Image Description: Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery
By Amy Neville
As semester two opens, so has the art gallery, fresh with three new exhibitions for excited viewers, eager to return to the sanctuary of the gallery walls and its treasures within. As I approached the steps of the gallery, those tall walls are now decorated with three banners to display the exhibitions. Unladylike Acts. A Sorrowful Act: The Wreck of the Zeewijk. And HERE&NOW20: Perfectly Queer. It was this third exhibition which intrigued me, called me towards the back room with apprehension and excitement. “A safe space for communities,” promised the catalogue. “Artworks that reflect on what it means to be queer.”
This is what I had hoped for, what my young queer heart desired to see. Here I could see myself reflected in the lived experiences of other artists; here and now, an exhibition of contemporary queer artists like never before seen. I read the names in the catalogue, the statements of the artists sharing concepts and experiences that were relatable and poignant – not a celebration but an exploration. A safe space to peel back the layers of conservative views and step proudly out into the gallery room. A display that perhaps twenty years ago, would never have occurred.
I looked and saw and explored and viewed; too many artworks to capture in one glance, so much richness of life and loss – that unfortunate pairing that many queer folk who choose to be themselves knows and understands. Here, there is a limp wrist, an aluminum altarpiece, a stained blouse, each telling just one tiny part of a queer life, shared for us as the viewer. A glimpse into just one of many stories that are all so different, yet all so relatable. It’s not a celebration, the tone is a cautious balance of grim and stoic resistance, with hope gingerly peeking through, and a spark of passion and pride in this collection of works that not long ago would never have been displayed.
It was at the back wall of the room, displaying a series of artworks and didactics, that I heard subdued chattering, a sign to look closer, to question and discern what was there. The wall was covered in thirteen drawings, paintings, and artworks by queer artists from years past, now recontextualised in this exhibition with their identities on display – open and laid bare for the perhaps the first time. There was no hiding of who these artists were, no concealed secret lives or attempts to cover them up, but a raw glimpse into the true lives of queer artists who were denied their truth in the galleries of a bygone era, many of whom are now long dead and immortalised on this wall. I peered closer at the works, reading the quotes from those who knew them – fellow artists, historians, friends – searching for the source of discussion.
I found it in the eyes of a child, a drawing of a seated boy, in Untitled (Seated Boy), and the statement beneath it. “Paedophile,” it read. “Australia’s most celebrated paedophile.” That word repeated itself in my mind, as I scanned the text looking for an answer. Why was it here? Why was he here? “An abuser of boys, a pederast who preyed on poor children[…] paedophile.” This exhibition was meant to be a safe space, the catalogue promised a safe space, but here was a predator – a criminal by his own admission – in the middle of the wall. My excitement vanished and was replaced by a heavy and sinking pit in my stomach, disappointment welling up inside me. I stood in silence, then the words came crashing into me and I knew then and there, I needed to voice them.
Comments were exchanged, questions raised, and a gallery attendant took our names and contact details. Why was it here? How was this a queer experience? I didn’t understand and I needed to know. An email chain was formed, back and forth with the artist and curator, a discourse forming and my questions piling up. Did UWA Pride know? Why was there no content warning? I only knew that I felt a pull to find out more, to dig deeper into the issue, to understand why there was a paedophile in a queer exhibition. I got my answer three weeks later.
After several emails, some text chains, and a few phone calls with friends, I awoke one day with an email waiting for me. An invitation to a meeting. A seat at the table with those holding the answers and more capable than me of creating change. I went, with bated breath and an anxious heart, joined by a friend and a pride representative, into that room. For one hour we discussed, debated, and deliberated over this work and its inclusion over the gallery. The ethics of exhibiting a sexual predator within a queer safe space, having a reference to sexual assault without a warning, the narratives created through its comparison to other queer artists. We may not have seen eye to eye, and indeed, our differences soon became clear. But there was a sense of a joint understanding in the importance of what we were doing. It is through discussions like these, so often behind closed doors and between those in the know, that change occurs.
If you were to walk in this exhibition in a week or so from now, you might not notice anything different. It will likely be small, and perhaps overlooked by those who don’t care to notice. But it will be there. By the entrance to the exhibition, written by myself, and those involved with the gallery, will be a small statement. A content warning about the work, and an acknowledgment of the evolving discussion. While it is not the change I wanted, it is a change. When you enter a gallery, you become part of the dialogue – the narrative of the collection – but very rarely do you ever have a part in altering that narrative. That change is small, but powerful, and like a tiny seed it grows and transforms and affects all those around it. It just beings with a question.
Amy Neville is studying art history and fine arts with a passion for ethics, books, and sword fighting.
I have written previously on the topic of author/artist and creation, and the conflict that arises concerning the notion of separating the two when problematic elements arise within. To my mind, there is undoubtedly value to discussing our difficult pasts, to confronting rather than hiding from the darker aspects of our histories. However, to position the experiences of a paedophile within a broader exhibition of queer artwork taps into a troublingly prevalent and ongoing vein in homophobic discourse of conflating the two. We must be clear in our support for queer communities, and firm in our rejection of deeply unethical behaviours that, though they may appear within such groups, are by no means either an accepted or intrinsic part of them. To present them without comment in a manner that can be seen to link the two is at best an act of good intention, but poor judgement given our current political climate. I am, however, encouraged to see the Gallery engaging with its visitors and their concerns – such is the value of art in society.
Elanor Leman, Diversity Sub-Editor