This week is Transgender Awareness Week, an annual celebration of trans lives from 13 – 19 November. It is an opportunity to educate and unite in solidarity to support a community that is still much maligned and misunderstood. Over the past two years, I have working towards the same goal as the proud recipient of an Art Fund New Collecting Award to improve the representation of trans and non-binary artists and key allies in the permanent collection of the V&A. I have so far purchased 16 works by 8 artists and have two months remaining to make the final purchases before publishing a full report in the new year. In honour of this week, I would like to share a couple of tantalising purchases in advance of the final fanfare.
These fabulous tiles are one of the newest acquisitions in the whole museum so look out for their appearance in the Ceramics galleries soon. Rachael House is a London and Kent based artist who has been a central figure in the world of queer and feminist zines since the 1990s. More recently she has developed a fine art ceramics practice, making remarkable genderqueer deities and Oranges are not the only fruit bowls among other extraordinary objects. House is an ally who has made LGBTQ rights, especially bisexual visibility, central to her practice. Other tiles in the series include Welcome Gender Outlaws which honours Kate Bornstein, one of the leading transgender activists and authors in the world.
This is a life-size linocut self-portrait from a series of three entitled ‘Before’, ‘During’, and ‘After’. Uniquely textured, it was made using a piece of the artist’s studio floor over the pandemic lockdown. In an interview with Art Plugged, they said “As a trans person I’ve spent an unbelievable amount of time considering my body and being hyper aware of how I’m perceived. For the first time I had a moment to exist outside of constant scrutiny, I had the pleasure of confronting just me.” (Hind Berji, Emerging Artists: Khaleb Brooks and the Freeing Body, 20 April 2021)
Brooks has recently been unearthing the history of a community icon, William Dorsey Swann. Born into slavery in Maryland in 1860, by the 1890s Swann became the first known American on record to pursue a legal action defending LGBTQ community spaces and the right for the community to gather after being released from a prison sentence for keeping a ‘disorderly house’ where queer people would meet and drag queens would bring the party. It was called The House of Swann. The mainstream has become increasingly familiar with Black queer ballroom culture and parlance, particularly since the film Paris is Burning (1990), its subsequent fictionalisation with Pose (2018–), and the phenomenal success of RuPaul’s television empire. Due to centuries of attempted erasure and censorship, these communities have roots that go much further back than many realise. Through art interventions like Khaleb’s that delve deeper than the 1980s, the queer history of Black transcestors is in safe hands. In centring their own body in exquisite large-scale prints such as this, and regularly picturing the Black queer communities they share connections with, Brooks is enriching the contemporary canon in a myriad of ways.
My third artist to celebrate this week is Bex Wade, a photographer whose work will be familiar to readers of VICE and British Vogue. They started their career around 2000 documenting nightclubs and parties throughout the LGBTQI+ scenes in the UK and New York, recording the culture of these much-needed community spaces. Under constant threat of closure due to eye-watering rent rises and the soaring cost of living, many places Bex photographed a decade ago have since been forced to close.
This photograph captures the incomparable force of genderqueer drag performance artist and musician, Christeene, diving into an audience at Glasslands in Brooklyn, 2012. The venue succumbed two years later in a cascade of club closures in New York City. Referencing the trans rock legend Jayne County as a key inspiration, Christeene (the creation of Paul Soileau) has a revolutionary spirit acting as a hard-hitting tonic in these frequently trying times. As community spaces have dwindled, Wade has focused their attention increasingly to the street documenting queer joy, rage, and gay abandon at Prides and protests around the world.
Another of Bex’s photographs purchased with Art Fund support has recently gone on display at Young V&A in Bethnal Green. This is believed to be the first time an out trans artist’s work has gone on display in a permanent gallery at the V&A. Many thanks to the Art Fund for supporting these purchases to diversify representation and ensure trans and non-binary artists and narratives have better visibility now and in the future.
Trans Awareness Week culminates in Transgender Day of Remembrance on Monday 20 November, commonly known as TDoR. The event honours the memory of all the trans people whose lives have been lost in acts of transphobic violence this year. We will be holding a small free event in the National Art Library at 16:00 to mark the occasion.