the artist’s identity. While making commentaries on gender, sexuality, race and caste, through her art works, she creates an identity of herself through her posted images of the self. The construction of the queer self through digital drawings, photographs and selfies is quite significant for artists who consider the digital media space as a potential site to exhibit their artworks. Anwesh Sahoo is a visual designer and artist who has been working quite expressively on gender fluid fashion on Instagram. He has been communicating his identity not only through his conscious selection of the name of his Instagram handle “The Effeminare” but also through his created artworks which challenge the gender affiliation of clothing and attire for men. Through his Instagram handle, Anwesh has been juxtaposing his self-image with his designed clothing which collectively pronounces a strong statement on gender fluid fashion. By composing photographed images of the self with his created attires, Anwesh successfully transforms the digital space as an active performative site for communicating desire through gender subversion. In many of his Instagram posts, while designing gender fluid attire, he has been drawing references from the songs and female icons of Hindi film industry, with an intention to re-cast the conceived idea of gender ingrained in our mass culture. Presently with the unbounded reach of social networking sites and their easy accessibility, the new digital media space appears as a potential site for identity making through the constant curation of the self in the form of selfies and photographs. The very appropriation of present day selfies in imagining the self by queer individuals challenges the conceived parameters of self-representation.  In this context, the selfies  by Alok Vaid Menon circulating in their social media handles, appear as a significant process for identity making, gender transgression and queer visibility while challenging the conceived ideas of self portraiture and normative gender performativity. Alok Vaid Menon is a gender non conforming performer, speaker, poet and author, who holds the credit of  having very powerful selfies in their Instagram profile, while having around 1.1 M followers. Vaid-Menon describes their work as “showing the world that it is possible to claim space as a visibly gender non conforming transfeminine person of colour”(Lehner 2019, 55). What appears subversive in many of Vaid Menon’s selfies is the curious juxtaposition of body hair and strong stubbed jawline, against the flamboyant floral designed attire and vibrant lip colour, which destabilizes the normative gendered appearance. The very act of posting these self curated images has made the digital media space an alternative site for registering queer visibility. These selfies are at times accompanied by taglines and hashtags, which on a single click leads towards a network of similar images, resulting in a collective form of queer visibility in the virtual space.

It would be wrong to argue that these newly emerged spaces for display of queer art are sites of absolute freedom. For example, the works of artist Raqueeb Raza, creator of the page @daintystrangerphotos, which displays the sensitive moments of male sexual intimacies through aesthetically rendered photographs, had been at the receiving end of censorship. Priyanka Paul’s Instagram handle has been under constant speculation in social media. But irrespective of all these probable risks of censorship and vigilance, the above discussed curated events and art projects are opening up newer avenues for the display of and interaction with queer art. In the process, these newly explored spaces are not only leading towards a more radical form of queer visibility but are re-orienting the existing experiences of art viewing and curation.

Bibliography

Ace, Lehner. 2019. “Trans Self-Imaging Praxis, Decolonizing Photography, and the Work of Alok Vaid-Menon. In Refract, Vol.2, Issue 1. UC Santa Cruz.

‘Aravani Art Project’. Source- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aravani_Art_Project. Accessed- 20.05.2022, 9:00 pm.

‘Aravani Art Project’. Source- https://aravaniartproject.com/. Accessed- 15. 03.2022, 2:10 pm.

Dasgupta, Rohit K; Dasgupta, Debanuj, eds. 2019. Queering Digital India: Activisms, Identities, Subjectivities. Edinburgh University Press.

DasGupta, Rohit K. ‘Queer Sexuality: A Cultural Narrative of India’s Historical Archive’. Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities 3.4. Source- https://rupkatha.com/V3/n4/20_Queer_Sexuality_India.pdf, Acessed-12.06.2022, 1:00 pm.

‘Kolkata Rainbow Pride Walk’. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolkata_Rainbow_Pride_Walk, Accessed- 15.06.2022, 10:30 pm.

‘The “ME WE” Visual Arts Exhibition Opens at the American Centre Today’. Source-https://in.usembassy.gov. Accessed-22.06.2022, 11:00 am 

See Also


[i] Rohit K Dasgupta in the article titled Queer Sexuality: A Cultural Narrative of India’s Historical Archive, critically demonstrated the evidences of queer narratives present in the visual, cultural and literary tradition of the nation by looking at the historical archives. In the process the author also demonstrates the structural emergence of homophobia in the colonial era and how it got eventually internalised and continued even in the post independent era translating into, what the author calls as modern nationalist homophobia.

[ii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kolkata_Rainbow_Pride_Walk

[iii] https://aravaniartproject.com/our-team

[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aravani_Art_Project

[v] https://aravaniartproject.com/kochi-toilet-project

[vi] https://aravaniartproject.com/kochi-toilet-project

[vii] https://aravaniartproject.com/sonagachi_19

[viii] https://in.usembassy.gov/the-me-we-visual-arts-exhibition-opens-at-the-american-center-today/

[ix] https://in.usembassy.gov/the-me-we-visual-arts-exhibition-opens-at-the-american-center-today/


*This paper was a part of the webinar ‘Perspectives on South Asia: Approaches to Practices and Histories of Art’ organised by Kala Bhavana, Visva-Bharati.

Feature image: Aravani Art Project in collaboration with St+Art, Coimbatore, District Library. Source: https://aravaniartproject.com/start-coimbatore-district-library#projects-24

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