At the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre until August 9
As you walk through Queering the International, the visual-arts component of this year’s Queer Arts Festival, you encounter a kind of improvised soundscape. It’s as if the audio elements of the diverse video works, playing on monitors throughout the Roundhouse’s exhibition hall, were having a complexly interwoven conversation with each other.
Some strands of this conversation are festive and celebratory, others sorrowful and anguished. With a smile, you register the sexy disco beat of Kent Monkman’s Dance to Miss Chief, a hilarious rejoinder to the make-believe “Indians” found in German westerns. At the same time, you are unsettled by the loud, dirgelike moaning and keening of Aiyyana Maracle’s NDN Wars are alive, and, …, well?, a mixed-media installation that protests cultural genocide and broken treaties. You also hear the muted language lessons of Prison Arabic in 50 Days, the blackly ironic, flash-card video Canadian filmmaker John Greyson made following his arrest and incarceration in Egypt last year. And you are aware, too, of the distorted sound collage of Tank, Cecilia Greyson’s response to her brother’s fearful predicament.
Curated by Vancouver artist and writer Laiwan, the exhibition examines the place where issues of sexual identity intersect with other themes and concerns.
Exile and immigration, language and culture, colonization and land claims, friends, family, and community, all find thoughtful expression in a show whose character is both indigenous and diasporic.
The “international” queering of the title refers not only to artists living in distant places (India, South Africa) but also to those who have arrived in Canada from elsewhere (Iran, Russia, Hong Kong, Brazil, Mexico, Guatemala, Guyana).
In her introductory panel, Laiwan talks about the “state-sanctioned homophobia in Russia, India, Uganda and other countries”, a condition that forms a grim human-rights backdrop to the exhibition. With courage and dedication, South Africa’s Zanele Muholi speaks to the social ostracism, physical violence, and persecution that threaten queer people in her homeland.
Muholi is internationally renowned for her photographs of black South African lesbians; some 48 of them are mounted on the exterior walls of a small booth near the centre of the exhibition hall. Inside the booth, two video documentaries, Difficult Love and Zanele Muholi: Visual Activist, are playing. The first of these follows the artist through her daily life—working, socializing, exhibiting her art, and speaking with friends, family, and colleagues. Their stories range from relative privilege (Muholi’s fair-skinned Afrikaans girlfriend) to deprivation (a lesbian couple living under a bridge after being expelled from a women’s shelter) to horror (a woman beaten, choked, and repeatedly raped because she is a lesbian—you won’t easily forget her battered face, the marks on her neck, and the rasping of her damaged voice).
Tejal Shah, who is based in Goa, speaks to lesbian identity in India, where right-wing fundamentalism is on the rise. Installed in and on a video booth that formally mirrors Muholi’s, Shah’s videos and photographs explore a range of lesbian-focused subjects, including gender, sexuality, domination, subjugation, power, and violence. Her digital slide show I AM is part of an ongoing project of colour portraits documenting Indian women whose appearance challenges notions of femininity. By extension, these individuals are defying socially prescribed gender roles. In her accompanying statement, Shah writes, “Female masculinity, androgyny, gender ambiguity and selfhood are key words that frame this project. These photographs are intended to expand the gendered category of woman…”
Video and photography are by no means the only media represented here. Painting, sculpture, installation, textiles, and poetry are also employed, to alternately amusing and disturbing effect. Eloisa Aquino, a Brazilian artist based in Montreal, creates zines and silkscreen prints in a lively visual style reminiscent of 1990s underground comix. Aquino’s work includes tributes to Madame Satã, a groundbreaking gay hustler and drag performer in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s, and Pajubá, the coded language spoken by members of the Brazilian LGBT community. The narratives she recounts are both engrossing and affirmative.
Afuwa, a Guyanese-born artist based in Vancouver, paints small “icons” on wood panels. Alternately employing gold leaf (a reference to the extraction of gold from Guyana by Canadian mining companies—a blatant form of economic imperialism) and delicate, fabriclike patterns, she creates silhouetted portraits of family members, an act that honours them while critiquing the colonial history, including slavery and indentureship, that carried them away from their homeland and deposited them in a place rife with exploitation.
Iranian-born, Vancouver-based artist, poet, and clothing designer Ahmad Tabrizi is represented here by a greatly oversized tank top with adhering verse. His words, describing a condition of queer exile, are composed of Band-Aids, which accord beautifully with his statement: “Art is like a scab on a wound.” Like much of the art on display here, Tabrizi’s artwork and his premise are concise, brilliant, and moving.