Coming out…Sexuality, gender and identity at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

coming out header image blog post

‘Art can help us understand how society has changed … it can also enable us to see the world differently, offering insights into personal experiences beyond our own’

C.K McDonald

Coming Out: sexuality, gender and identity is a touring show conceived by Charlotte Keenan McDonald, firstly showing at the Walker Museum in Liverpool and now at our very own Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. In McDonalds own words, “A lot of the work I have been doing to date is around LBGT+ history in [Liverpool] collection and the way that it has been erased, I’ve been really interested in seeing what has been done in terms of research and who has been overlooked, as well as people who have been part of public histories.”

Coming Out is part of a triad of shows that began last year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales. This ostensible helping hand failed many within the LGBT+ community because of its complete lack of inter-sectional amendments, that did not address the lesbian community and still demanding a differing age limit to that of their heterosexual counterparts.

Queer art in 2017, a more inclusive gesture…

Tate’s ‘Queer British Art 1861–1967’ kicked off this realignment, with coming out being seen to respond from the drop off point of 1967 – initially with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn, which won the John Moore’s Painting Prize in ’67.

In the latest instalment of this realigning triad, there are a variety of different works, ranging from audio visual to a decaying commissioned installation from Anya Gallaccio from a number of high profile artists, such as Grayson Perry and Sarah Lucas to emerging artists such as and Jez Dolan, who graduated recently from Birmingham School of Art with an MA in Queer Studies.

As you first walk in to show, you are made aware to the fact you are walking in to the queer and the kitsch. Instantly exposed to the queer cigarette gnome by Sarah Lucas, juxtaposed against the pristine materiality of Grayson Perry’s Claire’s coming out dress – that he wore to accept the turner prize as his transvestite comrade Claire, in 2003. There is noticeable gaze from Perry’s dress to Lucas’ gnome, this gaze mirrors the multiple histories and queer voices heard in this exhibition, some louder than others – but nevertheless the multitude of voices are represented.

The prevalent kitsch is extended by the use of colour within the space, paying respect to the Gilbert-Baker Pride flag, which formed part of the battle cry of the late 70’s gay liberation movement and represented the magic, healing and spirit. This further realigns the rich, white, industrialist history of the gallery world – away from the white cube to the colourful non-linear queer art space.

As well as the kitsch, you are called upon by the YBA mecca that’s calling you home to roost. Emin above Warhol, this kitsch element of design was brought into Andy Warhol’s seminal Marilyn print. Emin and her fellow Young British Artists (YBAs) somewhat co-opted Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame model as the YBAs arguably co-opted the public gaze – but for more than 15 minutes – on borrowed time.  This anchors you to the middle of the space, drawn in by Emin’s romantic swirly neon, and by the chanting oozing out of Isaac Julien’s film The Long Road to Mazatlàn with the beauty of queer aquatic ballet juxtaposed against the backdrop of the wild west.

Contrasting to the Walker Gallery’s Coming Out, the curatorial volume then dies down to a whisper when we are met with the arresting photographic series ‘Exiles’ by Sunil Gupta, depicting the cruising zones in his hometown of New Delhi, where the law against same sex acts still stays ironclad to this day. Away from the anchor that is Emin’s swirly neon, this section is quietened in comparison -with previously the Walker gallery displaying close to Warhol’s Marilyn. This curation reflects the sometimes white washing and misheard process that queer people of colour go through within the art institution.

sunil gupta india gateIndia Gate from the series Exiles, 1987, Sunil Gupta

However, these histories are aiming to be realigned by BMAG through the learning and engagement programme facilitated by the Arts Council Collection National Partnership, called FORUM

FORUM’s programme breathes inclusivity as local artists and community groups were part of the development. So the realignment of the queer within the art world can continue and thrive in this centre for learning and community engagement.

The term of ‘coming out’ has gone through a shift, with the reclamation of coming out as a negative phrase to something full of colour and vibrancy – this is underpinned by the variety of gender identities and sexualities disclosed, brought to life by the sculptural and film works – acting as flag posts for the concept of the show. This latest instalment of the queer British triad of pioneering shows is an important baton to carry in to the main arena of the art world, and more should be done to continue the realignment of queer histories through art.


Leanne O’Connor






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