The existence of the gender spectrum beyond the simple male/female binary is now more visible in mainstream media and popular culture than ever before. And whilst life for non-binary and trans folks is still difficult, even dangerous, there seems to be more cultural awareness (if not sensitivity) about various trans identities within cis circles. In the Hayward Gallery’s Kiss My Genders exhibition, this visibility of the gender spectrum takes centre stage.
Whilst some cisgender people still struggle with gender terminology outside of the binary, this exhibition drives the point that the existence of multiple genders is really nothing new. It traces over fifty years of work from a range of artists exploring gender identities, many of them non-binary, and spanning 40 different nationalities. Some of the highlights of the exhibition include Victoria Sin, Juliana Huxtable, Del LaGrace Volcano, Hunter Reynolds, Tejal Shah, Chitra Ganesh, Martine Gutierrez, Nicholas Hlobo, and Flo Brooks.
Victoria Sin was commissioned to create a video installation, performing Cantonese songs, the videos projected onto long white sheets, filling the first room you enter. The spoken word gives a dramatic feel to the introduction of the show.
Juliana Huxtable, a black trans woman, created self-portraits where she plays with shape, background and colour to present out-of-this-world images, creating galactic landscapes and alien-like figures, describing one image of her as ‘cyborg princess, witch, Nubian princess’. Martine Gutierrez is also another artist that explores identity as something ‘alien or unfamiliar’, in her Masking series, disguising herself as deities from Aztec, Mayan and Yuruba cultures.
Many of the artists play with the subject of drag. – Del LaGrace Volcano plays with ideas of femininity and masculinity with photography featuring herself as a drag king, as well as clashing traditional gender associations in an image of her wearing her hair short with a kind of biker-jacket, along with a tutu.
One of the most moving pieces was by Hunter Reynolds, documenting his performance as alter ego Patina du Prey at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston in 1993. Here, in front of over 2000 people, he wore a black ball gown, printed with the 25,000 names of people who had died from AIDS-related illnesses, entitled The Memorial Dress.
Tejal Shah’s work explores the hijra – the third gender community – in Mumbai. Here, she reimagines and recreates Indian paintings from the nineteenth century by the celebrated artist Raja Ravi Varma.
One of my favourite pieces spanned across the long walls of the upper level. The mixed media piece by Chitra Ganesh was called At Her Dream’s Edge, featuring various figures, some sexual, some serene, with attention drawn to hands and the body as a whole, brightly coloured and a mirrored effect creating an under-water feel, with its dreamlike quality.
Nicholas Hlobo incorporates ribbons into his work, threading them through canvasses, and spilling out of sculptural work using found objects. His aim was to demonstrate the ‘feminisation of labour’.
Finally, Flo Brooks’ paintings are presented as comic strips, with small pieces stuck on the edge, or clustered together like badges, which could be worn in the sense that we wear badges of identity. There is humour there, with text and title such as ‘I’m having a mid-teen crisis’, these pieces explore trans and queer identities in a way that grabs your attention, makes you laugh, yet also makes you think.
There is much more work to be explored here. As a whole, the exhibit was non-chronological, perhaps in-line with the ideas being explored, with the fluidity of gender also represented in the fluidity of time, how progression is not linear and that work from all genders should be celebrated and given a space in the world.
featured image: Ted Eytan(CC BY-SA 2.0)
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