Over the Rainbow: A selection of works by LGBTQ2S+ artists
The latest installation in the National Gallery of Canada’s Contemporary galleries celebrates the rainbow lens of LGBTQ2S+ artists. The selection features a range of works in different media produced over several decades by fifteen artists, including Kent Monkman, Shawna Dempsey & Lorri Millan and Paul Wong.
Videos, photographs, installations and various types of ephemera highlight the creativity and fortitude of this many-gendered and diversely sexualized group who self-identify with pride. These artists speak to – and act out – their message with humour and gravitas, challenging the “norm” with non-binary realities that fluidly erase strict demarcations of difference. Trans-forming with a multiple-pronoun eye to queer, the works cross over identities, races and ethnicities to embrace diversity and inclusion.
From 1981 to 1995, Montreal-based artists Martha Fleming and Lyne Lapointe worked on site-specific, cross-disciplinary collaborations that focused on the marginalization and representation of women. In 1987, the artists addressed the historical criminalization of female homosexuality through a program of interventions titled La Donna Delinquenta (The Female Offender). Works on display include A Kidnaper/I Have Been Abandoned by the World (1984–87), which evokes 19th-century Romantic literature. Visitors can view and participate in a theatrical mise-en-scène constructed of a backdrop that depicts an imprisoned woman accompanied by implements for measuring her deviance. A facing panel represents a wild and desolate landscape, symbolizing the troubled psychic state of the drama’s anti-heroine.
In another work, Oriental Bearded Ladies (Scorpion) (1992), the artists continue their investigations into the representation of women, referencing the exploitation of so-called “bearded ladies” and other exoticized bodies in Victorian circus sideshows. Popular throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, such problematic images of “Oriental” women proliferated as curiosities within popular visual culture. Heightening the sense of danger in this image, the artists equip their subject with her own form of defence against peering eyes: a real scorpion specimen, poised to strike.
Throughout the exhibition, artists depict the complexities of sexuality and identity by assuming various guises and performing for the camera. Based in Winnipeg – the “Lesbian Capital of the Universe,” as they call it – Shawna Dempsey & Lorri Millan have collaborated on performances, artworks and videos since 1989. Through outrageous costumes and hilarious comedic send-ups, the duo challenge societal proscriptions on female same-sex desire. Confronting societal stereotypes head on, Dempsey & Millan refashion lesbian identity as a natural, not unnatural, force in works such as such as Lesbian National Parks and Services: A Force of Nature (2002). The mockumentary A Day in the Life of a Bull Dyke (1995) defies strict demarcations of gender roles, while costume and performance in We’re Talking Vulva (1990) features female genitalia as lively and loquacious. Millan recounts hurtful experiences of societal negativity in Archaeology and You (2003), while Dempsey explores the interrelation of social expectations, sexuality and identity in The Dress Series (1989–96).
Of Cree (Fisher River First Nation) ancestry, Kent Monkman is a filmmaker, illustrator and visual artist, who began his exploration of the arts as a painter. In his practice, he uses humour and irony to revisit the colonial past and is often inspired by 19th-century painting and photography. In the five faux daguerreotypes in the seriesThe Emergence of a Legend (2006), Monkman portrays his alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle in a variety of characters – a sharpshooter, a vaudeville performer, an actress from the silent film era, a trapper’s bride and a film director. These depictions are all comments on performance art and how Indigenous peoples have historically been portrayed in popular culture.
Another work that explores the performance space of the camera is Yasumasa Morimura’s To My Little Sister: For Cindy Sherman (1998) from the Daughters of Art History series. The work is a restaging of Cindy Sherman’s photographs in her Centerfolds series from 1981. Renowned for his reprisals of iconic images drawn from art history and pop culture, Morimura pays tribute to the influence of Sherman’s work on his art practice. By synthesizing known images with his own, the artist examines the constructed notions of identity, gender roles and history, as well as Western and Eastern canons of stereotypes.
Métis artist Rosalie Favell also uses images drawn from art history and popular culture, as well as her family archive, to present complex self-portraits. If Only You Could Love Me … (2003) appears to depict a crisis in the artist’s life. Having cut off her hair – and with it the femininity it represents – she adopts a more “masculine” persona, with heavy black shoes and suit. Making reference to the 1940 Self-Portrait With Cropped Hair by Mexican painter Frida Kahlo, Favell aims to challenge our preconceived notions of the gender binary and identity. In another work, Maybe I Did Love Her That Way (2003), the pop icon Xena Warrior Princess and her faithful sidekick Gabrielle appear in a close embrace, surrounded by a heart with an arrow through it. Beneath this image, Favell has placed a scene from the 1961 movie The Children’s Hour. The movie, a classic in gay and lesbian cultural history, depicts the romantic relationship between two women, played by Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. The two run a boarding school for girls, but a young girl named Rosalie accuses them of having a love affair, and consequently ruins their lives and careers. The movie, in a way typical of the period, victimizes same-sex relationships. In the Favell work, this view is contrasted by the more positive depiction of such concerns by the Xena figure. Favell also places herself in this picture in the image of a little girl, who, at the time the movie was made, would have been three years old. By referencing the artist's own history, Favell's work incorporates a sense of progress in the cultural acceptance of same sex relationships during the artist’s lifetime, and the possibility of gays and lesbians having strong role models in their lives.
David Buchan’s Roots series (c. 1979) is also based in imaginative performance. The HIV crisis, and its impact on the gay community, emphasized the need to establish a common ground of activism, culture and, most importantly, community. Buchan’s career reflects the intertwining of community needs and creativity, and the necessity of finding various sometimes disparate ways to express symbols that define and unite groups. A key figure in the Toronto art scene of the 1970s and 1980s, Buchan forged a multidisciplinary art practice that merged performance, photography, video and artist publications. Performativity was a key vehicle for his challenges and explorations of socially imposed boundaries of identity and sexuality. Acting out for both audiences and the camera, he aligned contemporary art concerns with the active creation of community. Buchan skewed societal demarcations of authority and “normalcy” with his flair for fashion, and delight in drag, freely mixing and matching visual codes of advertising, art and vernacular photography. An important figure in his practice is his alter-ego, Lamonte del Monte, whose extended surrogate family appears in the Roots series.
For many LGBTQ2S+ artists, video and film have served as critical mediums for expressing the multi-faceted nature of identity. From serious personal reflections to humorous takes on a variety of subjects, their videos employ a combination of narrative and documentary formats to give voice to diverse perspectives.
TJ Cuthand’s videos are largely autobiographical, examining cultural and sexual identity, mental health and dysfunctional institutional practices. Working Baby Dyke Theory: The Diasporic Impact of Cross-Generational Barriers (1997) addresses Cuthand’s deleterious experiences with older lesbians, while Love and Numbers (2004) – set against the backdrop of urban landscapes and the binary codes of psychiatric drugs prescribed for Cuthand – critiques the medical system through the artist’s own struggles with mental health. Through the Looking Glass (1999) explores Cuthand’s sexuality and Indigenous heritage. Inspired by Lewis Carroll’s novel, Cuthand plays the character of Alice, who, wishing to be a queen, struggles with the Red Queen's (played by Lori Blondeau) and the White Queen's (Shawna Dempsey) disapproval of his mixed racial background and sexual choices. Finally, Cuthand dismisses both their arguments and sets out on his own path.
The margins of society and altered states of consciousness are themes explored by Berlin-based artist Jeremy Shaw. His film installation Variation FQ (2011–13) derives its visual aesthetic from Norman McLaren’s 1968 film Pas de deux. Shaw has replaced McLaren’s male and female ballet duo with transgender dancer, choreographer and model Leiomy Maldonado, highlighting the vogue dance movement that emerged in New York City in the 1980s. The film depicts hypnotic, expressive motion accompanied by a soundtrack, which Shaw composed and manipulated with tape effects and vocal samples from the songs Whip My Hair by Willow Smith and Heartbroken by T2. With Maldonaldo’s contemporary form of vogueing and a medley of electronic effects and analogue music, Variation FQ speaks to the evolution of subculture, gender, dance and humanity.
Also on view are two videos by media artist and filmmaker Lorna Boschman, which explore socially informed perceptions surrounding body image and gender identity. Big Fat Slenderella (1993) addresses society’s obsession with dieting and gaining weight, while BoyGirl (1999) looks at three women who routinely deal with gendered stereotypes in their personal and professional lives. Using a documentary interview format in both video works, the artist presents the participants’ perspectives on the subjects with humour and satire.
In the collaborative experimental video project Confused: Sexual Views Compilation Edit (1984), Paul Wong, Gary Bourgeois, Jeanette Reinhardt and Gina Daniels challenge the constrictive social mores that govern who and how we love. Through 27 frank interviews on sexuality and its many dimensions from a variety of perspectives, subjects emphasize the interconnections of intimacy, friendship and family while refuting popular myths surrounding the notion of romantic love. Controversial in its day for its uncensored and unapologetic questioning of the values ascribed to human relationships, the work examines the many forms of desire and sexuality that exist in our world. This compilation edit comprises excerpts from all of the original interviews, which totalled nine hours.
Through these many mediums and modes of presentation, Over the Rainbow pays homage to the courage and creativity of the LGBTQ2S+ artists in their continued struggle to promote equality and respect. As the Lesbian Rangers, Dempsey and Millan remind viewers, “Do unto lesbians as you would have lesbians do unto you.” The motto, applicable to all LGBTQ2S+ individuals and an underlying message of the exhibition, attests to the power of artistic and social visibility, and serves as a reminder of how much has been gained and how much more needs to be challenged.
Over the Rainbow: Works by LGBTQ2S+ Artists is on view in the Contemporary galleries B203–B204 of the National Gallery of Canada until September 2022. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.