Tomorrow is the last day of Roman Manfredi’s We/Us, co-curated by Ingrid Pollard at Space Station Sixty-Five in South-East London: “This show is an intergenerational photography and oral history project that celebrates the presence of butches and studs from working-class backgrounds within the British landscape. The project explores the experience of female masculinity through the structures of class, and race all over the UK, capturing our diversity as well as our community.” It goes on to explain that “conversations around gender and identity today are often academic and London-centric sometimes forgetting that our identities are informed by our every day lived experiences”.
My visit to this show came at a much needed time, having attended the night before a round-table dedicated to the LGBTQ+ community at Christie’s, London. The event, which was organised in the run-up to Pride month in London, was titled ‘The Emergence of Dedicated Queer Markets’ and placed four white cisgender gay men in conversation with one lesbian woman. Four out of the five panellists marvelled at the fact that emerging markets have been on the rise for gay male sexuality and celebrated the rising interest in the male form. A sale in Swann auction, which took place on August 18th 2023 called the ‘LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History’, featured hundreds of works and yet not a single image represented the ‘other’ sexualities outside of the male, gay, cisgender spectrum. Whether it’s Frieze, Paris Photo or Photo London, fair booths proudly display Robert Mapplethorpe and Nobuyoshi Araki’s work yet where is the representation for lesbians, dykes, leather daddies, transgender folk and gender-non-conforming personalities in these mainstream spaces? I used to put it down to a lack of courage associated with representing other forms of intimacy, but it seems to be more of an institutionalised effort to suppress more marginalised identities within the queer community, who also happen to be some of the most marginalised demographics in society. Even within my own experience, pitching for an exhibition centred around female and queer erotica which intentionality and unapologetically excludes cisgender male sexuality, the resistance has been felt across all boards, with certain galleries expressing a lack of interest or commercial potential whilst others have expressed discomfort at the political messaging. I can name a few spaces that are actively addressing this shortfall hands on, such as Space Station Sixty Five, open since 2002, which I first discovered in 2021 when I visited The Rebel Dykes Art & Archive show. Therefore, finding myself this week in Roman Manfredi’s show, where beautifully curated portraits of lesbians, studs, butches and masculine presenting folks proudly adorned the walls, was a highly rewarding experience.
One of my favourite portraits was Debbie (2022), a portrait of Debbie Smith standing in front of north London’s unmistakable semi-detached houses in Bounds Green. Wearing an open-collar white formal shirt with a dark blue long coat which they’re re-adjusting at the seam, this photograph reminds me of the importance of clothing in forming queer identities. The cultural significance of the leather trousers and jackets, waistcoats and suits and, for the younger models, tracksuits and designer sportswear is manifest throughout the room: “I feel it’s something I’ve had to fight for you know, because when I came out in the eighties it wasn’t cool the be butch and I guess it was hidden for a long time. But then the minute I had the means to buy myself a really good suit it became a form of armour, you know. It gives me a lot of confidence to wear a suit, to go to the barbers, get a neat cut. I just know I look fucking great in a suit, and I feel great in a suit (…) it’s part of how I make myself feel safe to go out into the world and it covers up all the trauma, all the shit stuff, all the terrible relationships, all of that.” (A written testimony by Louise on a wall panel). Another portrait which stood out was de Castro (2022) where the model is sitting on a bike parked sideways, in a dominant position and claiming space on a very narrow street. Taking up space in the biking community, which is so often thought of as a hyper-masculine activity and remains dominated by cisgender men, is an act of resistance in itself and in fact has been heavily intertwined with butch and dyke culture.
Gideon (2022) is another spectacular example of this. In the same spirit, another model, Laura (2022) is photographed in a gym, another hyper-masculine space, besides boxing bags with “geezers boxing” written across them.
Representations of more marginalised identities within the queer community should be a cultural priority. The lack of appreciation of pioneering lesbian artists today, as well as in the 20th century – Claude Cahun, Catherine Opie, Del LaGrace Volcano, Phyllis Christopher and Jessica Tanzer to name a few – compared to their gay male counterparts is a much greater issue than it may seem. The panel Christie’s held was a step in the right direction but ultimately a missed opportunity and perpetrated outdated perspectives. To integrate more marginalised voices would have ensured a more valuable and rewarding discourse and provided crucial insights into how we can best shape our collective future in meaningful ways. The lack of physical and online spaces, dedicated commercial markets and academic research, all point to the huge imbalance in the art world. Only when we move further away from the valorisation of cis-gendered sexuality and masculinity, whether gay or straight, will we truly achieve equal representation.