Art endows people with the power to take control of their self-expression, to create themselves and identify themselves in a manner unadulterated by social conventions. This seems to be the lingering feeling of both Kiss My Genders and Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography 1959-2016, exhibiting at The Hayward Gallery and The Photographers’ Gallery respectively.
Kiss My Genders explores gender identity and gender fluidity through the artwork of a number of transgender and gender non-binary artists. Meanwhile, Urban Impulses presents the work of Latin American photographers, cataloguing revolutions, social movements and popular culture. These two exhibitions provide space for marginalised groups to break from preconceptions and stereotypes, presenting their own images of themselves.
“An ‘f’ is marked on a document and so…so pretty, so precious, so quiet…our little girl”. These are the words that greet you as you enter Kiss My Genders, the somewhat eerie voice coming from Victoria Sin’s multi-media installation A View from Elsewhere, Act 1, She Postures in Context. In a sense these words introduce the central focus of the exhibition, a desire and a need to break down socially enforced gender binaries. In its presentation of fifty years of artwork by transgender and gender non-binary artists, Kiss My Genders rips apart all preconception of gender and all definable categories into a glorious mass of artwork, ultimately privileging the individual’s right to choose their identity and perform and construct it in any way they chose.
This refusal to be categorised manifests in various formats across the exhibition. We see the work of Pierre Molinier (the earliest artist in this exhibition) and his distortion of the physical form, layering images of bodies, often his own, to create tangles of stockinged limbs. This deconstruction of fixed gender categories through the physical body recurs in the work of later artists. Ajamu, for instance, juxtaposes the typically feminine with the typically masculine, photographing a male body builder in a bra, a hand in a delicate lace glove grasping a penis, a self-portrait of himself masked but wearing stockings and heels reclined on a chaise longue. Many of the artists in this exhibition use self-portrait to discuss gender. Luciano Castille creates particularly stunning ones of his alter-ego Lucille, using watercolour adorned with gold leaf and feathers to make often boldly colourful works with consistently depthless and impenetrable eyes.
Others playfully explore queerness through setting individuals in imagined science-fiction and mythological worlds, further breaking down biologically informed categories. Juliana Huxtable’s work uses sci-fi, creating sexy and sassy self-portraits in surreal worlds of pink skies and turquoise earth. Chitra Ganesh’s installation, At Her Dream’s Edge, uses similar themes, winding across the walls in a surreal underwater world of nude female bodies, fish scales and flowers, commenting on linguistic power, sexuality and constructs of femininity.
The political tone of the exhibition becomes more forceful in artwork which intersects with different cultures. In a triple-exposure photo made in collaboration with Holly Falconer, Amrou Al-Kadhi represents his experience of coming out in drag as someone from a Muslim heritage. The three converging forms of Al-Kadhi embody the way his self is fractured between his disparate identities while he creates a new identity for himself in drag. Through its representation of those defying conventional gender boundaries in historic cultures, the exhibition has a broader stretch beyond its initial time period. Tegal Shah’s Hijra Fantasy series, for instance, came out of their work with members of the hijra or third gender community in Mumbai, producing striking photographs which are a queer response to mythology and colonial history.
Kiss My Genders does not shy away from the darker political side of gender identity either, for example, displaying Zanele Muholi’s documentation of the violence inflicted on members of the black lesbian and transgender community in South Africa in photos of disembodied limbs discarded among litter and leaves. Ultimately, the politically charged Kiss My Genders brings together a breadth of talented artists in an incredibly dense but enlightening exhibition that deconstructs all categories and expectations of gender.
Urban Impulses aims to break away from stereotypes too, with curators María Wíllis and Alexis Fabry describing how the deliberately political show presents local identities through standard photography, journalistic photography and photography turned into art. The exhibition is divided into two chapters spread across two floors under the themes of Shouts and Pop-ular. The first explores violence, repression and protest sparking across cities in Latin America, intermingled with evidence of the social life still alive within that. The second chapter tracks the development of consumer culture in Latin America, the urban landscape becoming splashed with bright adverts and symbols of pop culture, creating a unique aesthetic closely connected to its Latin American context. While each floor is well curated into each theme, there is certainly dialogue between the two, expanding on the discussion prompted by each.
In Shouts, we see the fiery side of these countries in brutal images of violence within repressive regimes. Some of the photographers have astonishingly managed to capture an exact moment of state violence, such as Pedro Valtierra’s Teachers Being Beaten from Mexico, while others, like Anselmo Carrera, have appropriated media documentation of violence to create their own politically charged artwork. Carrera’s Untitled, 1984 forms a collage of conflict, layering clippings of reports of violence and photos of mutilated bodies and marking them with his own additional layer of violence, with gashes of red paint, stains and scratches, turning evidence of state repression into an artistic political commentary.
Placed fittingly next to Teachers Being Beaten, we see a number of prints from Jaime Villaseca’s Closed series: haunting photographs of blocked up doorways, filled with cement, bricks and planks. The juxtaposition of a shot of violence with these photos comments on the spaces left behind by conflict, with the walled-up buildings suggesting an impossibility of returning to the life that was once there. Other photos more explicitly demonstrate the legacy of conflict. A selection from Claudio Pérez’s Wall of Memory series creates an intensely political memorial, documenting twenty-six years of political disappearances in Chile with panels of headshots of the missing, organised by name and the date they went missing. It is incredibly powerful to see sharp images of conflict in conjunction with tangible marks of its impact.
Urban Impulses also documents the marginalised identities often forced to hide in the shadows of repressive societies, featuring the work of Agustín Martínez Castro who tenderly photographed homosexuals, cross-dressers, and prostitutes in Mexico. The four prints featured in the exhibition feel secretive and personal, with their subjects, partly concealed by shadows, applying make-up half dressed, captured in the moment of constructing their chosen, but forbidden, identities. Miguel Ángel Rojas similarly captures intensely personal, forbidden moments, yet in a more intrusive manner, taking photos of illicit homosexual acts through key holes in movie theatres in Bogotá in Columbia known as gay cruising spots.
However, against this presentation of repression and the need to hide, we see an almost smug fight back, an unwillingness to be defeated. This is conveyed in photos such as Eduardo Longoni’s The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo with a man stood in front of a roaring fire and the dark smoke of destruction, with arms spread wide in a swaggering challenge. In its presentation of the life that continues behind the conflict, the exhibition also shows a refusal to be defeated, with photos of parties and dancing, the most vibrant examples of which are the bright, artificially coloured photos of Armando Cristeto.
These symbols of the indestructible social life within Latin America continue in the Pop-ular chapter, characterised by the shift from the rural to the urban. We see an intersection of the two in prints from Pablo’s López Luz’s Neo Inca series, demonstrating the way a traditional art form has found a new place within the urban, with Inca motifs reproduced in the city’s architecture. Western influences also enter into Latin America within this period of commercialisation, which Adolfo Patiño consciously links in artwork like Skull and Wonder Woman, tying together old cultural myths about death with the Western cultural symbol of superheroes and their inhuman ability to avoid death. Pop-ular clearly demonstrates that while these urban spaces have been affected by commercial culture, it has physically affected their landscape in a way that reflects its Latin American context.
While very different in subject matter, Urban Impulses and Kiss My Genders both succeed in creating fascinating exhibitions which demonstrate how marginalised groups construct their own identities. Outside of social boundaries and conventions, we discover a mass of brilliant artwork that gives an intense insight into these individuals and their continued determination to fight to represent themselves.
Kiss My Genders is on at the Hayward Gallery until 8th September. For more information, head to the Southbank Centre’s website.
Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography is on at The Photographer’s Gallery until 6th October. To find out more, visit their website.
Words by Katrina Bennett
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