Curated and Written by Rhea Tuli
Queer Asia is an organisation that was established in 2016 with the aim to bring together a network of queer identifying academics, filmmakers, artists and activists. The third edition of Queer Asia aims to initiate critical discussions surrounding the topic of bodies and borders in queer communities in Asia and within Asian diasporas. Alongside a conference and film festival, Queer Asia is proud to announce to opening of an art exhibition titled ‘Bodies x Borders’.
Situated in the Paul Webley Wing of SOAS, Central London, from the 26th– 28th June, ‘Bodies x Borders’ features thirteen Asian artists who are using mediums such as photography, collage, performance art, painting and video to engage with issues that are related to sexuality and gender identity. The themes of gender identity and sexuality 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 artists in the ‘Bodies x Borders’ exhibition, encountered such restrictions when he exhibited his series, with me, four years ago at the Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art in Nagoya, Japan. With me consisted of photographs of Takano and male and female models posing nude and politely embracing each other. The intention of with me was to detect small differences in Japanese skin colour and Takano believed that if he also stood naked beside the models these differences would be clearly shown. Although all of Takano’s photographs exhibited the unaltered display of male and female genitalia, the naked photographs of the artist with male models caused considerable controversy. These photographs were accused of being ‘obscene’, as defined by the Japanese Penal Code, and the police threatened to arrest the 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 amicably embracing each other without clothes on. For Takano, complying with the requests of the police and removing the flagged photographs would have been tantamount to rendering the censorship demands of the law invisible. He therefore draped a cloth over the lower half of the photographed male subjects in order for his work to continue being displayed in the museum and to also symboliselegislative intervention. Takano’s experience with the police fuelled his belief that the Japanese government is policing sexual consciousness by administering control over the bodies of its people. In pre-modern Japanese society, sexual relationships between men were never considered taboo. According to Takano, choosing a male or female as a sexual partner was seen as a matter of taste. However, through the process of modernisation, in which Japan introduced the values of the Western world, a sense of discrimination towards homosexuality was also imported and has since lingered. 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 those countries who restrict discussions on sexuality.
In addition to exploring issues related to censorship and state restriction, this exhibition will also attempt to challenge the traditional manners in which queer sexuality is expressed. About Gay Men and Pants, by the Korean artist and activist Heezy Yang, explores how homosexual men engage with their sexuality. While creating his series, Yang met and interviewed a number of gay men in Korean nightclubs. He explains that nightclubs provide an important outlet for homosexuals because the queer is not permitted in the everyday life of South Korea. By playing on the idea of the visible against the invisible, the queer artist and activist believes that underwear allows gay men in South Korea to subtly express their sexuality and offers an intimate look into their personal lives and experiences. His series consists of individual captions from his interviews with men in Korean nightclubs alongside photographs of their underwear.
Repression and subdued expression are equally important matters for artists who explore gender identity in Asia. Through his collection of photographic portraits, the Bangladeshi artist Royal captures the devastating and harsh realities that transgender communities face in Dhaka. His photography seems to play on the term ‘capture’, with his portraits revealing the distraught faces of those who are continuously abused and ridiculed because of their gender identity, but have no means of escape other than taking the extreme step of renouncing their Bangladeshi culture and abandoning their home. While Royal’s photographs uncover the levels of discrimination against transgender communities in Bangladesh, Kannagi Khanna’s photographic series, Leela explores how religion in North India can act as a vehicle through which these communities embrace their identity without harassment. Although legislation is currently under review in India to extend the legal rights of transgender Indians and introduce the first anti-discrimination law, transgender communities in many parts of India still live on the margins of society. Khanna’s series reveals how religious events can offer these communities the opportunity to both express their gender identity and be accepted in India’s conservative society.
‘Bodies x Borders’ also uses a feminist lens to expose structures of identity and discrimination in Asia and within Asian diasporas. Although the relationship between queer theory and feminism often provokes contentious debate amongst artists, scholars and academics alike over issues regarding gender, sexuality, representation and identity, ‘Bodies x Borders’ will show that feminism and queer theory share mutual foundations and goals. In a time when anti-sexual assault and women’s empowerment movements such as MeToo and Times Up have restructured the public conversation about women’s issues in the West, ‘Bodies x Borders’ explores how Asian women are attempting to redefine their cultural and political identity outside of oppressive social constructions and patriarchal dominations.
Asian artists who delve into the themes of gender identity and sexuality are often excluded from the discourses of contemporary art. ‘Bodies x Borders’ attempts to address this oversight and in doing so, also seeks to demonstrate that exclusion can offer a sense of inclusion. By virtue of their exclusion, Asian artists who explore sexuality and gender identity can often engage with and offer dynamic perspectives on other neglected topics, such as the obstacles currently being faced by refugees across Asia. For Alqumit Alhamad, art 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) invaded his hometown of Raqqa, his work took on a deeper dimension as his paintings not only endeavoured to portray his experiences as a homosexual but also as a refugee. Alhamad’s darkly surreal, at times apocalyptic paintings grapple with both the personal and political. In this respect, his artwork features opposing spaces that explore being ostracised against belonging within society, entrapment against freedom, and injured bodies against overcoming borders.