Steering towards new directions: after Sec377

QA Blog: Steering towards new directions: after Sec377

Posted on 20/02/2019
By RJ Yogi, Mirchi Love

Decriminalisation of homosexuality in India will always be an important milestone in LGBTQI history but what’s even more important is acceptance of homosexuality in our society. The onus is on us, content creators to do this in a way that reaches out to a larger audience.

I plan to normalise this conversation by creating content which is easy to understand by people who don’t identify as queer. As I have said in the video, this conversation has to now move to being a conversation one have more freely and widely. Once that begins, Love will be love in true sense.

This video is not just about me, it’s about all of us. Anyone who can relate to that anger, that pain, that helplessness which came along with that archaic law that made us criminals, the crime being love.

Text:
Sardiyon ki baarish
aur garmiyon ki dhoop tha woh,
Mere sach ko jhootha karde ,
Waise wala jhooth tha woh,

Aadhar pe likha galat naam tha woh,
90`s ki Filmon mein jo villain karta,
Waisa ganda kaam tha woh,

Kaafi Unfair tha,
Bina sar pair tha,
Par Innocent ko criminal bana de,
Aisa usmein dare tha.

Thankfully ab woh nahin raha,
Lekin uska bhoot, woh aaj bhi aas paas hai,
Raj Rahul se ya Tina Anjali se kare pyaar,
To janta aaj bhi naraaz hai.

News channel se ab is pyaar ko saas bahu tak laana hai,
Love is Love kehna kaafi simple hai,
Lekin abhi is baat ko, bohot door tak jaana hai…

Translation by Brut.:

It was like the winter rain
And the summer heat.
It was a lie that could falsify my truth.

Like an error in my Aadhaar name.
something a 90s’ villain would do…
it was such an ugly act.

It was very unfair.
It had no meaning.
It dared to make a criminal out of an innocent person.

Thankfully, it’s not around anymore.
But its ghost continues to haunt us.
If Raj loves Rahul, and Tina loves Anjali,
then the people still get angry.

From news channel, we need to bring it to our daily soaps.
It’s easy to say, “Love is love.”
But this issue has a lot of ground to cover.

Building Blocks: Laks Mann and Gaysians

QA Blog Series: Building Blocks 1 – Building a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community in the UK.

Posted on 18/02/2019 Written by Laks Mann for the QA Blog Series “Building Blocks – Building a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community in the UK curated by QA Co-founder J. Daniel Luther.

Join QA and Queer@King’s for a panel on Building a LGBT Community in the UK on 22nd Feb 2019 at KCL, Strand Campus (7-8pm) – Free Tickets here.

The founding of Gaysians and the motivation behind forming this collective.

I’d been out as a gay desi guy for several years and had volunteered with various BAME/POC LGBTIQ+ community initiatives.  However, I always felt a slight disconnect with the South Asian queer scene and community. I just hadn’t met many folx who felt comfortable fully embracing their desi queer identities.

That all changed in 2013, when I went along to a workshop as part of the Alchemy Festival at the Southbank Centre.  It was organised by Bobby Tiwana entitled ‘Beneath The Surface‘. It told theatrical stories inspired by British Asian lesbian, gay and bisexual lives so as to increase visibility and move away from stereotypical cultural portrayals, which all too often were mostly limited to stereotypes. For the first time I felt like I’d connected with a like minded soul on multiple levels. Bobby and I went on to become good friends and kept in touch with various projects, constantly bouncing around new ideas and concepts for future events.

Bagri LIFF
Closing Night Panel. Credit: Laks Mann, Bagri Foundation LIFF

In 2014, Bobby Tiwana returned to the Alchemy Festival with a panel discussion called ‘The Love That Knows Much Shame – can you be both LGBT and South Asian in Britain today?’ By now, the discussions between Bobby and I had begun to revolve around creating a movement, pushing for greater visibility, marching in pride parades, and celebrating our desi queer identities more boldly.  Later that year, Bobby registered a marching group for the Pride in London parade called ‘Proud Asian LGBTQ & Allies’ which I fully mobilised behind.

Pride+Group+2015
Marching group in Pride in London, 2015. Credits: Bobby Tiwana

Then in 2015 and again at the Alchemy Festival, Bobby Tiwana took it up a notch with a cafe style interactive event entitled ‘Making Progress or Losing Ground: LGBT Asia‘ which took the discussions further and wider.  Soon after I co-signed the second outing of the marching group ‘Proud Asian LGBTQ & Allies’ in the Pride in London parade.  After that summer I decided that my own personal project would be bigger, bolder and something that had not been done in the UK before.  I was going to create Gaysians, a platform to mainstream South Asian LGBT+ visibility.
So later in 2015, I met with some of the then Board Directors of Pride in London and discussed my plans – to form a collective of artists, activists, charities, and organisations, united under a new concept called Gaysians.

I vowed this new platform would be ready for launch at Pride in London 2017.  I then spent the next 2 years contacting desi queer community groups and individuals, following up leads, arranging meetings and phonecalls, and reaching out to as many people as I could in my spare time building on the framework and consolidating the network I had pulled together.

 

Of particular note, I was always determined to launch Gaysians at Pride in 2017. On a personal level, it marked the 70th anniversary of India’s partition and independence which also resulted in the colonial penal code including the oppressive S377 (now decriminalised) continuing into the newly formed democracy. 2017 was also the same year when the UK would be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in England & Wales.  This juxtaposition of anniversaries galvanised something within me, a British born gay guy of Indian heritage who enjoyed legal protections and social freedoms in the country of my birth, yet who would be a deemed a criminal if in my motherland, all because of laws inherited by my birth country!

IMG-20170708-WA0039
Gaysians at Pride in London, 2017. Credit: Yanika Chauhan

The work of Gaysians in the the queer British Asian community.

A lot of people in the queer British Asian community had some links with others, but to me it was largely a word of mouth thing. The community never fully transcended beyond regions and the visibility of desi queers just wasn’t cutting through to the stagnant narratives taking place within our wider South Asian communities.

Around the same time, I had sensed that desi queers were starting to become more confident, vocal and visible with some really great work being done by many pioneers.  Though to me it still felt that some of these efforts were niche, underground and simply weren’t getting the recognition from the wider LGBT+ community that they deserved.

Gaysians was to be the platform that connected all these islands together.  Not only in physical settings such as pride parades and social events, but also online and across various social media platforms.  That sense of building a community was key, the sum of the parts being greater than each separate island.

 

I wanted as many people as possible to connect with each other so that collectively we could visibly demonstrate how united, important, and influential the queer British Asian community were becoming.  It was all about creating a movement.

My journey though this process.

I was lucky to meet so many amazing and talented people on this journey – some of whom I asked to come on board and become part of the core team as I knew they had skills which the movement needed.

I’ve also grown so much over the past few years, and have truly learned loads while being made aware of so many other people’s inspiring stories along the way.  Through these discussions and more, I’ve come to learn and acknowledge the privileges that I have, being male, gay, cisgendered, and having an open and accommodating family who have been accepting towards my sexuality.

 

 

There have also been so many personal highlights on my journey with Gaysians:

  • leading the marching group at Pride in London 2017
  • deciding to launch a woman’s platform for our first event in 2018 which we branded ‘Desi Lesbians – where are you?‘, which got picked up by WOW Festival
  • being a panelist at Too Desi Too Queer events discussing mental health and well-being
  • forging a partnership with BFI Flare for ‘Brown Is The Warmest Colour’ screenings
  • building a mainstream partnership with The Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival and hosting their closing gala film Q&A discussing ‘transgender and sexuality’ narratives
  • being a flag bearer for the giant rainbow flag at Pride in London 2018 and subsequently being invited to speak on the main stage in Trafalgar Square to thousands of people
  • speaking as a panelist about S377 and desi queer narratives at a charity launch attended by 150 influential business and community leaders from London’s South Asian community
  • conducting 3 live radio interviews with BBC Asian Network regional shows from within the grounds of UK Black Pride 2018
  • being invited in as the opening speaker at the inaugural South Asian LGBTI Conference 2018
  • appearing as a speaker at Stonewall’s BAME Showcase 2018 event, which coincided with the day when the Indian Supreme Court decriminalised S377 of the Indian Penal Code
  • to numerous other radio phone-ins, interviews and appearances.
Laks Pride in London 2017.jpg
Laks Mann addressing the crowd at Pride in London, 2018. Credit: Sasha McCarthy

Imagining the future of Asian queer communities in the UK.

I truly do believe that there has been a ground shift over the past few years and that narratives are starting to cut through with Gaysians playing a central role in mobilising those efforts.  Whilst some within our community are expecting there to be earthquakes of change, my personal belief is that the movement has firmly taken hold, it’s not about any one individual, organisation or particular group, and that younger generations will be bolder, braver and more vocal in their visibility.  I think the combined power of Asian queers in the UK still has some way to go.

I think we will also see more narratives from underrepresented Asian queer voices such as bisexuals, trans and non-binary individuals, much like in the wider global movement of queer narratives.

 

One area that I’m intrigued about is whether we will see more UK desi queer individuals coming out later in life, perhaps those who had previously entered into heterosexual marriages, had children and maybe even grandchildren.

‘Queer’ Asia’s influence/motivation. 

I’m inspired by the name alone — ‘Queer’ Asia —I love it!

QA 18
Getting a tour of QA’s first ever art exhibition at the Paul Webley Wing in SOAS during QA2018. Credit: ‘Queer’ Asia. Artwork: Jay Cabalu, Curator: Rhea Tuli (featured)

I discovered QA in the Pride in London Festival 2016 programme and was fascinated by the concept. I simply had to know more so attended the inaugural conference and was blown away by the sheer breadth of speakers, countries and queer topics being discussed.  A few weeks later I reached out to QA for an after work chat over chai, where I was keen to learn more about their work, and to see if I could bring them on board into the Gaysians partner network I was building. It was such a refreshing conversation and I was truly inspired by  their commitment. I knew that QA were going to make big waves and I was so pleased to gain QA’s support for my parade application when I registered Gaysians as a marching group for Pride in London 2017. On the day itself, having QA volunqueers in the marching group was extra special and like everyone else, they had a blast.

I continue to be motivated by QA and have attended all 3 conferences, both film festivals, numerous satellite events, and art exhibitions.  I’ve watched the QA collective grow stronger and seen their unique star(s) shine bigger and brighter, such a talented and committed team. I’ve also really enjoyed collaborating with QA on events, including the Gaysians partnerships for the ‘Queer’ Asia Film Festival 2018, alongside Bagri Foundation London Indian Film Festival, and both Too Desi Too Queer events.

I can truly say I’ve made many new friends and connections along the way and I will continue to support QA where I can.

 

Continue reading “Building Blocks: Laks Mann and Gaysians”

Inheritance – Alexandra D’Sa

QA Blog Series: Doubly Others – Queers of Colour in the Diaspora

Posted on 15/01/2019 Written by Alexandra D’Sa for the QA Blog Series “Doubly Others – Queers of Colour in the Diaspora” curated by QA2019 Committee Member Misha.

Inheritance

Identity. It’s ironic that a word so many use to convey their uniqueness, or more commercially, their ‘USP’, has an etymological root meaning ‘the same’. Or maybe not. Because whilst I have my own unique identity, each category I identify with has an associated community of like-minded people.

Lesbian
Female
British
Indian
Friends-enthusiast

And yes, in that order.

I encourage you all, as you’re reading this blog, to do the same thing. Write down the top 5 ways you identify yourself, and then rank them. As a little experiment, ask one family member, one friend, and one relatively new acquaintance to identify you. I guarantee that even if all the categories are the same, the order will be different.

You see, identity is always relative.

If I meet someone for the first time, I imagine the first thing they notice about me is the fact that I present as female, and that I have brown skin. This seems completely alien to me because (and try not to let my intense vulnerability become any kind of a factor here) growing up, sometimes when I looked in the mirror, I was genuinely surprised by the fact that I was brown.

Don’t get me wrong, my whole family are brown so it’s not like I had no point of reference. It might be because my family are Catholic, and churches tend to be majority white spaces in England. It’s probably because I was born in South East London and raised in the whitest of white suburbs (ex-headquarters of the BNP-kind-of-white). But maybe, just maybe, it also has a tiny bit to do with the fact that I’ve always known I was a lesbian.

I had no queer brown role models in my family, on television, or in any kind of history I learned about.

I had no queer brown role models in my family, on television, or in any kind of history I learned about. The LGBT+ figures I grew up with were Ellen DeGeneres, Anna Friel in Brookside, Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and the whole Bloomsbury group. Is it a wonder, then, that so many queer people of colour grow up feeling isolated from their family – the first ‘community’ most of us truly know? Is it a surprise that so many of us feel like we have to leave that community in order to be a part of the LGBT+ community that, in theory, is supposed to embrace the oddballs, the outsiders, the square pegs in round holes?

Examining my own journey, I really tried to understand what it was about the ‘coming out process’ that was so hard for me. Why was I so afraid? I suppose, like any kid, I was afraid of being different. And like any human, I was afraid of rejection and isolation from my friends and family. But if I’m honest with myself, I knew that my friends would be fine, and that my parents would be, too – they’d grown up with George Michael for crying out loud. Deep down, what I was truly afraid of, was that my grandparents would disown me.

Examining my own journey, I really tried to understand what it was about the ‘coming out process’ that was so hard for me.

For context, I have three living grandparents. These three grandparents are my world. I speak to them every single day. I try and see them every week. They moved to this country in the mid 60s from East Africa, also having immigrated to that part of the world when they were young adults. For most people who make the journey over here from another country, they do so striving to create the best life for themselves and for the rest of their family. As part of a school project when I was 18, I had to ask someone close to me what the happiest moment in their life was. I asked my grandma – and her response was as follows:

“I see all my children in jobs, married with children, and my grandchildren happy and healthy – that’s my happiness. I don’t need anything else”.

It might sound cliché. It might sound like someone wrote that as part of a 90s rom-com. But, it’s absolutely true. And whilst it is a lovely sentiment, it’s also probably why I was so nervous to come out to them as a lesbian. I don’t know whether to call it an ‘expectation’, but there was certainly this sense of …these people came here to give their family an easier life, and here I am making things ‘harder’ for myself. Of course, logically, that is not the case. It’s much harder to live a lie than it is to live your truth. And they probably came here to give their family a ‘better’ life instead of an easier one – and as any queer person can tell you, there ain’t no party like an LGBTQ party.

But.

No matter how removed we think we are, no matter if grandparents or parents no longer play a role in your decision making, the inherited weight of expectation is still there. There is this invisible energy, this hope, that we try and live up to. It took me a long time to get over that. And it didn’t happen with coming out to my grandparents (my parents did that for me, much to my eternal gratitude, because I was too nervous). I don’t even think I’ve shaken it off to this day – a grown up, adult married woman. I still feel this duty to be the best granddaughter, the best version of myself I can be for them. But maybe, sometimes, that’s not such a bad thing.

dscf8536Alexandra D’Sa is an actress, writer, and producer from London, with a background in Financial Services and Technology. She studied English Literature at The University of Exeter and Vassar College, New York, and received her Postgraduate degree in Acting from Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. Alex’s credits include: Ackley Bridge and Eastenders, and she creates her own content to serve the queer community. Alex’s ancestors hailed from Goa, an ex-Portuguese colony in India. 

Continue reading “Inheritance – Alexandra D’Sa”

QA2018 Report

by Kavana Ramaswamy, Lawyer and Academic

Kavana Ramaswamy is an Assistant Professor at Jindal Global Law School. She has worked as a Research Associate at the Azim Premji University. She has co-authored a book (The President of India and the Governance of Higher Education Institutions) in 2015, a paper on critical analyses of family law cases at the UK Supreme Court in the Cambridge Journal of International and Comparative Law in 2014 and was involved with the publication of a legal handbook entitled ‘Know Your Rights’ published by School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, India in collaboration with Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, Germany in 2011. Her areas of interest and specialisation include public international law, legal theory, human rights, queer theory and international humanitarian law.

Our report covers a few of the sessions on some days at QA2018: Bodies X Borders. The report is not an exhaustive overview of everything at the conference and film festival.

QA Art

QA 2018: Bodies X Borders took forward ‘Queer’ Asia’s engagement to questions of migration, class, race, and their effects on queer bodies. While the theme directly speaks to issues relating to the migration of queer and Asian people, the conference explored other associated ideas. The conference opened with the keynote panel on 26 June 2018. The panel included Vanja Hamzić, Geeta Patel and Suen Yiu-Tung. Hamzić began the panel discussion with querying the role of the state in minding and monitoring borders: its own and the borders within which people are expected to operate. Arguing that gender non-conforming bodies subvert border regulations and confront the state by crossing them. Suen addressed the issue of immigration control and the lack of recognition of queer relationships by many states. Suen specifically referred to the Hong Kong judiciary’s recent ruling stating that same-sex couples must be granted the same visa rights as heterosexual ones. Suen argued that the loss of family and state support for one’s relationships destroys the sense of belongingness that is essential to most people. Patel’s opening points moved the discussion into an entirely different area of inquiry: biological and microbial boundaries that we regimentally maintain in our everyday lives. Tying this to narratives of colonisation, she highlighted that our everyday language of extermination of germs and bacteria reinforces the narratives of nationalisms that strive to keep populations ‘clean’ and to eradicate contaminations from the ‘other’. Covering several issues , the keynote panel set the pace for the rest of ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 in exploring different boundaries and their impact on queer bodies in Asia and its diasporas.

Keynote 2
From right to left, Prof. Suen, Dr. Hamzić, Prof. Patel and keynote chair Dr. Abu-Assab

Day 2 of the conference involved several interesting panels and talks. In ‘Sexing the Interstices’, the panelists explored issues of queer existences in highly localised contexts. Preetika (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali) spoke about the everyday lives of the Kothis in Chandigarh. She highlighted the nature of the interstices as essential for queer lives: urbanisation tended to impose new borders on morality and queer existence, while urban villages tended to be more permissive of queer existences, albeit nowhere near co-existence. Yuchen Yang (University of Chicago) spoke about cosplay as one of the sites in which gender is necessarily bent and defied. Cosplayers regularly take on characters of different genders, and their portrayal is strictly scrutinised for fidelity regardless of gender. They are expected to perform with fidelity to the character that they are cosplaying, including taking on behavioural traits of such characters. Jaray Singhakowinta (National Institute of Development Administration, Thailand) added to the discussion by presenting a paper on gay television series in Thailand that reinforce masculinities in the community. Xinlei Sha (University of Cambridge) brought in the question of borders with the issue of immigrant women and sex work in Hong Kong. Sabiha Allouche (SOAS) concluded the panel with a presentation on the rise of homonationalistic islamophobia in the First World. Through all three days of the conference, the art exhibition displayed thought provoking pieces from different Asian artists both from the continent and from the diaspora.

Feet
Still from the Korean performance artist Nayoung Jeong’s performance piece ‘Tracing Body’

The conference also featured talks and lectures such as ‘Mourning in Diaspora and Narrating Queer Asian Melancholia’ a talk by Dr Wen Liu. Liu spoke of queerness as a way of mourning the traumas of racial colonization. Using the solidarity work with the black lives matter movement that Asian queer diasporas had engaged in to demonstrate the importance of intersectionality in mass movements, Liu described the use of visibility as one of the primary and most successful ways of doing politics in queer communities.

‘Queer’ Asia exceeded last year’s mandate to also host a workshop and feature two plays. Pragati Singh from the group Indian Aces conducted a workshop on the nature of sexuality, the asexuality spectrum, the disconnect of asexuality from sex, and understanding the asexuality movement. The workshop facilitated an understanding of the differences between orientation and behavior, identity and preference, and attitudes and politics. Deftly with the use of questions and cross-questions, the workshop involved active participation by the audience to challenge notions of identity and orientation that are largely prevalent even within queer communities.

One of the plays performed at QA, ‘Contempt’ written by Danish Sheikh, ended the packed day. Written from experiences of arguing the case to the Supreme Court bench which re-criminalized same-sex acts in 2013, the play captures the viewers and forces them to feel the agony and the frustration of having to explain things to who are adamant about not wanting to understand. Placing the stubborn judge (played by Dr. Rahul Rao) in the audience, the play subtly criticizes the masses for being complicit in the continued marginalization and ostracism of queer people in India. Watching the lawyer (played by xx) trying to explain the harassment faced by LGBT+ people to an uninterested judge gave one a taste of the exhaustion of the everyday lives of queer people trying to negotiate their lives in hostile communities.

Contempt
Still from ‘Contempt’ at UCL

The final day of the conference did not fall short of the enlightening talks and papers that were presented. In ‘Crossing Public Domains: Space, Affect, Othering’, panelists ventured into issues relating to not just the othering of queer people in society, but the othering of classes within queer spaces as a problem that needed to be considered. Queer theory is intended to assert a lack of consistency in identity, rather than reaffirm permanent identities. Ping Hsuan Wang (Georgetown University) spoke about the shock-associated visibility that is generated by the increasing presence of male nudity in Taiwan’s Pride Parade. While the visibility and the rejection of social mores is desirable, these images gain recognizability in the public sphere and can popularize stereotypes of what it means to be queer, or the one notion of how to be gay, which is less desirable. TH Jason Chao (University of Warwick) gave a demonstration of the lack of security in many gay dating apps and urged people in the queer community to be aware of these issues and remain safe in an increasingly porous world. Nour Almazidi, in her presentation, criticized the neo-colonial narrative of western cultural hegemony as the means of saving the brown queer. The glorification of coming out stories reinforces the oppression of the closet. The conclusion of this panel was that there is a need for queer spaces to be more aware of the different oppressions that are invariably perpetuated in popular queer narratives and be more inclusive of those perceived as ‘others’, even within the community.

FF Closing panel
Closing panel at the Film Festival, from right to left Ghiwa Sayegh, Kit Hung, Dr. Rahul Rao.

At the film festival, Rama Luksiato’s ‘Crossing Bridges’ continued this engagement with inclusion and othering. The film is a wonderful biopic focusing on Rama’s life as a gay man in Indonesia and Canada. The film highlights the fact that while there is marked homophobia in Indonesia, this problem is also existent in western countries, contrary to popular narratives. Parallels are drawn between the treatment of men’s effeminacy in Indonesia with the treatment of Asians as effeminate in the west. For more reviews on the film festival running from 24th June – 29th June.

Later, towards the end of the conference, several representatives of philanthropic organizations held a roundtable on the funding of LGBT activism in Asia. The panelists emphasized the need for accountability in philanthropic projects and the need to involve the youth in these projects in order to ensure sustainable leadership in LGBT movements and communities.

 

 

Feelings for knowledge: Reflecting on bodies, borders, and bacteria at Queer Asia 2018

QA Blog Series: QA18 Bodies X Borders: Reflections on the conference and film festival

Posted on 27/08/2018
Heather Jaber participated in ‘Queer’ Asia Conference 2018.

The work I have been most inspired by draws unconventional links between social contexts, historical periods, and disciplines. William Connolly’s (2008) work, for example, finds parallels between discourses of the evangelist right and US capitalism. Paul Amar’s (2013) The Security Archipelago looks to Cairo and Rio de Janeiro to find similar securitization discourses around particular gendered and classed subjects. Donovan Schaefer (2018) explores the affectivity of secularism, complicating the clean division between religious fervor and scientific ­dispassion.

My experience at ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 provoked similar questions. During the opening panel, Geeta Patel did this by bringing the notion of bacteria into the conference theme of bodies and borders. Evoking Foucault’s biopolitics, she asked how we turn dirtiness into cleanliness and exterminate, using not only language, but also more literally. She referred to a visit to the hospital where this link became resonant, discussing the automated mechanisms and logics which have us turning to anti-bacterial ointment to remove the bad bacteria and probiotics to usher in the good ones.

heather 1

This metaphor about a hospital nurse compulsively disinfecting her hands became a metaphor for the everydayness of political projects, colonial and otherwise. Patel also reminded the audience that the word “normative” is a statistical term, and urged us to think about what it means to use it as a descriptor. I think that it is partly Patel’s background in the sciences which provokes the kinds of metaphors that draw three-dimensional lines between frameworks we think of as disparate. It reminds me of the gracious, curious orientation of Eve Sedgwick, whose work on affect was a major contribution to queer theory.

This metaphor about a hospital nurse compulsively disinfecting her hands became a metaphor for the everydayness of political projects, colonial and otherwise.

Affect theory, for me, has become a way to talk about what, as Deborah Gould has remarked, is “often experienced at the very edge of semantic availability.” Schaefer has also noted that “[a]ffect theory’s project is to question the extremely tight fit between language and power.” It’s a way to think about that which is inextricably linked to cognition and language, but which we don’t have very precise words for yet.

Eve Sedgwick herself was inspired by the work of psychologist (and something of an interdisciplinary curiosity) Silvan Tomkins who drew from a range of disciplines to inform his theory of affects and later script theory. At the University of Pennsylvania, he would study playwriting, psychology, and philosophy, going on to run a series of experiments on facial expression which would likely have both the humanities and the social science camps puzzled today (and likely even then). But what he produced from those experiments was a freeing idea. Rather than an infinite number of affects, or some kind of binary state of affect/non-affect, his experiments led him to form a framework of nine affects.

Sedgwick later took this work and used it to intervene at a time when the high humanities tradition was questioning whether science could actually do what it claimed. She waived a white flag on behalf of the former and asked just what might happen if these perspectives met. Putting aside whether there were in fact nine affects (or more, or fewer), Sedgwick championed an ability to think between infinity and the binary, making it an important component of not only queer theory, but for virtually all disciplines.

She understood just how difficult it is to “unthink” a paralyzing binary (freedom/oppression, hegemonic/counter-hegemonic, public/private, normative/nonnormative) and suggested that we wade into other disciplinary buckets to see just what we might find. This was what she called operating within the middle ranges of agency—existing within a space where there is less to know or claim for certain, and even thriving there. It seems like a simple thing, but what it did was give us something graspable to work with. Having a finite number of elements, but also more than an on/off switch, dislodges us from the kind of paralysis we often encounter when thinking about power, especially in the contemporary moment. I think this can do much to alleviate what feels like a paralysis of the right now.

This is something I thought about in relation to my own work throughout the conference. Just before my panel, I got into discussion about my research into the crackdowns around the Lebanese band Mashrou Leila in Egypt and Jordan within the last few years. The band has been banned from performing in these spaces amidst controversy and panics around the lead singer’s sexuality (he is openly queer). I’ve been curious about not only the way the band has been celebrated by Western outlets as something of revolutionaries, while they have been barred from playing in several spaces in the Arab world. I’ve been looking at not only the way that dominant discourses in Egypt and Jordan construct homosexuality as inauthentic to the region (because this is not a new narrative), but the way it has become an issue of national security. At once, these minority bodies have been simultaneously hailed by those in the region as symbols of pride, but also as anxiety-provoking, both through an affectively charged link to the “global.”

I’ve been curious about not only the way [Mashrou Leila] has been celebrated by Western outlets as something of revolutionaries, while they have been barred from playing in several spaces in the Arab world.

One participant asked me whether those in the Egyptian community identified as queer or homosexual. Or alternatively, did they identify as something else altogether? Questions around language are important ones, and it’s especially critical to understand the nuances of particular identity formations and the material effects they have on the way that we live in and experience the world. But in thinking about how to answer, I also thought about what Chris Nickell called “the absurdity of speaking for (and to) an entire region at once in the crosshairs and in the spotlight” (p. 9). He was referring to remarks by Mashrou Leila lead singer Hamed Sinno to the audience at a US concert following the Orlando shooting at Pulse Night Club, where he called attention to the impossible spaces occupied by those at the margins: “This is what it looks like to be a terrorist and a faggot.”

“This is what it looks like to be a terrorist and a faggot.” – Hamed Sinno

I now realize why my initial question of whether a queer space was opening through the globalization of this band and their performance sites was not a question I was comfortable with answering, and one I had not really been trying to answer. What would it mean to say yes or no? Perhaps it is a worthy question for someone to answer, but to say that Egyptians authentically identify using the words queer, homosexual, gay, or mithaliyin, or whether these spaces are queer or un-queer, feels in some ways like it is falling into the trap that I am trying to evade.

In recognizing the disparities and power imbalances intensified by colonialism, postcolonial theory has given us vital tools to name those dynamics and try to highlight, understand, reverse, archive, fight, and move beyond them. And while it is important to recognize these differentials, it is even more important that we don’t risk reaffirming them. I think here of work which, in its quest to uncover these legacies, ends up constructing the colonial and colonized as part of a global/local, authentic/inauthentic binary, whereby all those who identify with broader collectivities risk being labeled foreign, deviant, or the output of penetrating, imperialistic projects. As I think of the recent crackdowns in the Arab region and beyond, I remember that there is great violence associated with this kind of posturing.

So while we are examining these disparities, we must at the same time recognize our convergences, shared realities, and the interconnections among the global phenomena we are experiencing. I am thinking of Marwan Kraidy’s recent work calling for attention to these interconnections, and I would add that it is perhaps through attention to affect that we might have the tools to do so. There are also other ways of producing knowledge about the things we consider worthwhile, and I think those can be discovered through gracious and curious exchanges of knowledge between historians, statisticians, playwrights, neuroscientists, economists, psychologists, artists, and other theorists and practitioners.

For all of us who find ourselves steeped somewhere between the humanities and social sciences, I would say that this is perhaps the most productive place we can be right now. As Schaefer has noted, we would do well to consider the way that producing knowledge feels, not only for academics, but in our day-to-day, as humans. I do not yet have a solid answer for what that looks like for my own research, or what unconventional places I may turn to, but I imagine that this is something that takes time and effort to cultivate. And a lot of gracious curiosity.

———————–

Heather Jaber is a researcher from Beirut and Boston. She holds an M.A. in media studies from the American University of Beirut (AUB), where she studied the emerging visibility of characters coded as homosexual in Lebanese musalsalat, or Arabic-language television dramas. As a doctoral student, she is interested in the intersections between gender, sexuality, popular culture, and geopolitics in the Arab world and beyond, and particularly in interrogating the symbolic function of deviance in the construction of the nation.

Read More about the upcoming CARGC-fellows biennial conference, Popular Culture and Coloniality: Decolonizing Global Media and Communication” at the University of Pennsylvania on March 28, 2019. Interested participants can send their abstracts by September 15, 2018.

Learning and Exploring at ‘Queer’ Asia: A perspective from Central Asia

QA Blog Series: QA18 Bodies X Borders: Reflections on the conference and film festival

Posted on 17/08/2018
Altynay Kambekova participated in ‘Queer’ Asia Conference 2018.

My journey to Queer Asia 2018 conference started long before my feet actually stepped into the International Airport of Astana named after the unchanging president of Kazakhstan, Nursultan Nazarbayev. I remember submitting my abstract just two hours before the deadline. It was a New Year’s Eve, and my partner and I were cleaning up the house after doing a last grocery haul. This New Year’s Eve was special for both of us. This is because, in Kazakhstan, New Year’s Eve is celebrated with one’s family and friends. This year was the first time I spent New Year’s Eve with my partner. In this excitement, I nearly forgot about the deadline, but looking back after the conference I was glad I managed to squeeze in time to submit to the conference.

When I first found out about the conference, I was very excited, and now looking back I can say that my excitement was justified as it broadened my perspectives on a variety of issues, one of them being the issues of national identity and nationalism.

I hold an MA degree in Nationalism Studies, and when I was writing my master’s thesis, I remember the reaction of my professors to my ideas on (the relationship between nationalism and queerness for example) – they were not welcomed. In most European schools, the study of nationalism is based on colonial heteronormative patriarchal discourses that is uncomfortable with the voices of ‘the Others’, the ones that have been silenced, made invisible for centuries.  Furthermore, it makes people from academia (made up of deeply capitalist elite institutions) feel uncomfortable. Here, I should also point out that when someone refers to academia, it is always implied Western institutions that are considered to have the only “valid” and “objective” knowledge on everything. I wrote my thesis from a decolonial perspective, using gender and sexuality as the main frameworks for the ideas of nation, national belonging, and borders. This sat in contradiction to white patriarchal and heterosexist theories of nationalism enshrined in most elite universities. Only if you’re “lucky” your professor does include intersections of gender and nationalism into the syllabus at the end of the semester, making it of less importance of not least for students to focus on this topic.  Furthermore, this still privileges heteronormativity and the gender binary of male and female with no mention of queerness.

Only if you’re “lucky” your professor does include intersections of gender and nationalism into the syllabus at the end of the semester, making it of less importance of not least for students to focus on this topic.

Such a master’s course was deeply disappointing. Instead I was thrilled when I read the description of the “Queer” Asia 2018 conference. Not only geographically does it give voice to us, the bastards of colonial discourse, but also shows to the Western world that it is not them, who bring “civilization” by demanding gender and sexual diversity and artificially imposing it. Moreover, queerness is exploited by the Western world constructing symbolic borders for refugees and migrants under the premise that we, “uncivilized” chords of Asians and Africans, do not tolerate cultural plurality or queerness. In this sense, the conference is a big and loud claim that we exist, we live and love, and we are queer. It is now that the word queer is proudly used abroad by white people, making it another trendy phenomenon. But hardly any of these people would consider me, a bisexual woman of color from Central Asia as queer, because the word is appropriated and used as a capitalist and neoliberal trend. This usage makes queerness a matter of fashion and glamor, something that those outside of the Western world inherently lack. However, unfortunately, the lives of queer people are rarely glamorous, instead, they face and have to fight with myriad problems every single day. In this regard, the ‘Queer’ Asia conference was a refreshing reminder of the lives of non-Western queer people, and was a great celebration of our actions.

The conference and the film festival gave me a lot of insight and was eye-opening on many fronts. From the first day of my arrival at the event, I felt as if I was reunited with my family, something I had been long in search for. I did not feel any sense of alienation  intrinsic to most academic conferences where value is affixed to the number of publications or the institutions of affiliation. Here I felt I could let my guard down and just be myself. I won’t lie, I was shy the first few moments, but everyone around me just took me into their warm embrace. It felt like home. This was a strange feeling because I was very critical and hesitant about attending the conference. I could not understand why the conference on ‘Queer’ Asia should take place in London, the place that is among the most difficult to reach starting from the visa issuing process and ending with daily expenses. I was afraid that this event was going to be just another one, where we are brought together by Western academia, maybe as a sort of amusement, or an object of study, or out of “moral duty” once a year to let us speak. This is a tactic used by cultural hegemons that Spivak describes. It works like a divide and rule strategy, when the “master” chooses the “special” or “deserving” people to be part of the feast for a while, under the pretense of recognition. In this sense, the feeling of betraying queer people in Kazakhstan, feeling of not deserving to be queer or not being queer “enough” had followed me on my flight to London.

However, what I felt on my way back was completely the opposite. This conference gave me a lot: I attended fascinating panel sessions. I felt both challenged and nourished. For example, the panel “Un/doing Disciplinary Boundaries: Methods, Theory, and Beyond” challenged me to think about the limits through which disciplinary methods and theory affect the ways in which we think or are allowed to think. I saw wonderful installations at the art exhibition, films at the festival, and even plays created by extremely talented people, such as Humera, written by Fatima Maan, a Pakistani queer woman. I met some brilliant and kind people and my conversations with them were not less insightful than the academic panels I attended. However, there is one thing that I am mostly grateful for to this conference is that it gave me Pride. I am proud to have been a part of this conference, and, yes, I am privileged to have been able to visit London, but I found peace with it. The fact that my voice was heard is still better than if no one had presented on Kazakhstan, and to think that by having this privilege I somehow owe something to the West is just falling prey to a colonial way of thinking. So, the humble sense of pride has been growing during the whole conference, and now I can loudly say: I am Proud!

Finally, we, queer people from Asia, face precarious situations every single day of our lives, because we are constantly in danger and are the targets of elimination. After one of the conference days, I was talking with one of the participants, and I was complaining that I have so many doubts in my future, such as if I will be able to live with my partner and enjoy my life, if our parents accept us, if the society in Kazakhstan will ever accept our presence, etc. His response was brilliant: we, people, tend to underestimate uncertainty, we want everything to be clear, everything to be in certain patterns, but uncertainty itself is queer. To live in an uncertainty is to accept yourself and strive. To conclude, I was moved by the opening keynote panel where Geeta Patel underscored the close metaphorical similarity between queer people and bacteria. This metaphor is not just one of disturbance but also one of survival. As bacteria and unwanted members of society we are suited to strive to survive in the uncertain nature of our societies.

Altynay Kambekova works on the UNI Project – At risk men’s involvement in HIV treatment continuum in the Republic of Kazakhstan (2017 – 2021) The Global Health Research Center of Central Asia.

Silence That Breaks the Boundary: Voicelessness as a Queer Asian Art Expression

QA Blog Series: QA18 Bodies X Borders: Reflections on the conference and film festival

Posted on 17/08/2018
Ping-Hsuan Wang participated in ‘Queer’ Asia Conference 2018.

Film Trailer: Sisak (Dir. Faraz Ansari, 2017).

The shots alternate between two men, with close-ups zooming in on their facial expressions as they exchange eye contact across a Mumbai train, building up the emotional intensity and establishing a subtle tacit connection for the audience to grasp. After several encounters on the train, they become aware of each other’s presence but they always keep their distance. No verbal or physical interaction is initiated; not even when the suited man waits by the door right behind the other man in traditional clothes, or when they stand face to face holding onto a pole to support themselves on the moving train. Emerging is a boundary between them that cannot be crossed. Not a word is uttered. Sisak is an Indian film narrating a love story between two men that is not only unspoken, but one that is unspeakable. The short film ends with a powerful message: homosexuality is a crime in India, dedicating itself to the voiceless romance. Screened at ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 Film Festival (screened at The British Museum), Sisak captivates me in many ways: the cinematic tensions carefully constructed from frame to frame, and the ambience of desire surrounding the two men. Most importantly, it’s a thought-provoking viewing experience for me after I spent three years in Washington, D.C., having gotten used to the LGBTQ advocacy as well as media representation in the U.S.

Coming from Taiwan, where being gay is acceptable as long as you don’t bring it up, I was struck by what I perceived as the “gay agenda” when I first arrived in D.C. in 2015, shortly after the historic Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage across the U.S. As a gay migrant, I quickly noticed this difference and came to adopt the idea of being outspoken with respect to one’s queerness, with, for example, newsflash of celebrities coming out on social media. This trend observably reached a peak when two gay-themed Hollywood films caught the public’s attention: Call Me by Your Name (2017) and Love, Simon (2018), celebrating the visibility of gay romance in mainstream productions and speaking to viewers who are taking a firmer stance on the issue of being seen and heard. With a keen introspection of this aspect of queer life, my exploration of being gay in D.C. culminated in my master’s thesis on gay Indian immigrants’ coming-out stories in the U.S. Sisak, in this regard, turned out to be a fateful revisit of the concept pertaining to border-crossing: out of the country, out of the closet.

In my study, I take the theoretical proposal that coming out should be reconceptualized as “describing one’s social location in the changing social context,” (Rust, 1993) to consider how transnational migration can complicate coming out as a personal and impactful process. For my study participants, the changing social context is two-fold: leaving their home country for a foreign destination, and denying the heterosexual assumptions for realizing their gay identity. Sisak, in a similar vein, encourages us to reconceptualize homosexuality as situated in a different social context unlike that in the U.S., using riveting storytelling. It does so exactly through its voicelessness that allows us to engage with same-sex romance in a non-Western society.

For one, it vividly showcases the narrative of being gay in India that I found in interviews. While participants in the U.S. live openly in local communities, their counterparts in India are positioned as succumbing to the societal pressure of arranged marriage while their gay identity remain muted. This quietly echoes the appearance of the wedding rings we see in Sisak on the two men’s fingers that flash from time to time when they move about their hands over the handrails on the train. For another, it challenges my mind that has been primed to expect gay romance dealing with the typical conundrums: family and friends, sexual relations, and accepting oneself. Sisak, by contrast, is less about having a happy or sad ending that we’re used to seeing than about silent and despairing inaction. It can be read as anti-climactic; it’s a rising action that leads to no final resolution under inauspicious circumstances.

To this end, being “India’s first silent LGBTQ story,” Sisak leverages the lack of dialogue, contradictory as it sounds, as the strongest voicing strategy. Voicelessness, contrary to the outspokenness that I have experienced in the U.S., serves to tell a compelling story of gay men’s life in India.

Menstruation Alqumit Alhamad
Menstruation by Alqumit Alhamad

Similarly, at the ‘Queer’ Asia Art Exhibition this year, Syrian artist Alqumit Alhamad introduces paintings that are powerfully imaginative. Menstruation, for instance, shows a luna moth resting on a pomegranate branch, on the top of which are a blooming flower and a plump fruit, its side unfolding as labia with ruby-red pulps bursting from within. The surreal juxtaposition of elements in his works viscerally transposes viewers to an eerie spatio-temporal dimension of marginalization as a gay refugee

Ping 1
Image of Alqumit’s art at the Bodies X Borders Art Exhibition
Menstruation, for instance, shows a luna moth resting on a pomegranate branch, on the top of which are a blooming flower and a plump fruit, its side unfolding as labia with ruby-red pulps bursting from within.

However, the artist, along with several other panelists, couldn’t be present at the venue because his application for a visa entering the U.K. was denied. This highlights the political implication of national borders as a social construct that segregates people. Whereas the paintings aim to obscure the divisions of reality to represent the experience of disorientation and displacement, Alquimit’s absence from the exhibition carves a line that accentuates the separation of different social contexts. The action operates on a parallel level of voicelessness in protest of exclusion.

Alqumit's Petition Image

Part of ‘Queer’ Asia’s petition protesting the denial of visas despite full support from the university donors supporting ‘Queer’ Asia. Read more here.

Like the rhythmic rumbling of the night train on which the two Indian men silently ache to break the social boundary, voicelessness as a statement reverberates around the theme this year: body as a site of contestation that brings the very concept of borders into question. While one social context isn’t necessarily more oppressive than another, the imposing borders definitely are. For the third year, artists, scholars, and filmmakers alike gathered at ‘Queer’ Asia, the event continuing to provide a platform for generating ideas that dare us to reflect on, if not imagining the disruption of, the categorical borders through political actions, academic discussions, and artistic expressions.

Works Cited

Rust, Paula C. “‘Coming out’ in the Age of Social Constructionism: Sexual Identity Formation among Lesbian and Bisexual Women.” Gender and Society, vol. 7, no. 1, 1993, pp. 50–77. JSTOR, JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/190024.

Ping-Hsuan Wang received his M.A. in Language and Communication (MLC), Linguistics, from Georgetown University. His research interests include gay immigrants’ coming-out narratives, framing in family food talk, epistemic positioning in therapeutic discourse, and stance-taking in computer-mediated communication. He tweets @hoganindc2015.

Read More:

Alqumit Alhamad Interview as part of the ‘Queer’ Asia Bodies X Borders blog series

 

Collaging Narratives: Interview with Jay Cabalu

QA Blog Series: QA18 Bodies X Borders Art Exhibition: Artist Interviews

Posted on 02/08/2018
Ryudai Takano participated in the ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 Bodies X Borders Art Exhibition, 26-28 June 2018, at SOAS, University of London. See more here

1 Cabalu_Jay_Reconciliation_40x_24_2018 fb
Reconciliation, 2018. Collage on Panel. 40″ x 24″

What experience or education led to your artistic practice? Could you briefly explain your trajectory?

Growing up in an immigrant family in British Columbia, Canada has had a significant impact on my art practice. We didn’t have much in the way of entertainment at home—no cable TV, no video games—so my sister and I would spend a lot of time in a bookstore at the mall where I would pore over Archie and Marvel comics and magazines like Entertainment Weekly, GQ, and Vanity Fair. Over time I started collecting these comics and magazines, many of which I use in my work. I was also aware of my cultural displacement from a young age. As someone Filipino, Canadian, and gay, I grew up juggling three identities, which was very isolating. Popular culture became a refuge from this feeling, but even in the magazines I flipped through, I saw little of myself. There were no representations of Asian men that were reflective of my sexuality. When I started pulling from my personal collection to create collaged portraits, my first inclination was to depict celebrities and models. However, as I grew older this was eclipsed by a desire to represent my adult self as the person I was looking for in the material I browsed as a child.

As someone Filipino, Canadian, and gay, I grew up juggling three identities, which was very isolating.

2 Cabalu_Jay_Godfrey_18x_24_2015 fb
Godfrey, 2015. Collage on Canvas.18″ x 24″

Could you describe your work for the Bodies x Borders exhibition?

The four pieces I have in Bodies x Borders reflect the evolution of my approach to collage over the past few years. The earliest work, Godfrey, is a portrait of Taiwanese-Canadian model Godfrey Gao and was the first piece I completed using entirely collaged materials rather than a mix of acrylic paint and collage. A Tension is a literal take on tokenization. The people of colour in this work are used as a device to add dimension to the white figure, who is the focus. Vortex was a milestone for me as my first self-portrait done entirely in collage. I ripped and cut material to present the medium, and myself, as inherently fragile.

A Tension is a literal take on tokenization. The people of colour in this work are used as a device to add dimension to the white figure, who is the focus.

Reconciliation, my most recent work, was born out of the anxiety surrounding body and race. As a gay Asian man, I have experienced extensive invalidation in and out of the gay community. In this piece, I drew upon influences from pop culture, classical and baroque art (particularly Caravaggio’s Medusa), as well as fashion (Versace) and social media. The visual references highlight the ideas of narcissism and self-recognition. In Caravaggio’s piece, he depicts Medusa, who was formerly a beautiful mortal, at the critical moment when she sees her reflection in Perseus’ shield and is horrified by what she has become.

3 Cabalu_Jay_A Tension_24x_48_2016 fb
A Tension, 2016. Collage on Panel. 48″ x 24″

Could you elaborate on your general artistic process? What was the process for creating the specific work in the exhibition?

For my self-portraits, I take a video of myself on my phone to serve as a reference image. The video format allows for more opportunity to perform my state of mind and capture a fleeting moment. As I start the collaging process, most of what gets included in the work comes from an instinctual reaction I have while going through materials. In this sense, it’s a mood board that reflects my personal cultural fixations. I also choose clippings from varied sources that draw on themes related to the bigger picture.

4 Cabalu_Jay_The Count of Monte Cristo_48x_36_2018 fb
The Count of Monte Cristo, 2018. Collage on Panel. 48″ x 36″

How do you think your work relates to the theme of Bodies x Borders?

My immigrant background allowed me to question my surroundings with an outsider perspective. As I was consuming films and television as a kid, I was keen to notice the restrictions surrounding Asian identities in the media. There were only certain personas that Asian people could to embody. For example, it was acceptable to have an Asian man be subservient to a white protagonist, usually as a doctor or scientist, but the sexually empowered roles were reserved for white actors. While I noticed this problem, popular culture was exciting and uplifting to me during a time where I was closeted and experiencing the most turmoil. In Reconciliation, I use my own body to cast myself in a light that was not typically meant for someone who looked like me. It’s a fun way to celebrate pop culture tropes, while shining a light on their oppressive tendencies.

There were only certain personas that Asian people could to embody. For example, it was acceptable to have an Asian man be subservient to a white protagonist, usually as a doctor or scientist, but the sexually empowered roles were reserved for white actors.

Do you have any expectations for how audiences will respond to your work? Are there any messages you wish visitors would take away after seeing your work?

I have my reasons for what images I include in my collages, but sometimes the reasons are too personal to be obvious. My work contains a lot of information and the audience can interpret the work in any way that satisfies them. I have a lot of fun hiding Easter eggs in plain sight, inviting the viewer to take a closer look and draw connections between the larger picture and the fragments that compose it. This type of art making forces me to look at small, isolated images and see them as something else to create a larger picture. I often remind myself of this concept in my every day life and I hope others do as well.

5 Installation Image fb
Jay Cabalu Installation Image, ‘Queer’ Asia 2018.

Jay Cabalu is a Filipino-born, Vancouver-based collage artist with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Kwantlen University. His practice includes a growing list of private commissions and, more recently, self-portraiture. At the age of four, his family moved from Brunei to Canada where he became hyper-aware of his cultural displacement, as well has his queer identity. Popular culture became a refuge from such anxieties, but over time the lack of queer-Asian representation in popular media caused new tensions to arise. As well, Jay is interested in how social media and popular culture have informed our identities and perceptions of the world. The collages he creates are personal and obsessively detailed, created with magazines and comics he has collected from a very young age. Jay has exhibited in numerous spaces in Vancouver, such as the Federation Gallery, the Roundhouse, Hot Art Wet City and Ayden Gallery. In the Fall of 2015, he appeared on season one of CBC’s competition-reality series, Crash Gallery. In May of 2018, Jay was featured in his first international exhibition, “On/Off Grid,” for the Foundation of Asian American Independent Media in Chicago.

Queer art from Korea (Seoul): A List of My Own, 2017

Written by Yeonsook LEE / 리타 (Rita) for QA Blog Series “What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness’” curated by QA2018 Committee Member Amy Kahng

Rita 창녀CD민망복장막장극초개변태좆씹돼지년
Copyright 2017. 창녀CD민망복장막장극초개변태좆씹돼지년 All rights reserved.

With the increase in a “queer” self-identified population, finding “queer art” in Seoul is not as difficult as it was in the past. Any artwork from artists who define themself as “queer” could be labelled as queer art. Despite the ‘old-fashioned’ nature of this category, it still offers an effective criterion. But defining “queer art” needs more diverse and political criteria. Several queer theorists have attempted to define queerness as an attitude to embraces failure as a tool for a better present (Halberstam), as the anti-social and negative ways to subvert heteronormativity (Bersani), and as an vivid utopia that has not yet arrived but is actively trying to be redeemed (Muñoz). Of course, it is not necessary to internalize all these discourses, because people can decide for themself how to define “queerness.”

Personally, I tend to consider all works that are disturbing and difficult to approach as ‘queer art’. A good example is the twitter account of the notorious cross-dresser “창녀CD민망복장막장극초개변태좆씹돼지년” (hookerCDshamegutspervertcockcuntcowbitch), whose account has since been locked. His various tacky and frivolous hand-made objects, all made to decorate his anus, have a truly queer aesthetic. While the artist clearly finds pleasure in fetishizing himself, through the artist’s artisan spirit and meticulous craftsmanship, the work proves to go beyond mere exhibitionism.

Video works from Kwon Yongman (계정주 of ‘시네마지옥” [cinemahell]) are further examples. His works such as 몬도 코리아 (Mondo Corea), 갓건배에 대한 모든 것(All about Godgunbae) are absurdly funny, but are still too disturbing to directly laugh at since they intimately expose the ugly side of contemporary Korean culture. The work, 갓건배에 대한 모든 것 (All about Godgunbae), also in part becomes about endurance since it has an unnecessarily long running time. In total, these elements come together to beg the question, why would somebody produce a work like this anyway? The work does not seem like it is meant to be productive nor helpful. This fanatically apolitical and pessimistic aesthetic characterizes Kwon’s work [1].

IMAGE 2 - mondo
Copyright 2017. 권용만 All rights reserved.
IMAGE 3 - god
Copyright 2017. 권용만 All rights reserved.

Additionally, I would also like to introduce a drag-show that I have recently experienced. A team of five performers, 여성, 괴물 (The monstrous-feminine) [2], apparently named after a quote by Barbara Kruger, recently presented its fourth event. While all the performances at this event were compelling, the performance by drag-king 아장맨 (Aajangman) was particularly striking since drag kings are still quite rare in Korea. While Seoul does have active drag communities, such as  “서울드랙” (Seouldrag) [3], it is important to have an organization that leads discussions about discrimination towards women and transgender people as well as about the merits of drag.

IMAGE 4 - ajangmane
Copyright 2017. 아장맨 All rights reserved.

Since much of the work that discussed could be, but also may not necessarily be, categorized as “queer art,” then one may ask, is there artwork that could be unequivocally labeled as “queer art” in Seoul? I would answer of course there is. The exhibition Read My Lips (리드마이립스) [4], which revolved around the concept of drag in the context of queer politics, gathered an amalgam of works that could be described as weird and queer. The exhibition had the underlying ambition of introducing ‘queerness’ as a concept in a broader context. Made up of a hybrid of different media-painting, installation, performance, and live-broadcast (공개방송), the exhibition was intended to be somewhat confusing and ambiguous. The artist, “이반지하”(ibanjiha), wore handmade costumes with obvious sexual symbols and sang some of her famous original songs such as ‘나는 이반 그녀는 일반’ (I am Gay, She is Straight) [5], ‘레즈바에 온 작은 헤테로’ (‘Lil hetero in a Lesbian Bar), and ‘오염’ (Contamination). If one senses a desperate sense of urgency in her repetitive chorus, it comes from the idea that we all eventually need to go home after the song finishes. To not break the promise of this temporality, we will all endlessly be wanting to collect, encounter, and to be around its “queerness.”

IMAGE 5 - Ibanjiha
Ibanjiha at at Read My Lips, Hapjungjigu, 2017

Yeonsook LEE / 리타 (Rita); Host of the podcast channel 퀴어방송 (Queercast). Queer, feminist, and art writer. Exhibition planner and curator. Graduate from Seoul National University, Department of Aesthetics. Personal blog and twitter at http://blog.naver.com/hotleve

(Translation : Mire LEE)

[1] <2017 MONDO COREA Trailer> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWAP7HNZfpg <갓건배에 대한 모든 것 All About Godgunbae> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8URM7ZthvGU

[2] <여성,괴물> https://twitter.com/monstrousfem

[3] <서울드랙> https://twitter.com/dragnerd_seoul

[4] <리드마이립스> https://www.facebook.com/events/629055017302493/

[5] In the Korean language, ‘이반Eban’ means homosexual and ‘일반Ilban’ means heterosexual

About the blog series What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness’ :

Drawing from the diverse perspectives of a curator, artist, and podcast host, this blog series investigates the categorization and perception of queer art in South Korea. It is being curated by Amy Kahng, an emerging curator and art historian. Her research interests include contemporary art of Asia, Korean video and performance art from the 1960s-90s, and the intersections of queer theory and art history. She is based in Los Angeles and Seoul. She can be reached at askahng@gmail.com

Other blogs in the series: 

Performing Art in South Korea

Written by Cynthia Sungjae Lee for QA Blog Series “What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness’” curated by QA2018 Committee Member Amy Kahng

korea1
Sungjae Lee (with performer Nix), ‘Fringe’, performance documentation at Read My Lips, Hapjungjigu, 2017

As an artist, I expose the presence of subjects in the fringes of society by revealing the limitations of the privileged “center” through my artworks. From a socio-political perspective, this center is a construct created by norms, and it exercises an overshadowing influence on the fringe because of its implicit acceptance by the social majority. Despite the dominance of the center, it is the fringe that catches my eye. Meaning is produced when we are aware of our surroundings, and I endeavor to reduce the authority of the center to allow people to recognize the existence of the fringe, and thus enrich our society with the value of diversity.

“The influence of labeling is so strong for an artist’s career; it standardizes characteristics of an artist’s work and thus limits their potential to expand into new creative territories.”

Despite my interest in shedding light on the fringe, it has been difficult for me to create and exhibit queer-themed pieces in South Korea due to its conservative belief perceived by the majority. Because artworks are representative of the artist when exhibited in galleries, I often worry about revealing my sexual identity during public exhibition. I cannot proudly present my work because I have learned through my life in Korea that outing myself often does more harm than good. Furthermore, there is the risk of being labeled as a “queer artist” and, consequently, all of my works being interpreted as “queer artworks,” even if I may choose to create a piece that is unrelated to queer issues. The influence of labeling is so strong for an artist’s career; it standardizes characteristics of an artist’s work and thus limits their potential to expand into new creative territories.

korea2
Cynthia, ‘Men I Have Ever Met’, SEMA, 2016

It is in this context that I submitted my text work “Men I Have Ever Met” which I signed with the name of my alter-ego, “Cynthia,” at SEMA in 2016. To illustrate how gay relationships have changed through the emergence of technology, such as smartphones and social media, I wrote various stories that I have had with guys since 2008, when I came out to gay society. Since the work contains not only bittersweet love stories but also one-night stand stories, I chose not to reveal my private history with identity, even though my work intended to examine the power that could be generated by displaying one’s personal narratives in public. Therefore, I created my alter-ego and chose text as a medium in order to avoid the risks that could come with outing myself.

However, in 2017 the approach to presenting my work contrasted with my previous exhibiting experience. I was less fearful when I presented my performance piece “Fringe” at the art space, Hapjungjigu. Because the exhibition’s main theme was “drag,” I still hesitated to participate, because it could potentially reveal my sexual identity and restrict my work to be labelled as ‘queer’ art. Nevertheless, I was able to present the work with my real name and summoned the confidence to be myself because I was collaborating with Nix, a Brazilian drag artist. The collaboration with this courageous drag artist led me to rethink not only the importance of genuine presence as the essence of performance art, but also the political power of artwork produced by openly queer artists. I experienced that I was actively engaging in my artistic concentration or duty—adding diversity to a society—by communicating with audiences and conveying my message to them directly.

korea3
Performer Nix with Sungjae Lee, ‘Fringe’, performance documentation at Read My Lips, Hapjungjigu, 2017

I am now pursuing my master’s degree in the US, where there is greater awareness of sexual diversity and queer rights than in Korea. By studying in a culturally enriched environment, I hope to further include queerness into my work and to continue to boldly exhibit these works.

SUNGJAE Cynthia LEE is a Korean artist working in immaterial media such as performance, installation, and video. He received M.F.A. and B.F.A in Sculpture from Seoul National University. He has presented his works at Seoul Museum of Art, Hapjungjigu, XPO Cheongyang, Art Sonje Center (South Korea), Galleri CC, and KHM gallery (Sweden). He was also video and stage producer of the theater group Bjung(丙) Society and presented several pieces at play festivals. He is currently living in Chicago, IL and pursuing his M.F.A. at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

About the blog series What is ‘Queer’ in South Korea? Explorations of art, identity, and ‘queerness’ :

Drawing from the diverse perspectives of a curator, artist, and podcast host, this blog series investigates the categorization and perception of queer art in South Korea. It is being curated by Amy Kahng, an emerging curator and art historian. Her research interests include contemporary art of Asia, Korean video and performance art from the 1960s-90s, and the intersections of queer theory and art history. She is based in Los Angeles and Seoul. She can be reached at askahng@gmail.com

Other blogs in the series: