Art Radar highlights a selection of queer art practices from around the Asian region.
From the creative industries to art, still and moving images can have a powerful activist edge. Fictional and documentary accounts of the non-normative are making an impact from South to East Asia.
Tate Modern’s current exhibition on Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar is one example where the sexual orientation of the artist is discussed in the media almost eclipsing the art. Is homosexuality still perceived as so controversial as to be a flag waved just to attract attention? Regardless of what the media finds newsworthy, queer activism has been around for a long time. Voices differ on how culture might compel us to acquire or dissipate ideologies, but if we agree that culture has some play in this, then it can operate as a tool for activism – or artivism.
For various reasons, activism sometimes takes subtle forms, like double-entendres in narratives, but in the visual realm it increasingly seems to be more overt. For example, considering how the works from the 1980s discussed below differ from those from the 1990s, the message seems much clearer and less ambivalent in the latter works.
The following are selected examples of how cultural production in Asia is contributing to dispel myths and stereotypes about gay, lesbian or minority groups.
1. Bhupen Khakar
After Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2003) initiated his career as an artist, his circle of friends, both in India and in countries he visited, such as Britain, knew that he was gay. It was only after his mother passed away in 1980 that he came out publicly, sparking much of the media interest that remains until today. And perhaps quite rightly, since probably the best way to combat heteronormativity is for the public at large to know of celebrities’ homosexuality. According to British figurative painter, art writer and curator Timothy Hyman as well as contemporary and friend of the artist, Bhupen Khakhar was one of the first figures to be publicly known as a homosexual in India.
Khakhar, freed from parental disapproval, acted with intent. In addition to coming out publicly – his personal move to effect change – Khakhar’s artworks from the 1980s onwards made enough references to male nudes and love, to position him as an activist. His paintings combine popular subject matter, everyday people and an unpretentious style in a way that points a finger at social constraints such as elitist class barriers or homophobic attitudes.
2. Tseng Kwong Chi
Also in the 1980s, Hong Kong photographer Tseng Kwong Chi (1950-1990), then living in New York – where he later died from AIDS related illness – photographed openly out artist Keith Haring and posed with gay icons such as Yves Saint Laurent. Tseng’s extreme discretion about his personal life does not make him a gay activist in the placard-waving sense, but readings of his work today certainly see in it much to be queerful about.
His elegant public persona plays with theatricality in a way that makes him a performance artist as much as a photographer. Tseng’s photographs are his principal body of work, but his social mask (the sunglasses, Mao suits and distant demeanour) highlight issues of personal identity with low-key drama. For him, the time was not ripe to unmask himself, but he looked forward with optimism, as his estate records:
There will be a change for the next decade I’m sure. The seed was planted in ’79, the flowers bloomed in the early Eighties, and now we are waiting for the fruit.
3. Sunil Gupta
Photographer Sunil Gupta (b. 1953) shares life experiences with both the artists above. Like Bhupen Khakhar, Sunil Gupta also studied accounting before turning to art. And like Tseng Kwong Chi, he also contracted HIV, although the virus for Gupta has not been fatal. Contracting AIDS propelled a more direct form of activism in a man who had been an out gay youngster, fighting against racism and homophobia whilst studying in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. He continues this mission through his artworks, exhibited worldwide for 30 years, intent on raising awareness.
Gupta’s complementary work as a collaborative exhibition-maker has inspired emerging curators such as Vidya Shivadas, who in turn has edited the book Queer, a monograph on Sunil Gupta’s work. His photographic series are sometimes straightforward, sometimes staged. Sunil’s exhibition titles give a clear idea of what he tries to show: “Ecstatic Antibodies, Resisting the AIDS Mythology”, “Reflections of the Black Experience” and “Exiles”, about gay men in New Delhi, are all from the 1980s. The more curiously named series Mr. Malhotra’s Party (2007) has a title inspired by gay nights in Indian clubs. It is a portrait series of self-identified queer people who stand unapologetically in public areas of Delhi, in plain daylight. This series is therefore a document of individual activism: the portrayed subjects are named, visible, out and undeterred by fear.
4. Debalina Majumder
The real-life characters in Gupta’s Mr. Alhotra’s Party make it look easy to come out in India. Yet in 2013, a film called …And the Unclaimed (… ebang bewarish) by activist filmmaker Debalina Majumder shows that it can have sad consequences. Her film investigates the double suicide of two lesbian lovers in West Bengal whose bodies were unclaimed by any relative. The couple chose a drastic end to their young lives because of the lack of acceptance of their love by their community and families.
Majumder began researching the case with Sappho For Equality, an organisation that supports the LGBT community in Kolkata, then she took things personally. With much commitment to explore the case thoroughly, she made a film. Her touching final cut cleverly threads together multiple oral accounts from people in the village, with excerpts from the five-page suicide letter left by the young women. The work has screened at film festivals and conferences from Canada to Estonia.
5. Park Chan-wook
For his 2016 film with lesbian protagonists, South Korean director Park Chan-wook chooses fiction. The Handmaiden is inspired by a novel by Sarah Waters, The Fingersmith. The book’s original Victorian England setting is changed in the screenplay to a Japanese-occupied Korea. The film is less focused on raising awareness and changing society than documentary projects, but it dazzles with thrills and eroticism, which may bring lesbian love issues to a wider audience.
6. Sridhar Rangayan
Another recent film is India’s latest documentary on LGBT activism, Breaking Free, which premiered at Mumbai’s 2016 Queer Film Festival. Directed by Sridhar Rangayan, Breaking Free has won two prizes so far and is continuing to tour, educating the world on India’s fight against the law known as Sec 377. Introduced during colonial rule, Sec 377 criminalises sexual activity including homosexuality and, as the film makes evident, it is misused repeatedly, causing much suffering to the LGBT community. Decades ago, Bhupen Khakhar, and then Sunil Gupta, critiqued the law and reminded their home country of its more liberal pre-colonial attitudes to homosexuality.
7. Truong Tan
There has been a good dose of LGBT activism in Vietnam recently, with the celebration of its 4th Viet Pride. Effective from 2017, the country’s civil code will allow legal gender reassignment for transgender people, a big step in advancing individual rights. Since 2012, Hanoi’s Pride has been accompanied by art and culture events, mainly thanks to Queer Forever, a growing festival initiated by artist Nguyen Quoc Tan. Queer Forever organises exhibitions, concerts and conferences, often in liaison with international cultural centres. Satellite events also pop up. Pop culture enthusiasts may wish to browse Vanguard, an art zine made by the Vietnamese LGBTQ community.
Twenty years earlier, Vietnamese artist Truong Tan was making room for homosexual imagery in a conservative art world. Before moving to Paris in 1997 to develop his career, Truong Tan was able to create some homoerotic artworks and make performances that critiqued social restrictions in Vietnam. Even if national censorship reduced public exposure to his visual activism, there was sufficient attention gained from the controversy to generate a lasting impact amongst artists. Truong Tan helped to widen an understanding of same-sex love, even inspiring heterosexuals who initially said they felt his work didn’t relate to them, to rethink the ways in which norms and barriers affect their daily lives, and to push for more freedoms.
8. Vu Ngoc Dang
Homosexual love is beautifully present in Truong Tan’s paintings of recent years. The budding Vietnamese film industry, meanwhile, had great success with a homosexual love story, that predictably elicited much controversy but was not prevented from being shown in mainstream cinemas nationwide. The film Hot Boy Noi Loan (Lost in Paradise) is a 2011 drama directed by Vu Ngoc Dang. It features a gay couple and other marginal characters, who express love, have fun, suffer rejections and work through life muddling through adversities and absurdities, ultimately giving hope to all that things do get better.
9. Thai artist Michael Shaowanasai, Yasumasa Morimura and Japanese queer
In nearby Thailand, Michael Shaowanasai turned to art in the late 1990s. He created a popular, gleeful body of work, often populated with gender-bending self-representations. Historically, Thailand had a more tolerant attitude to gender fluidity than Vietnam. And seemingly more so than Japan, on the surface, although Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura (b. 1951) had set a precedent for Shaowanasai’s cross-dressing self-portraits. For thirty years Morimura has disguised himself with outfits much more showy than Tseng Kwong Chi’s ‘uniform’. Morimura transforms himself into characters from well-known artworks, making gender changes quite acceptable because they reference sources from art history’s canon. The queer is thus neatly subsumed by the hegemonic status quo, and much more digestible for mainstream acceptance.
One wonders if Morimura had posed with less clothes on (Shaowanasai has photographed nudes), if he would have experienced censorship. Feminist artist Megumi Igarashi (a.k.a. Rokudenashiko) was arrested in Japan in 2014 for creating artworks shaped like her vagina. Her work sailed the world on social media shares, thanks to the vagina-shaped canoe that she made with a 3D printer. Her activism is trying to demystify female genitalia, in a country that paradoxically holds a penis festival every year. But queer issues go deeper than the appearance of people or their private parts.
Every three years, Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum holds the Roppongi Crossing art exhibition. The survey of contemporary art from Japan this year had a section titled Gender in the Future, where the works of Hasegawa Ai provide a vision of happy homosexual families, complete with genetically enhanced children. Artist Miyagi Futoshi (b. 1981) travels backwards before looking into the future. He has reflected on the homophobia he feared in his native Okinawa, and has developed his research into works that deal with family history and the personal bonds formed by strangers during wartime, interlacing disparate stories into a smooth but complex weave.
10. Fan Popo
Another thirty-year-old who also takes his research seriously is Fan Popo, a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy. Author of the book Happy Together: Complete Record of a Hundred Queer Films (2007, Beifang Wenyi Press), he learns from the best, but chooses director Wong Kar-wai as the source of inspiration for his book title.
Fan Popo’s film production is incessant. Chinese Closet (2009), Mama Rainbow (2012) and Papa Rainbow (2016) are just half of his queer-themed films made to date. These three examples deal with issues of coming out, from the points of view of those outing themselves, and the relatives and friends receiving the news. Down-to-earth, Fan Popo doesn’t think a documentary can speak for a collective, warning that the positive stories in his films are often the exception rather than the rule. He says that film is not life, but he does think that it can change people’s minds.
His opinion is that films incite us to empathise with the struggles of others and help us to abandon prejudices, a wise viewpoint from the person who also directs the Beijing Queer Film Festival. To share his message of hope, Fan Popo made Mama Rainbow available on streaming sites in China, but is now having to sue because the film was inexplicably taken down. Hollywood film Brokeback Mountain (directed by Ang Lee) was banned in China until 2005, but Fan Popo was given license to show Mama Rainbow, and he seems determined to continue disseminating his documentaries to raise awareness.
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This mysterious disappearance of a film that had passed the censorship board and shown worldwide is a fitting end to a brief journey on queer culture that has illustrated both proud and assertive attitudes along with discrimination and fear. Research is growing, exhibitions with queer topics are happening more frequently worldwide, and laws are changing. This cursory look at recent visual productions spanning the long arc from India to China leaves out many artists, works and organisations, but shows that Asia is bursting with energy and drive to act against intolerance and invisibility of LGBTQ issues.
- Art to provoke: Japan’s irreverent artist Tadasu Takamine – artist profile – August 2016 – Art Radar profiles provocative Japanese artist Tadasu Takamine, whose work is on show for the first time in Taiwan at Taipei’s TKG+ Projects
- A feminine look at Saudi Arabia’s “GENERA#ION” at Minnesota Street Project, San Francisco – August 2016 – Art Radar profiles the work of the five female artists on display in the show “Genera#ion”, showcasing Saudi Arabian art at Minnesota Street Project, San Fransisco
- Eros, Life and Death: the photography of Japan’s Nobuyoshi Araki at Musée Guimet, Paris – August 2016 – A major retrospective at Musée Guimet in Paris delineates 50 years of Japanese photographer Nobuyoshi Araki’s career
- Under the veil: tales of love, loss and memory by Vietnamese photographer Phan Quang – July 2016 – Vietnamese artist and photographer Phan Quang uses photography, props, real life characters and stories to stage images that speak of socio-political history as well as personal stories of life, love and loss in Vietnam
- Truth is Beauty: Indian modernist Bhupen Khakhar at Tate Modern, London – July 2016 – The Tate Modern brings together Indian modernist Buphen Khakhar’s work from across five decades and collections around the world for the first time since his death
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