Exploring sexuality and identity through art

Looking at upcoming, ongoing, and past exhibitions that have dealt sensitively and effectively with the theme of alternative gender and sexualities.

by Georgina Maddox Published on : Nov 05, 2019

In many countries across the globe, gender and sexuality tend to remain topics of taboo and do not make for good drawing room conversation. It is also quite surprising to note that even in the world of art, the cognoscenti are still hedging their bets when it comes to exhibiting art that breaks the gender binary and talks of alternative sexuality. This, despite the booming sales reported in auction rooms for artists like Bhupen Khakhar, whose Two Men in Benares set a new record for the late artist at INR 22.39 crore at Sotheby's Auction in June 2019.

However, when it comes to showcasing young talent, it often falls upon the LGBTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer) community to push the envelope and create spaces that are safe, inclusive, and at the same time public platforms for showcasing issues around gender and sexuality. Over a period of time things have become more progressive, and alternative spaces like the TIFA Working Studios, a multi-disciplinary platform for creativity and culture, has stepped up to promote young artists and curators.

One such project was Label-less, The Futures of Sexuality, curated by Aditi Rakhe, with Curatorial Partner Godrej India Culture Lab, and Associate Sponsor, The Humsafar Trust. They unfurled their programme that concluded on September 29, 2019, and created quite a buzz in Pune, Maharashtra. The festival featured the works of Aditya Verma (New Delhi), Chaitanya Modak (Pune), Clare Chong (Singapore), Isha Itwala (Vadodara), Ishita Savla (Mumbai), Lipika Bhargava (New Delhi), Nachiket Prakash (Pune), Sandeep TK (Bengaluru), Sandrine Deumier (France), Surabhi Chowdhary (Kolkata) and Zander Porter (USA).

The conversation about sexuality has been heavily shied away from in India in the recent past despite our rich histories in sexual and gender understandings. It is about time we stop blushing about it and address sexuality as its implications go beyond dating. Sexuality affects everything from interpersonal relationships and perception of individual selves to youth culture and popular culture.

The Anthropoid Within I, LED Lightbox, hand print on paper, mirror, Surabhi Chowdhary at Label-less, The Futures of Sexuality, curated by Aditi Rakhe | Futures of Sexuality | STIRworld
The Anthropoid Within I, LED Lightbox, hand print on paper, mirror, Surabhi Chowdhary at Label-less, The Futures of Sexuality, curated by Aditi Rakhe Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFA Working Studios

Futures of Sexuality is about contextualising our present understanding of sexual and gender performatives and spectrums, and speculating where our interpersonal relationships will go, especially with respect to digital spaces. In short, how do we date, love and form relationships now and how does the future singleton navigate the dating and relationship pool? What are the possibilities for dating and relationships in the coming centuries? How will our great-grandchildren understand gender and sexuality?”, writes Rakhe.

Verma’s work is both photographic and performance-based, and his expression deals with same-sex eroticism. “Culturally, India as a country has greatly influenced me, and I hope to educate myself and other people about the art that currently belongs to our country, which may not fall under the purview of the mainstream, and hence, is not recognised as our ‘own art’ by the masses. Overall, there have been many developments, influences, and instances that have made me the artist I am today,” says Verma.

Exhibition view of Untitled, photo-art work, Ishita, The Futures of Sexuality, curated by Aditi Rakhe | Futures of Sexuality | STIRworld
Exhibition view of Untitled, photo-art work, by Ishita at Label-less, The Futures of Sexuality, curated by Aditi Rakhe Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFA Working Studios

The works of Clare Chong, an artist and short filmmaker from Singapore, ponder on minute moments, snippets of reality and dream fragments. This is known for her works concerned with issues prevalent in mundane life; the wink of an eye, the slight curl of the lips, a twitch in the ears. Her subjects are often quiet outcasts of society we don’t pay attention to, and her works challenge the viewers’ means of gazing and observing. “To what extent do we impose our preconceived notions, judgments, and opinions onto an image?”

We'll Wait, soft pastels and water colour on paper by Lipika Bhargava, painting at The Futures of Sexuality, curated by Aditi Rakhe | Futures of Sexuality | STIRworld
We'll Wait, soft pastels and water colour on paper by Lipika Bhargava, at Label-less, The Futures of Sexuality, curated by Aditi Rakhe Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFA Working Studios

At TIFA, the Centre lays the foundation for enriched public interactions among the varied layers of the social fabric to drive local dialogue and engagement through its many events and festivals. The Residency facilitates experimentation with an atmosphere of collaboration, research and making through critical discussion and feedback. The Institute is an alternative educational programme designed to promote creative and entrepreneurial thinking. The mentorship module for students provides an innovative learning experience through a unique pedagogical process.

Aditya Verma shows around visitors at Label-less, The Futures of Sexuality, curated by Aditi Rakhe | Futures of Sexuality | STIRworld
Aditya Verma shows around visitors at Label-less, The Futures of Sexuality, curated by Aditi Rakhe Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFA Working Studios

On another note, artist T. Venkanna’s exhibition Love Me premiered at Gallery Maskara in Mumbai in September, and now it is being hosted in Paris at gallery Maximiliano Modesti. The Baroda-based Venkanna’s art transcends the profane reality, to create a world of symbolic meaning. “In his works - the depiction of violence and sexual appetites are used as tropes to examine far-reaching concerns. The longings, pleasures and frustrations wrought by love, the awareness that gender does not derive naturally from the biological sex of the individual. The representation of sexual exuberance and varied ways to love – all manifestations of potent life energy that a society striving for control frequently seeks to dispel,” writes Sonia Nazareth of Venkanna’s work in her catalogue essay.

T Venkanna, Black Moon, 2019, pencil and hand embroidery on linen, with frame: 57 x 50.75 x 1.25 inches | Love Me | STIRworld
T Venkanna, Black Moon, 2019, pencil and hand embroidery on linen, with frame: 57 x 50.75 x 1.25 inches Image Credit: Courtesy of Gallerie Maskara; copyright: T Venkanna

In works like Circle of Love, we see same-sex individuals celebrate their connection in a subversive manifestation of non-reproductive sexuality. But naturally known for his wicked sense of humour, Venkanna inserts several puns into the landscape of desire that is rife with imagery of verdant lush gardens, suggestive fruits and tropical vegetation that provide the perfect backdrop where his protagonists may gambol in freedom, giving expression to that which is pleasurable, sexual and experimental. His work reveals aspects of life that a ‘rational’ society might like to conceal. Amid the harmony of nature, whose colours reveal a hedonistic sumptuousness and in the centre is the ‘high-jacked’ image of Gauguin’s Tahitian Girl. Plucked from the Spirit of the Dead Watching (1892), she infiltrates this tropical paradise to contemplate a world that has broken free of hegemonic control and reveling in pleasure. 

T Venkanna, Circle of Love, 2019, pencil and hand embroidery on linen, with frame: 80 x 87.5 x 2 inches | Love Me | Artist| STIRworld
T Venkanna, Circle of Love, 2019, pencil and hand embroidery on linen, with frame: 80 x 87.5 x 2 inches Image Credit: Courtesy of Gallerie Maskara; copyright: T Venkanna

The artist has long explored how alienation, boredom and fetishism are becoming default states in affluent consumer society. In Living Doll, a man and woman are together, yet apart. The only thing connecting them is the inanimate doll, from which they seek distraction and intimacy. Further he takes the notion of spiritual homelessness in Weeping Angel, where the male and female figure, symbolically castrate each other. That the figures are headless is indicative of the thoughtlessness behind these violent acts. Overhead, the angels re-purposed from Giotto’s c.1306 fresco The Lamentation, grieve. A palm tree lies barren. Heaven and earth are conjoined in sorrow at the horror of war. Venkanna thus expands the realm of sexuality to encompass the epic and the mythological. His is an art that truly moves beyond boundaries.

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About Author

Georgina Maddox

Georgina Maddox

Maddox is an independent critic-curator with 18-years-experience in the field of Indian art and culture. She blurs the lines of documentation, theory and praxis by involving herself in visual art projects. Besides writing on immersive art for STIR World, she is a regular contributor for The Hindu and Architectural Digest.

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