Queer art has always been underrepresented in the mainstream art world, but things might be starting to change. Vancouver artist Shaira (SD) Holman has been nominated for YWCA Metro Vancouver’s Women of Distinction award in the art, culture, and design category.
“I really give the YWCA kudos for nominating a Jewish, butch, bearded dyke for the Young Women’s Christian Association award,” Holman says. “That’s pretty special. So, you know, I guess we’ve come a long way.”
Holman is a photo-based artist and the artistic director of Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival. She recently took a yearlong sabbatical from the festival to focus on her own art, and her book BUTCH: Not Like the Other Girls will be launched on June 19.
BUTCH features a series of black and white portraits of women who identify as butch, meaning masculine in appearance or behaviour. The idea for the project came from her late wife Catherine White Holman, as well as from her own desire to show people that they could be beautiful as themselves.
“There’s a certain view of how men should be masculine and women should be feminine,” Holman says. “And you know, masculinity has never been the sole domain of men.
“I wanted to make butches feel good about themselves and also just to show beautiful pictures of these people, not as sort of undesirable and ugly.”
For her, the project is intensely personal, since she has struggled with society’s expectations of who she should be for her entire life.
“I’ve been a performer most of my life, and I was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to conform to some sort of mould of feminine acceptability,” Holman says. “I tried to for a while, until I was just like, ‘No, this isn’t me and I’m not comfortable in this role.’”
Since then, Holman has embraced who she is, and through her art hopes to help others do the same. She reasons that if queer artists gain more mainstream recognition, the world might become a safer place.
“I don’t do my work to get recognition,” she says. “I do the work because I have to and I’m compelled to, and hopefully to change the world.”
Holman is nominated alongside Susan Van der Flier, board director of the Vancouver Opera. The winner will be announced June 3 at an awards ceremony.