Creating a Queertopia: A review of the Norman Rea Gallery's 'Queer!' Exhibition


Elena Savvas (she/they) reviews the Norman Rea Gallery's first exhibition wholly dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community

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Image by Elena Savvas.

By Elena Savvas

When I first saw the online visual for this exhibition, I knew I would make time to go and view it. With a universalising green background, it shows a collage of queer art from different eras and movements, setting up an expectation of intersectional art, both within artists' identities, and within artistic mediums, processes, and presentations. I attended the exhibition's opening night, and then returned a few days later, as it only lived up to this.

The atmosphere of the opening night was palpable; with warm lights, live music, and unrestrained chatter amongst spectators, it was clear upon entry that the room and corridor were a queer safe space for the next few hours. In my experience, there was no specific walkway through the exhibition, as curators allowed their guests to form authentic connections to the art displayed, with the lack of a distinguished start and finish queering the set-up within itself. Various types of art were exhibited, including drag in video form, makeup looks, zines, poems and clothing. The exhibition also empowered the creation of new art amongst its walls, with attendees signing a Pride Progress flag in the back corner, disco balls hanging from the ceiling, and members twirling in feather boas whilst comparing each other's outfits. On my first perusal, my expectations of diverse art were satisfied, as themes such as transness, butchness, fatness and Blackness stood out at first glance. Queer! seemed to forefront intersectionality in its impact too, as 'protect trans kids' and 'BLM' were already written onto the flag-in-the-making.

The art itself flourished in not conforming to a palatable, normative state of queerness. As artist Meg McWilliam stated in the name of one of their exhibited pieces, The Art of Vulgarity Will Be The Death of Conformity. Meg states that her art's refusal to submit to mainstream archetypes is inspired by drag icon Divine, who taught her to challenge society's habit to force queerness into hetero- and chrono-normative standards. This sentiment rang true throughout the exhibition, as raw, counter-cultural art dominated the hallway. Hope Gilvarry-Saunders' description of her piece 'Fag Drag' not only forefronts drag queens that do not fit the expectation of cisgender, gay men dressing as women, but states that 'raw queer art [has always] embraced the ugly.' Artists' self-fashioning was clearly imperative to the event, with artists having written their own placard descriptors, remaining in charge of their own queerness and their own art. This also seemed true of the curation process, as I discovered the committee's commitment to avoiding splitting the art into thematic sections, in conversation with Norman Rea's Head of Press and Publicity, Eleanor. Eleanor and I additionally discussed the creative process behind curation, as she revealed how the committee initially laid out all of the artists' work on the floor, to get a gauge of how to celebrate and uplift the artists in the best way.

A sense of reclamation shone throughout the exhibition, from the recentering of the bathroom debate in Lu Williams' collection of zines: 'Yes. About ladies public toilets. No. Nothing to do with my trans sisters.' to Robyn Cowburn's reclaiming of the traditional tattoo flash to problematize TERF rhetoric. Oscar Woodiwiss's 'Anatomy of a Comet' had this effect too: their description cites the similarities between a comet being stripped back by the heat of the sun and the stripping back of one's personal layers, explaining the emotional euphoria of being seen and desired as trans. Woodiwiss' connections between transness and the natural world impactfully oppose and reshape arguments of "human nature" used by infamous TERFs. Markedly, Queer! was successful in engaging with, and antagonising, current queerphobic discourses. A piece I was particularly moved by was Dominic Murray's TOBI, where Murray reframes the psychology of abjection for his own ideology, co-opting the photographic aesthetics of famously exclusionary brand Abercrombie & Fitch to centre blackness and queerness. However, his placard explains that he purposefully replicates the company's exclusion too, tricking his audience into enjoying his art whilst highlighting that his models are still cisgender gay men that are slim, conventionally attractive, and masculine presenting.

The gallery did not fail in celebrating our queer ancestors, those that paved the way for the art demonstrated. The Queering the Quotidian magazine recognised the queerness of many Native American belief systems and tribal rules, the decorative back wall featured reprints of 80s-90s zines and posters featuring the Silence = Death movement and the hermeneutical pink triangle, while Beth Jones' Euphoria/Dysphoria called reference to the Harlem voguing scene. However, the reminder of the past was not always celebratory; for example, Sophie Mae Apps' poetic references to the shooting that occurred last year in Club Q, Colorado served as a reminder of a not-so-distant past that looms over the present, as the queer community continues to remain vulnerable to an oppressive society.

Yet, as many artists explained in their descriptors, this is why uplifting, activistic, unashamedly queer spaces such as that of the exhibition are so important: counter-cultures like these create spaces of Queertopia that oppose a reality that is easy to call dystopian.

The Norman Rea Gallery have announced their next exhibition, Body-Architect, which is set to open on 6 March.