Coming Out: Sexuality, Gender and Identity

Walker Art Gallery

COMING OUT has been heralded as a landmark exhibition for the Walker Art Gallery, it comprises the most comprehensive and largest exhibition of contemporary LGBT+ art in the UK. According to its curator, Charlotte Keenan, it constitutes one of the most important showcases in the Walker’s history. Curators will inevitably sing the praises of their own exhibition, but, however grandiose this statement may seem, in this case, it is merited.

The exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967, which saw the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality (“in private between two men above the age of 21”). The necessity to fully explain the particulars of the Act serves to indicate the slow progress of change, equality in the eyes of the law has been incremental, the right to same sex marriage did not arrive until decades later. And still today prejudice and discrimination remain pervasive throughout society.

The array and diversity of artists on display, who utilise their work to explore themes of sexuality and gender identity, reflects the fact that there is not a singular, overarching narrative that all too often is presented by traditional art historical accounts. This is one of the ways in which the exhibition is progressive and refreshing.

In addition, it is not merely a showcase exhibition made with the sole purpose of taking advantage of the publicity that will inevitably come from aligning an exhibition with a landmark anniversary. In fact, the exhibition is the culmination of two years of in-depth research, drawing on both the Arts Council’s and the Walker’s collections, as well as purchasing several new acquisitions. These acquisitions seek to transmute the incomplete narrative that has previously been presented; Keenan has suggested that the exhibition strives to correct the omissions of history and highlight institutional blind spots.

The Walker’s process for highlighting and examining queer history has not relied purely on new acquisitions, it has also undertaken a process of re-examination and re-presentation of the collection that already hangs in the gallery. The clearest example of this can be seen with one of the most recognisable, iconic works of the Walker’s collection; David Hockney’s Peter Getting Out Of Nick’s Pool. The piece is on permanent display at the Walker and once again takes centre stage, though this time, the narrative and the relationship between artist and subject is explicitly outlined as partners rather than the “friends” that had often been used to describe their relationship previously. The painting is particularly poignant in that it won the John Moores Painting Prize in 1967, the same year as the passing of the Act.

Coming Out is an important step in the recognition of queer cultural history and its impact on society, one that aims to permanently impact both the public consciousness and the way in which institutions present the narrative of history

One of the more striking and arguably one of the most important pieces of the exhibition is one of these new acquisitions, John Walter’s Alien Sex Club, based on the artist’s exhibition of the same name, which includes a performance piece of tarot card readings by Barbara Truvada. The tarot deck employs imagery associated with sexuality and cultural transmission. The four suits include the bugchasers, the giftgivers, the barebackers and the serosorters, using the urban mythology and negative stereotypes surrounding HIV and its transmission. Walter also aims to dispel these myths; perhaps the most important aspect of the piece is Walter’s highlighting of the drug PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) which significantly reduces the risk of contracting HIV (up to 86%). PrEP is still little known amongst the wider public and has had a difficult journey in the UK, it was announced as late as August of this year that PrEP would be funded by the NHS (with an initial three-year trial) but only after a lengthy battle and a High Court ruling in favour of the National AIDs Trust, who have been fighting for the NHS to fund the drug. Clearly, there are prejudices that need fighting and lengths to go in order to achieve equality in a greater sense. To have an institution as respected as the Walker display work of this nature and the exposure it can bring to a subject is imperative to bring about awareness and understanding.

Coming Out is an important step in the recognition of queer cultural history and its impact on society, one that aims to permanently impact both the public consciousness and the way in which institutions present the narrative of history.


Coming Out runs at the Walker Art Gallery until 5th November. Image used above is From Sodomy to Intimacy (2015) by John Walter.

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