Overview: ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 Art Exhibition

By Rhea Tuli, PhD Candidate, UCL & Curator of the ‘Queer’ Asia 2018 Art Exhibition

Posted on 12/07/2018
This blog first appeared on the Study at SOAS Blog, 22/06/2018. The original article can be found here

Nayoung2 small crop
Direction, by Nayoung Jeong

Rhea Tuli, curator of the ‘Queer’ Asia art exhibition ‘Bodies x Borders’, discusses some of the artworks on display.

Ryudai Takano and censorship

The art exhibition ‘Bodies x Borders’ celebrates Asian artists who are exploring issues related to sexuality and gender identity. These themes are not normally addressed in contemporary Asia, with many artists struggling with the sensitivity of professional art spaces, a general lack of public awareness and even state censorship.

Ryudai Takano, a featured artist for the ‘Bodies x Borders’ exhibition, encountered such restrictions four years ago when he showed his nude series ‘With Me’ (おれと) at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art in Nagoya, Japan. The series consisted of photographs of Takano posing with both male and female models, however the photographs of the artist with male models caused considerable controversy due to the unaltered display of male genitalia. These photographs were accused of being ‘obscene’, as defined by the Japanese Penal Code, and the police threatened to arrest museum staff if they refused to remove the photographs. Takano believes that the reason the police interfered was not because his photographs displayed male genitalia but rather because they showed two men joining shoulders amicably without clothes on. Complying with the police’s requests and removing the flagged photographs would have been tantamount to rendering the censorship demands of the law invisible. Takano therefore draped a cloth veil over the lower half of the photographed male subjects to allow his work to continue being displayed in the museum and also to symbolise legislative intervention. Takano’s experience with the police influenced his belief that the Japanese government is regulating sexual consciousness by administering control over the bodies of its people.

Sexual relationships between men were never considered as taboo in pre-modern Japanese society.

According to Takano, modernisation in Japan not only introduced the values of the Western world but also a sense of discrimination towards homosexuality. The photographs that had been censored in the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art are to be displayed in this year’s ‘Bodies x Borders’ exhibition in full. Takano hopes that his work will provide an opportunity for viewers to contemplate on those countries who restrict discussions on sexuality. By raising awareness of these important yet neglected topics, the exhibition attempts to challenge the traditional manners in which sexuality is expressed.

The art of Heezy Yang

‘About Gay Men and Pants’, by Korean queer artist and activist Heezy Yang, posits that underwear is the optimum medium for gay men to engage with their sexuality. While creating his series, Yang met and interviewed a number of men in Korean nightclubs. When asked why he conducted interviews in nightclubs, Yang explained that nightlife is an important outlet for gay men because the queer is not so visible in the everyday life of South Korea. For the artist and activist, underwear provides an insight into how gay men express their sexuality and offers an intimate look into their personal lives and experiences.

Heezy Yang's 'Justin' from 'Gay Men and Pants'
Heezy Yang’s ‘Justin’ from ‘About Gay Men and Pants’ Series

Gender identity in the work of Kannagi Khanna

‘Bodies x Borders’ will also exhibit work that explores how Asian societies cope with issues regarding gender identity. Kannagi Khanna’s ‘Leela’ explores how religion in North India acts as a vehicle through which transgender communities embrace their identity. Although legislation is under review by the Indian parliament to extend the rights of transgender Indians and introduce the first anti-discrimination law, the reality remains that transgender communities in many parts of India live on the fringes of society. Khanna’s series reveals how religious events offer these communities the opportunity to dress up and express their gender identity without facing any form of harassment.

Kannagi Khanna's 'Aspara' from 'Leela'
Kannagi Khanna’s ‘Aspara’ from ‘Leela’


Queer theory and feminism links

This exhibition is equally feminist in its attention to structures of identity and discrimination. Although the relationship between queer theory and feminism is an ongoing contentious topic amongst artists, scholars and academics alike, ‘Bodies x Borders’ will show that they share mutual foundations and goals. In an era when a new wave of mass feminist militancy is establishing itself on the political landscape, ‘Bodies x Borders’ explores how Asian women are attempting to redefine their cultural and political identity outside of oppressive social constructions and patriarchal dominations.

The paintings of Alqumit Alhamad

Asian artists that delve into the themes of gender identity and sexuality are a marginalised group that are often excluded from the grand discourses of contemporary art. This exhibition attempts to address this oversight and in doing so, it also seeks to demonstrate that exclusion can offer a sense of inclusion. By virtue of their exclusion, marginalised groups can engage with and offer dynamic perspectives on other marginalised issues. Through their exploration of sexuality and gender identity in Asia, the artworks exhibited in ‘Bodies x Borders’ also consider other ostracised topics such as the obstacles that are currently being faced by Asian refugees.

The paintings of the artist Alqumit Alhamad not only endeavour to portray his experiences as a homosexual but also as a refugee.

Art for Alhamad was a pivotal tool for expressing his sexuality as a young gay man in Syria. However, after the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) took over his hometown of Raqqa, his work took on a deeper dimension. Alhamad’s darkly surreal, even apocalyptic paintings grapple with both the personal and political. In this regard, his artwork features binary oppositional spaces that encompass being ostracised vs. belonging within society; entrapment vs. freedom; and finally injured bodies vs. overcome borders.

Alqumit Alhamad
‘Sinning’ by Alqumit Alhamad

‘Bodies x Borders’
‘Bodies x Borders’ runs from June 26th – June 28th 2018 at the Paul Webley Wing, SOAS, London.
26th June  17:00-20:30
27th June  10:00-19:00
28th June  10:00-19:00
Featured artists include Ryudai Takano, Heezy Yang, Alqumit Alhamad, Kannagi Khanna, Jay Cabalu, Young Joon Kwak, Royal, Nayoung Jeong, Anica Bawa, Leesal Priya Malhan, Showna Kim, Anil Dega and Manimekala Fuller.