[This story was published on May 18 on The Queerness. Read the original story at thequeerness.com/2017/05/18/review-queer-community-heritage-and-arts-in-refracted.]
It’s an oft-repeated but rarely useful adage that writers should strive to be honest in their work; advice much more pragmatic in its succinctness than in its actual application.
In this spirit of moral integrity, however, I’m going to start this article with a confession.
Pitching to The Queerness, I originally suggested a straightforward review of an LGBTQ+ arts exhibition in the south of England. As I was writing this, however, I found that I kept returning to the pronoun “I”. I felt this, I did that, I spoke to, I thought. Although almost certainly a by-product of my narcissism, after a while I began to realise that the topic – that of queer heritage and the arts – would, necessarily, be a point of interest that felt personal.
As a queer historian and journalist, LGBTQ+ issues, heritage and the arts are the necessary lenses through which I view the world. Despite this, the intersection of these ideas – particularly queer experience and history as framework for understanding one’s identity – hasn’t come up on my radar as naturally as it perhaps should have done.
Although I’ve spent my life either untangling my identity or trying to piece together a clearer understanding of why our world functions the way it does, it is only really during the last six months that I have begun to understand how important it is to know our community’s heritage.
Whatever the reason for my delay – perhaps a failed writerly attempt to separate the personal from the professional, or an endeavour to avoid the responsibility of self-contemplation – a confrontation of the UK’s queer heritage and my relation to it recently became very necessary.
As a journalist, I hop between exhibitions, lectures and showings to report on the present, and as a historian, I’m always on the hunt for new information about the past. It was inevitable, therefore, that my path would lead me to the variety of different cultural places and organisations who have this year chosen to mark the five decades since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act.
Many institutions have lent their platforms to this occasion. Among several other places and organisations marking 2017’s anniversary, the National Trust is hosting Prejudice and Pride, a special programme of events, exhibitions and installations throughout the year, whilst the British Museum is hosting Desire, Love, Identity, an exhibition exploring LGBTQ+ identities, and the Tate is currently exhibiting Queer British Art: 1861-1967.
The topic of queer heritage, therefore, has been near omnipresent in the arts and cultural world – as, many would argue, it should be, given the significance of the anniversary – previous to the Sexual Offences Act, MM relationships had been illegal and if discovered, had resulted in imprisonment or, historically, death. As late as 1954, for example, a total of 1,069 gay/bi men were imprisoned in England and Wales. Although the Wolfenden Report recommended in 1957 that homosexuality ‘should no longer be a crime’, it took another decade before decriminalisation in England and Wales. It was not until 1981 that similar legislation came into force in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
2017, therefore, marks an important half-century since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. At 25, this space of time – double my existence – seems much vaster than it realistically is. In 1967, both my parents were children. This means that when this law was passed, the childhood of some of their peers, struggling to understand their own identity, would have been shaped by the message it sent
Realising this, and impressed with the significance placed on this anniversary by the UK’s cultural world, I’ve spent a fair amount of 2017 trying to learn more about the UK’s queer heritage, and the history of my community. I’ve walked through Soho to seek out the clandestine queer spaces raided and closed by police, read Richard Parkinson’s A Little Gay History cover to cover, and filled a journalist’s pad with notes while walking around Queer British Art.
What has struck me about all the events and activities planned throughout this year is not only that they aim to demonstrate an unknown queer history to a heteronormative public, but that they work to provide the queer community with the tools to understand its own past.
Mainstream galleries and organisations telling LGBTQ+ stories as an intrinsic part of the country’s heritage connects today’s queer people with those who have come before them, and those that have fought for our rights and our representation.
In particular, this emphasis on community coming together to learn about and demonstrate its heritage is well represented in Refracted, Bournemouth’s Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum’s current exhibition.
This show has been co-curated by members of the local LGBTQ+ community to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England and Wales, and the co-curators were involved with every stage of the exhibition – initial planning, selecting the paintings, researching, label writing, painting and object installation.
I visited the exhibition during its Private View, which was also attended – along with several members of staff in 60s outfits: mustard yellow pinnies, bold circle earrings, Twiggy make up, and hippy print dresses – by several of the volunteers who had worked to co-curate the exhibition.
Judith Richardson, a volunteer who helped with the selection and determination of the artworks, spoke about the decision to organise the exhibition in a way which reflected (or refracted) the original Stonewall/LGBTQ+ peace rainbow flag. Refracted is divided into seven sections to represent the Rainbow Flag, which has been used since the 1970s to symbolise the LGBTQ+ community.
Following on the original colour meanings – pink for sexuality, orange for healing, green for nature, blue for harmony or serenity, red for life, yellow for sunlight, turquoise for magic and art, and violet for spirit – the volunteer curators selected paintings and objects from the collection to reflect each theme.
I’ve spent a fair amount of my youth in the Russell Cotes, its Victorian eclecticism and selection of pre-Raphaelite art a natural draw for a student of the nineteenth century, so it was fascinating to see so much of the ground floor transformed into something completely different.
Many of these works chosen for Refracted rely on art’s inherent interpretative potential, allowing viewers to construct a fitting narrative within the colour scheme and the wider LGBTQ+ theme.
Sometimes, the connection is very literal, exemplified by the decision to exhibit Simeon Solomon’s 1877 painting The Annunciation. Solomon, who was featured prevalently in the Tate’s Queer British Art, fell from grace as a pre-Raphaelite darling after being arrested in a public lavatory for sexual activity with another man.
The selection of Frank Cadogan Cowper’s The Fortune Teller – Beware of a Dark Lady (1940), however, is an interesting choice as it plays on this idea of double narrative and multiple stories being encompassed by a single image. At first glance, the painting appears to show a Victorian woman having her fortune read. The lady in white holding the viewer’s gaze, the slightly aloof pose of the dark haired lady, and the humorous title, however, imply that something more sinister is happening.
A painting yet more open to queer reinterpretation is Ralph Todd’s 1929 The Confession. This work was selected as it raises many questions – what is the lady on the right confessing, the panel queries? Are the couple mother and daughter, sisters, just good friends, or more than good friends?
Another notable aspect of this exhibition is the curators’ decision to feature works that do not have an explicit queer connection, but instead explore the theme evoked by one of the colours of the rainbow flag. A dancing paddle from the Solomon Islands, used by men and women during ceremonies such as weddings, is exhibited under the art and magic section. The inclusion of these objects universalise the queer experience, both in terms of connecting different cultures and with regards to situating queerness as a facet within the wider experience of life.
That the LGBTQ+ community has come together to create this space is integral to the exhibition’s success. By choosing works that the co-curators felt reflected their understanding of personal and historical queer experience, a sense of community is reinforced and self-identity is clarified. This ability to be oneself and see one’s experience reflected in the work – both artistic and curatorial – of the community, is as crucial for LGBTQ+ people today as it was 50 years ago.