February is LGBT History Month – a national initiative focused on recognising lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, their lives and experiences, and promoting equality. Marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and the birth of the modern Pride movement, this year a number of galleries and museums, from London to Liverpool and Birmingham to Brighton, are running talks, exhibitions, film screenings and workshops to highlight previously hidden or unknown LGBT histories in their collections. (This includes OCA student Michael Colvin’s forthcoming exhibition, which he discussed in a previous post.)
LGBT artists have faced enduring issues such as censorship, discrimination and persecution (as Richard Meyer has outlined in his influential book Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth Century Art). Although in recent years things have improved (Tate Britain’s ground-breaking and popular 2017 exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967 is a case in point), there is still some way to go to redress the exclusion of LGBT art from the canon of western art history.
A few key LGBT artists you may not know (or may know very well!) include the French Surrealist-inspired Claude Cahun (best known for her non-gender specific photomontages and self-portraits), David Hockney, controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie, and film-maker, artist and gay rights campaigner Derek Jarman. (Jarman’s sketchbooks, published by Thames & Hudson, are full of drawings, poems, photographs, and pressed flowers, and are works of art in themselves.)
Contemporary pieces by Prem Sahib, Wolfgang Tilmans, and the photographer and ‘visual activist’ Zanele Muholi are also striking. The latter’s ongoing Faces and Phases project – a collection of portraits making visible black lesbian and transgender individuals in South Africa – resists dominant understandings of gender, race and sexuality and embraces marginality.
In 2018, a study conducted by LGBT rights charity Stonewall discovered that two in five LGBT students at bricks and mortar universities had hidden their identity for fear of discrimination. The picture in the open and distance learning sector is unclear, but this month is a time to think about where we go from here. OCA has a legacy of celebrating difference and self-expression, and of fostering an inclusive learning environment that it is really proud of, but it knows there is always more it can do to increase LGBT visibility across its work. That includes continuing to engender feelings of connection, belonging and community among its diverse student body, so that everyone has the confidence to be open about themselves and express their ideas, free from the fear of bullying or ridicule.
The arts provide an incredible opportunity to break down barriers and promote understanding. As Susan Stryker notes, they emphasise why we should all value the freedom of ‘moving across socially imposed boundaries from unchosen starting places’.
Claude Cahun, Self-portrait, 1928 © Jersey Heritage Collection
Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks. Courtesy Thames & Hudson
Zanele Muholi, Vredehoek, Cape Town, 2011 © Zanele Muholi
Listen to this Article