Politics and Violence in The Liminal – Queer Asia art exhibition 2019

In its third year, Queer Asia brings together fourteen artists in its second annual art exhibition to run 13-17 July 2019. Entitled ‘The Liminal’, the exhibition refers to a threshold, or a marginal space. The exhibition is set to commence in a city where LGBTQ+ rights are celebrated. Pride July 2019 was the biggest one yet, with at least 30,000 people joining the parade. In contrast, The Liminal provides an insight into varying experiences of LGBTQ+ communities in countries and cities different to our own.  Identity politics are riddled with violence; indeed, same-sex sexual activity is a crime in seventy countries. Whether external or internal, the Asian LGBTQ+ community face violence daily. Even where legislation may in theory provide protection, cultural attitudes do not necessarily match up, and vice versa. In this situation lies a threshold, or margin, for LGBTQ+ people to situate themselves in. The Liminal exhibition reflects the myriad struggles which occur within this space, constituting a cultural broking mechanism for the Asian LGBTQ+ community in these ambiguous climates.

Although the streets of London have provided a stage to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community through London Pride, LGBTQ+ communities have experienced different environments in Britain’s previous colonies. Britain has supplied a colonial headache which bans gay sex in Singapore under Section 377A: a man who has committed an act of ‘gross indecency’ with a man could be jailed for up to two years.

Ambiguity begins since prosecutions for this are rare; ambiguity is furthered since the law does not apply to females. Even in the highly regulated environment of Singapore, lesbian relationships are not accounted for in the legislation. In an environment where positive representations of LGBTQ+ people have been prohibited in the media, a threshold has been created where a whole community has struggled to reconcile their identity.

Charmaine Poh, ‘Ele and Lee’ part of the series ‘How She Loves’, digital photograph, 2018

Charmaine Poh, ‘Ele and Lee’ part of the series ‘How She Loves’, digital photograph, 2018

Charmaine Poh has creatively approached this issue through her photography series ‘How She Loves’. Currently, in Singapore the religious environment has made it difficult to comprehend sexuality. Poh’s series grapples with current issues in Singaporean society concerning sexuality by using photography to explore what womanhood and religion means for those forced to reside in the margins of society. Her camera captures a staged space which imagines a Singapore in which same-sex marriage is legal.

The fantasy of these bubbles of love and relaxation highlights the failure of the Singaporean government to modernise laws on sexuality.

This seems particularly shocking, especially when considering the glitzy and gaudily modern persona that has been projected of Singapore to the world through the 2018 film ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. In a country advanced in healthcare, education and the economy, the Singaporean government lags in LGBTQ+ rights and this series uses a modern instrument – that of the camera – to make such a fact clear. Poh’s work highlights this by juxtaposing love with prohibition. The use of traditional wedding props, including veils, bouquets and bow ties, elicits feelings of frustration since the marriage seems natural yet the artificial space it is confined to highlights how limiting the current law is. Images of the couples’ parents’ wedding days are displayed in the background, drawing attention to the struggles that homosexual women face in a heteronormative society. In the portrait of Ele and Lee, rose petals adorn the frame to draw the viewer’s attention to the intimacy of their pose. The space between them is painfully close yet, without touching, hints to the viewer at the prohibition that stands in their way. As a documentary photographer, Poh’s series hints at the future path that Singapore should take to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of this natural love.

Meanwhile, Bangladesh also suffers under the British-colonial spectre. Section 57 of the Information and Communication Act 2006 provides that anyone intentionally posting information that can disrupt the law and order, including information that hurts religious sentiments, is illegal. In practice, this law prevents sexual minorities in Bangladesh from exercising their freedom of speech. Although the punishment for breaking this law is officially a maximum penalty of fourteen years’ imprisonment and a fine, unofficially the punishment can be much greater. However, Western understandings of LGBTQ+ culture must be interrogated and revised in order to understand the experience of Hijras in Bangladesh. Hijras are part of traditional South Asian culture, thereby complicating remnant British post-colonial laws. As they are officially recognised as the ‘third gender’ by the Bangladesh government, their experience is different to that of a Western understanding of the LGBT community in Bangladesh. Since their recognition in 2013, initiatives have been promised to provide opportunities for Hijras. However, protection of Hijras and implementation of these programmes is lacking. Even after, in December 2014, Hijras were encouraged to apply for government employment programmes, many reported that in doing so they were harassed. Instead, Hijras continue to be subject to discriminatory and humiliating treatment in many spheres of their daily life since, despite government recognition, many people continue to view them as outcasts.[1]

Royal, ‘Trans Power’ part of the series ‘Artivism and Sexuality’, digital photograph

It is in this ambiguous environment that Royal has worked for the past twenty-one years with community based organisations and with national HIV/AIDS programs and Human Rights Commissions to specifically reduce Hijra discrimination in Bangladesh. Currently, he is working on his project ‘Artivism and Sexuality’ which provides support for those living with HIV/AIDS through art and counselling. Royal’s exhibition series, ‘Gender in Dilemma’, explores the place of transgender people in Bangladeshi society. The series thanks the government for its recognition of the third gender in 2013 whilst also highlighting the ambiguous threshold that the community still operates in: ‘Bangladeshi society is still thinking that we are the part of sinners.’ ‘Gender in Dilemma’ speaks to themes of both internal and external violence. The story which accompanies the photographs tell personal narratives of struggles both to understand and express identity whilst facing outside persecution for it. It is within this threshold where photographs can provide a valuable insight. For a Western audience, ‘Gender in Dilemma’ is a powerful series which provides an otherwise difficult to obtain insight into a society riddled by prohibitive laws and inconsistent implementation of human rights.

Being part of traditional Bangladesh culture, Hijras have occupied a distinctly ambiguous place in British post-colonial politics.

If we move away from South Asia, LGBTQ+ discrimination is particularly rife in Arabia in another cultural sphere. In Saudi Arabia, same-sex sexual conduct carries a death sentence and it is illegal for men ‘to behave like women’ and vice versa. In Sudan, male same-sex activity is punished with the death penalty. Recently, it has been Beirut that is regarded as the best place for the LGBTQ+ community in Arabia. However, as Beirut’s first pride parade had to be cancelled in 2017 in response to terrorist threats from Islamic radicals, LGBTQ+ visibility seems to be a far cry to the scenes adorning London’s streets during Pride.[2] Even though the law in Lebanon, since January 2016, enables a transgender man to alter his official identity and offers him access to the necessary treatment, cultural attitudes do not necessarily match up.

Queer Habibi, Maroccan Rose Fatima, 2019

Queer Habibi, Maroccan Rose Fatima, 2019

In this uncertain environment, LGBTQ+ activism is restricted to the brave few. Queer Habibi, mainly through their anonymous profile on Instagram, has ventured into this realm by posting their art, which is inspired by stories of queer life in the Middle East and North Africa. The anonymity of their account reminds the audience of the risks that their work poses. The term of endearment they adopt – ‘habibi’, meaning ‘my love’ or ‘my sweetheart’ – shines warmth in an environment which is so hostile. By posting their art online, Queer Habibi makes the invisible visible. Their images are those of celebration and acceptance of one’s true self. Post by post, they chip away at the negative stereotypes which plague LGBTQ+ identity in Arabia. They remind followers that there are parts of the world where being openly queer risks death. Significantly, figures in their postcards pose in front of mosques and churches to draw attention to the fact that the LGBTQ+ community should be represented in the places which they grew up in. Queer Habibi’s project is one of acceptance and normalisation. Although their Instagram account is targeted at the LGBTQ+ community of Arabia, the display of their works in London provides a new layer of interpretation. Here, the contrast between London and Arabia is stark, highlighting the work yet to be done and the hidden global community which exists beyond the colourful streets of London.

London Pride 2019 and the artists included in the ‘Queer’ Asia 2019 exhibition, The Liminal, celebrate and express queer identities in different ways. By transporting these images to the West, The Liminal provides a crucial insight into environments so different from the city it is situated in. In this way, The Liminal is also a platform for the expression of identities which we can all reflect on, reminding us of the myriad environments for LGBTQ+ rights that exist globally.

For more information, visit https://queerasia.com/art-2019-artists/

Ella Nixon helped to coordinate some of the publicity and media for the ‘Queer’ Asia Art Exhibition 2019. Originally from Glossop in the Peak District, she has recently graduated with a History degree from the University of Cambridge. Ella is soon to begin studying for a History of Art MA at The Courtauld Institute of Art this year. Here, she will specialise in twentieth century art.

[1] Kyle Knight, “I Want to Live With My Head Held High”: Abuses in Bangladesh’s Legal Recognition of Hijras, accessed 8 July 2019 [https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/12/23/i-want-live-my-head-held-high/abuses-bangladeshs-legal-recognition-hijras]

[2] Olivia Alabaster, ‘Beirut anti-homophobia event pulled after Salafist group’s threat’, accessed 9 July 2019 [https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/beirut-anti-homophobia-event-pulled-after-salafist-groups-threat]

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