The (Un)Defining Queer exhibition is part of a participatory-led project which explores The Whitworth gallery’s art collection from an alternative lens to better understand what it means to be queer.
An intersectional group of 15-20 individuals, who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, have worked to develop this exhibition. They provide detailed insights into the exhibition’s art from a queer perspective, including new interpretations from historical and personal points of view.
Following two years in development, the exhibition includes photography, print, textiles and watercolour artworks spanning from the 15th to 21st Century.
The Queer Glossary
One of the main aims of the (Un)Defining Queer project is to develop the ‘Queer Glossary.’
The Queer Glossary was developed by the community to help explore how LGBTQ+ identities should be defined in the gallery.
Visitors are invited to contribute to the glossary by filling in comment card to share what sort of language and ideas they associate with the artwork.
Through this, The Whitworth hopes to better represent queer individuals, ranging from the way the gallery is perceived, to the languages used and recognised by The Whitworth’s webpage search engine.
“What we were keen to do at the exhibition was to have the voice of the community represent themselves, and then for the institution to really represent them.” – Dominic Bilton (the exhibition producer)
Themes of the exhibition
The exhibition aims to examine five key themes; activism, chosen family, mythology, gender acts and the queer gaze.
Each of these play a specific role in the exhibition to offer insight into what it means to be queer and to update existing definitions of the term.
The first of these themes is activism, which highlights the lack of representation for the LGBTQ+ community and the reclamation of slur words.
Bilton said: “I couldn’t really see myself or my friends represented within the gallery or within the interpretation of any of the artwork so it was a form of activism – really trying to get myself and my friends represented on the walls and the same with the participants as well.”
The theme of chosen family, is to acknowledge the journey some queer individuals go through to find a sense of belonging.
In some cases, a queer person’s biological family may distance themselves from the individual, who will then seek out a chosen family somewhere else. This area of the exhibition aims to focus on the circles participants gravitate towards and the family they find with friends, lovers, or partners.
Mythology focuses around the themes of gender and sexuality across history and the omission or censorship of such subjects. The collection looks back on various historical periods, such as Ancient Greece, to examine how stories and art can be interpreted through the queer lens.
Bilton explains that different perspectives allow for different understandings of art and history to be made: “works haven’t necessarily been chosen because they are queer, but because they can be queer-ed through that lens”.
Gender ‘acts’ is also a major theme at play within the exhibition, which looks at the performativity of gender and sexuality, and how they are portrayed throughout history.
For example, the exhibition looks into the existence of gender and sexual fluidity across different cultures. This includes the hijra, which is a third gender existing in some South Asian communities, typically referring to individuals born biologically male who chose to dress and look traditionally feminine.
The exhibition also includes woodblock print referencing kabuki theatre and depicting the third gender of the wakashu in traditional Japanese culture.
The final theme of the exhibition is the queer gaze. This examines the work of artists over time who would identify as queer, the acknowledgement of that fact, and how their art could be influenced by this.
The wider project
The (Un)defining Queer exhibition is part of the wider ‘Queering the Whitworth’ project, which aims to challenge the heteronormative views within the gallery and re-discover missing LGBTQ+ narratives and ideas.
The project includes guided tours of the exhibition and discussions into queer identity and language.
“We are really embedding queer practise into what the Whitworth does here,” Bilton said. “This is just the start of it really.”
Bilton argues that projects such as this are not only important for re-evaluating the practises of museums and galleries, but also important to the queer community of Manchester.
This was reflected in the exhibition’s opening night, in which over 900 people attended a private viewing.
The exhibition contains over 70 works from artists such as Ajamu X, David Hockney, Maggie and Wolfgang Tillmans, and is free to view until the 3 December.