This week saw the opening of Tate Modern’s new exhibition Queer British Art which features work from 1861-1967 that relate to lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer identities to mark the 50th anniversary of the beginnings of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England.
The show, a bold move that is testament to the lasting legacy of soon to be ex-director Nicholas Serota come June, explores how artists have expressed their sexuality during times of social change and how gender roles and preference assumptions have been questioned and transformed by a collective of creative who were often at the forefront of pushing boundaries and questioning norms.
Weaving emotional and often very personal narratives, the works range from highly political to privately erotic by artists including Duncan Grant, David Hockney, Dora Carrington and John Singer Sargent, bringing together some of Britain’s best artistic voices from the last 150 years to celebrate the diversity of our queer population.
To coincide with the show, Channel 4 has launched a series of six short films that provide a glimpse in to the LGBTQ lives of six individuals as part of their ‘random acts' season. Each film has been commissioned by a queer film maker who has applied their own approach to storytelling, to create a series of passionate tales of human love, often in defiance of social stigma.
The first in the series is directed by Joe Stephenson and features Scott Chambers playing a young Sir Ian McKellen who narrates the short film with his personal account of growing up in a time when it wasn’t possible to be a publicly gay man. McKellen explains “one of the reasons I proselytize, talk about being gay is because I don't want today's children not to enjoy their sexuality and be aware of it”.
With national pioneers of art and culture that hold sway over important media and mediums coming together to celebrate open and diverse sexualities, the signals of a main stream shift are well underway. It’s important to remember the pioneers of these movements for their private and public struggles, which have sown the seeds for an ever-increasing tolerance, understanding and appreciativeness we see today.
The exhibition and series of films highlight in relative terms how opinions can change in short time spans, while also suggesting more can still be done. Audiences should applaud these institutions for tackling such complex and often misunderstood topics, and engage actively with these historical concepts of gender and sexuality in an ever changing and diversifying world. Make sure to catch the show at Tate Britain and Channel 4’s series as they’re released.
Words by Harry Seymour
Queer British Art 1861-1967 is on at Tate Britain until 1st October 2017. Channel 4’s Random Acts can be seen online now.