Established by artist/director Stiofan O’Ceallaigh in 2016 in response to the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando, and named after the hood/headwear that obscures the face/identity and associated perhaps most powerfully with terrorism – and more recently with Pussy Riot – Balaclava.Q is an International Queer Art Project & Collective focused on connecting, promoting and creating safe-space platforms for queer artists with the aim of disseminating and representing queer issues and lives. They support, endorse and operate within an artistic exploration of the queer aesthetic.
Through interactions with artists globally, Balaclava.Q develops and produces a series of tactics which address queer concerns and issues. I’ve been following their work for a while now and it’s great to see them produce this delectable volume featuring the work of seventy creatives from twenty-five countries, across five continents. The focus for the volume is their selected artists series and O’Ceallaigh’s personal favorites. As O’Ceallaigh mentions in the opening statement, 85% of submissions are from gay, bisexual, or MSM – which isn’t necessarily a problem, and is reflected in the content here. In a culture that wants you dead or silent, the production of visual representations of male-male desire is bold, powerful, and vitally important. Some of the work here addresses the damage done to boys as they grow up within that culture, the violence perpetrated by cisnorms of masculinity.
The images on display in this beautiful, glossy softback are a diverse selection of (post-) photography, paintings, drawings, performance/film, sculpture, digital, installation, clothing, and text. One piece (Andrew McPhail’s All My Little Failures, consists of the artist donning a shroud and veil made of Band-Aid sticking plasters in front of a wall bearing the words: I feel fine).
The artworks have been curated into pairs or couplets, and respond to one or other of Balaclava.Q’s Tactics, such as Tactic 1- Obscuring the Face*. The cumulative effect of seeing image after image of a faceless or masked figure is powerful and moving, reinforcing the importance of a platform like this for connecting artists across the globe and representing lives too often unrepresented or actively erased or censored.
Some of the pieces are gloriously and profoundly playful. Connor Shields’ mixed media sculpture Built Like a Brick Shit House effectively juxtaposes the soft domesticity of knitting with the hardness of red bricks. In a similar vein, Smart Barnett contrasts embroidery with cut-out images from gay porn. This fragility of queer love is also signified in the work of James Robert Morrison, There is Never More Than a Fag Paper Between Them – Phil + Jacob is a delicately rendered pencil drawing of two young men kissing on a patchwork page of cigarette (fag) papers.
The queer needlework found in Smart Barnett’s work is also stitched across the piece included here by Turkish artist, Serpil Yildiz: a penis/finger within an embroidery frame, entitled Please Tell Me I Am One. The raw and sophisticated queer energy rebounding throughout these pages, through word and image, is palpable and infectious. Bar codes on each page provide access to online presences, social media details, and through these stitches, their own narrative of connectivity, like a rhizome of queer spors endlessly cross-fertilizing and bursting forth.
These artists are addressing issues, moments, territories of queer experience that need addressing, making the personal political. Zahra Hoccom’s Kiss of Equality, in its simplicity, is one of the most memorable pieces: two young women in hijab kiss on the mouth. This image appears early on in the book and in a sense sets the tone maintained throughout of inclusion of the obscured, those who can’t show their faces, who hide their identities or are forced to hide them. It’s a powerful message, although the book plays other notes, playful notes, lustful notes.
Matt Gale’s wearable art explores the vulnerability of queer bodies by covering the male genitals – in the image included here – with a ruched pink velvet codpiece resembling a Clanger more than a cock, and it’s both camp and hard-hitting; as are Ron Kibble’s inside front/back cover images of twisted and affirmative graffiti faces, mouths stitched and/or each face is a skull, a queer memento mori to open and close proceedings. A dark and witty move.
Hugo Faz’s interpretation of Tactic 1 (obscuring the face) is to turn the body around and give us a daring close-up of a bare, firm arse, the bronze eye in shadow, the butt cheeks adorned with the word Sombra (Shadow). Both fear and desire, as kissing cousins, radiate in the artworks here, the search for beauty as important as the search for identity, belonging.
The naked man in Robert Siegelman’s Untitled could be dead or alive, in pleasure or pain, head thrown back, red-faced, as another man’s hand lays palm down on his chest. Victoria Shone’s What’s Her Name? uses euphemisms and slang words for the vagina to compose the shape of one, pink at the center like a rosebud, and made me go in search of the male version, What’s His Name? Emmanuel Barrouyer’s Silencio X has shades of Pierre Moliniere’s genderfuck surrealism. The piece with which it’s paired/coupled, Scott Baxter’s Feral Creatures 4 (Picnic Table) is one of my favorites: two invisible men fuck on a picnic table in a public park, their bodies like paint-by-numbers white figures.
But there’s so much here to commend. With excellent short essays and three forewords, this is an important document, a testament to the fact that queer art is thriving in all its vital, provocative beauty.
*Tactic 1: obscuring the face
Tactic 2: moving image
Tactic 3: abstract activism
Tactic 4: projects + collaborations
Review by Jonathan Kemp
Queerguru London Contributing Editor Jonathan Kemp writes fiction and non-fiction and teaches creative writing at Middlesex University. He is the author of two novels – London Triptych (2010), which won the 2011 Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, and Ghosting (2015) – and the short-story collection Twentysix. (2011, all published by Myriad Editions). Non-fiction works include The Penetrated Male (2012) and Homotopia?: Gay Identity, Sameness and the Politics of Desire (2015, both Punctum Books).