NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Now you don’t see me, now you do: Queer artists as inverse magicians

Museums and galleries are places of world-making. They document, display, and interpret artefacts deemed worthy of our attention, objects considered significant for collection and preservation. Such objects are carefully staged to relay certain stories, while other stories are concealed by their absence … it is no surprise that museums and galleries, at least historically, have intentionally and inadvertently excluded those of us whose ways of knowing, doing, and being in the world are challenging or uncomfortable to dominant logics.

By Gwen Walker, Kate Cantrell, and Craig Middleton

Museums and galleries are places of world-making. They document, display, and interpret artefacts deemed worthy of our attention, objects considered significant for collection and preservation. Such objects are carefully staged to relay certain stories, while other stories are concealed by their absence. Museum and gallery professionals culturally construct exhibits and manipulate, sometimes unknowingly, our perspectives and perceptions to position how we think and feel, not only as we encounter artistic and cultural material, but more broadly as we build knowledge about ourselves and the world. As highly respected cultural institutions, museums and galleries confirm or challenge our sense of reality – the way we understand the past, the way we mediate the present, and the way we imagine the future. 

Slowly but gradually, museums and galleries are recognising their role as reformers and their moral obligation to respond to the (many) publics they intend to serve – to re-think heteronormative assumptions, organisational principles, and inherited knowledges that underpin museological practice.

Given this, it is no surprise that museums and galleries, at least historically, have intentionally and inadvertently excluded those of us whose ways of knowing, doing, and being in the world are challenging or uncomfortable to dominant logics. Through a process of selection and exclusion, museums and galleries have worked to erase queer [1] peoples and groups from historical narratives and creative practices, and in doing so, failed to collect stories and objects from queer communities.  

When queer relationships have appeared in collections, such relationships have been labelled as “long-time friends”, “roommates”, or “travelling companions”, titles that work to diminish the agency of queer people as unattached individuals engaged in superficial social relationships. When galleries and museums have featured queer exhibitions, most have focussed on the experiences of white, cis-gendered, able-bodied, gay men, and in doing so, have failed to make visible other queer bodies, queer relationships, and queer lives (Sullivan & Middleton 2019). Transgender stories, for example, are often considered “too controversial” or “too political” for public exhibition (Stone 2022). These kinds of exclusionary practices, which are often implicit rather than explicit, are harmful to us, our families, and our allies. As Charles Taylor explains, “A person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the society around them mirrors back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves” (1994, p. 25). Non-recognition and misrecognition – not being seen or being misrepresented and misunderstood – can be a crippling form of oppression, imprisoning one in a false sense of self.

But there is some good news: things are changing.

The importance of queer people reading queer stories, viewing queer films, and seeing artworks by queer artists cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes to mental health resilience and recovery, and suicide prevention and survivorship.

Slowly but gradually, museums and galleries are recognising their role as reformers and their moral obligation to respond to the (many) publics they intend to serve – to re-think heteronormative assumptions, organisational principles, and inherited knowledges that underpin museological practice, and to call attention to the systems of power and privilege that have become so naturalised they are invisible. This re-thinking is often referred to as “queering” – a critical practice that “holds out the promise of new meanings, new ways of thinking and acting politically” (Duggan cited in Sullivan & Middleton 2019, p. 31). Through queering, museums and galleries are opening their collections to different ways of thinking – to alternative epistemologies, interpretations, and intersectional approaches. 

Alongside this reimagining, there is a growing body of research that documents the mental health benefits of arts-based interventions, including non-clinical community-led interventions that take place beyond the bounds of health care institutions (Sonke et al. 2021). Increasingly, this arts programming focusses on centring queer stories and amplifying queer voices in spaces where they have been silenced or suppressed. 

In bridging these two bodies of knowledge, the Dear Queensland project invites members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer, and other sexually or gender diverse (LGBTIQ+) community to pen an open letter to their home state, reflecting on the “challenges and triumphs” of being queer in Queensland (QAGOMA & Novak 2022). The work, which forms part of Aotearoa (New Zealand) artist Shannon Novak’s Make Visible project, offers a platform for community engagement through aesthetic and emotional connection, which can help mitigate stigma and social isolation, and improve self-efficacy among those at risk (Sonke et al. 2021). 

At a satellite exhibition hosted at the University of Southern Queensland (USQ), It’s Ok To Be Me, curated by Novak and Australian artists Gwen Walker and Chris Mills-Kelly, all of whom identify as LGBTIQ+, the artists/curators provided both an online and onsite platform for LGBTIQ+ artists and LGBTIQ+ community to share their stories, reimagining Dear Queensland as Dear Toowoomba (Figure 1). Made up of a series of photographs, sculptures, and window installations, the exhibition celebrates difference and raises awareness of the inextricable links between social exclusion, mental health, and general wellbeing (Figure 3).

Figure 1: Shannon Novak and Local Rainbow Community, Dear Toowoomba, Installation, 2022

Figure 2: Shannon Novak and Local Rainbow Community, Dear Toowoomba, Installation, 2022

Queer exhibitions, however, are still rare, with Novak sharing at the exhibition opening that despite multiple attempts to exhibit the work both at home and abroad, USQ was the first university that agreed to host an explicitly LGBTIQ+ exhibition. Further, there is evidence that exhibitions that focus on LGBTIQ+ lives are temporary, staged for short periods of time, and have little structural impact on the narratives of museums and galleries (Sullivan & Middleton 2019). Novak’s experience, though alarming in itself, points to deeper and more insidious problems around issues of diversity and inclusion. The very notion of inclusion presupposes exclusion; inclusion for the sake of inclusion is tokenism; and the exclusionary matrix is still in operation. This logic does little to challenge the institutional hierarchies that continue to exclude those who do not, or cannot, “fit”. 

Figure 3: Shannon Novak, I Do Not Fit Neatly, Window Installation, 2022

The importance of queer people reading queer stories, viewing queer films, and seeing artworks by queer artists cannot be underestimated, especially when it comes to mental health resilience and recovery, and suicide prevention and survivorship (Bone 2018; Sonke et al. 2021). According to LGBTIQ+ Health Australia (2021), 30% of LGBTIQ+ Australians aged 18 and over report a suicide attempt at some point during their lives, compared to 3% of the general population. Australian trans kids and youth aged 14–25 are 15 times more likely to attempt suicide than the general population. These harrowing statistics, when read in unison with the social responsibility of museums and galleries, suggest that opportunities exist to create safe spaces for queer Australians by queering interpretive frameworks that reinforce cisgender and heteronormative values and expectations, and by challenging the often unspoken assumptions that underpin representational processes. 

In this way, the queer artist/curator is somewhat of an “inverse magician”, revealing what was hiding in plain sight, making visible the invisible, and demystifying the illusion of “long-time friends”, “roommates”, and “travelling companions”. In doing so, queer artists and curators can reinterpret stories and objects to expand our worldviews, and to make present what we might call “an absence of alternatives”. Queering, as Amy Levin reminds us, requires us to “question every aspect of the institution” (2012, p. 159). Thus, by reimagining past narratives, existing collections, and contemporary curatorial practices, we can ensure that queer people, groups, and communities are represented in museums and galleries, without relying on a sleight of hand. 

Project website: Make Visible: Queensland

 

Notes

1. We use the term “queer” to describe people of diverse sexual orientations and gender expressions. Although once used as a derogatory term, the term “queer” now encapsulates political ideas of resistance to heteronormativity, and is often used as an umbrella term to describe the full range of LGBTIQ+ identities.

 

References

Bone, Tracey. 2018. “Art and Mental Health Recovery: Evaluating the Impact of a Community-Based Participatory Arts Program through Artist Voices”, Community Mental Health Journal, 54 (8), 1180–1188. doi: 10.1007/s10597-018-0332-y.

Levin, Amy. 2012. “Unpacking Gender: Creating Complex Models for Gender Inclusivity”. In Richard Sandell and Eithne Nightingale (eds.), Museums, Equality, and Social Justice, 156–168. Routeldge.

LGBTIQ+ Health Australia. 2021. Snapshot of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Statistics for LGBTIQ+ People. https://www.lgbtiqhealth.org.au/advocacyreports.

Novak, Shannon, Gwen Walker and Chris Mills-Kelly. 2022. It’s Ok To Be Me. University of Southern Queensland Art Gallery, Toowoomba, Australia.

QAGOMA [Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art] and Shannon Novak. 2022. Dear Queensland. https://play.qagoma.qld.gov.au/dear-queensland/

Sonke, Jill, Kelley Sams, Jane Morgan-Daniel, Andres Pumariega, Faryal Mallick, Virginia Pesata, and Nicola Olsen. 2021. “Systematic Review of Arts-Based Interventions to Address Suicide Prevention and Survivorship in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America”. Health Promotion Practice, 22 (1), 53S–63S.

Stone, Amy. Queer Carnival: Festivals and Mardi Gras in the South. New York University Press.

Sullivan, Nikki and Craig Middleton. 2019. Queering the Museum. Routledge.

Taylor, Charles. 1994. “The Politics of Recognition.” In Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, edited by Amy Gutmann, 25–74. Princeton University Press.

 


Gwen Walker is a transgender PhD candidate studying Visual Art at the University of Southern Queensland. Her conceptual arts practice and accompanying research is focused on the act of wandering as artwork documented with photography. Her photographs have been exhibited both in Australia and internationally in Iceland and Japan, and her work is held in private and institutional collections in the UK, the USA, Canada, and Germany. Gwen also works as an archivist at the Toowoomba Anglican School, where she collects and preserves the school’s stories and histories.

Kate Cantrell is a Lecturer in Writing, Editing, and Publishing at the University of Southern Queensland. Her research specialisation is contemporary accounts of wandering and narrative representations of illness, immobility, and displacement. She has published over 50 journal articles, book chapters, and conference papers, as well as industry articles in high-profile outlets such as The Sunday Mail, The Conversation, and Times Higher Education. At present, Kate is the Special Issues Editor of TEXT, Australia’s leading journal in creative writing, and the Associate Editor of Queensland Review, a leading journal in Australian studies and the only academic journal devoted entirely to multi-disciplinary Queensland scholarship.

Craig Middleton is a Senior Curator at the National Museum of Australia (NMA) and an Honorary Lecturer at the Australian National University’s Humanities Research Centre. At the NMA, Craig is responsible for creative, content, and collections development across a range of projects and programs within the Discovery and Collections division. His commitment to LGBTIQ+ representation has informed his work in museums, including through the creation of tours, programs, and exhibitions. He is a widely published author and his book, Queering the Museum, co-authored with Dr Nikki Sullivan, was published by Routledge in 2019.

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