Snaps from a Queer Angle | Susanne Huber | Monday, 21.09.2020

Many Pictures Make an Image

A snapshot, if Merriam Webster may be allowed to provide a provisional reference, can be described as “1: a casual photograph made typically by an amateur with a small handheld camera,” and/or “2: an impression or view of something brief or transitory.” As it turns out, this blog series takes a quite literal approach to its title. Snaps from a Queer Angle, just like their photographic counterpart, aimed to present a subject from a position of curiosity rather than mastery, playfully weaving together threads from art and art theory untinged by academic pretension or rigor. Definition 2, however, applies even more to the subject, as queer approaches commit to an ever-evolving way of thinking and of performing otherwise. 1Amelia Jones ingeniously delineated how the realm “otherwise” accommodates alternative narratives besides predetermined categories and boundaries. Amelia Jones and Erin Silver (eds.), Otherwise: Imagining Queer Feminist Art Histories (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016); see, in particular, Jones’s introduction: “Sexual Differences and Otherwise.” Just like the captivating shots produced by street photography, the written snaps are far from randomly chosen. They are conceived with a certain openness, admitting some features that are overexposed or blinded by the flash, while other features are truncated or not even captured.
Recent events in the art world, more specifically concerning public museums in the US, call for another look at the subject of the preceding post, though eventually it will lead us directly to the current issue. While an accredited strain of institutional critique has found its way into the canon of western art, most institutions have yet to explore how the very structure of the exhibition circuit is determined by patterns of normativity. This goes beyond a curatorial responsibility for what is on display and what is being collected. Just a few days ago, we witnessed not merely a surrender to the prevalent economic norm but almost an embrace of it. The questionable decisions taken by leading institutions affect both artists and employees: The Whitney Museum, for example, came under serious pressure “after artists of color objected to the institution’s having obtained their work through discounted sales largely meant to benefit racial justice charities”; the tremendous layoffs of staff, who were already subsisting on a low income, in nearly all of NYC’s top museums too indicate a highly precarious environment, an environment that appears to be largely ignorant of its own condition as a social frame to art.
An artists’ protest in New York in 1978; the CETA federal jobs programme, which ran from 1973 to 1983, gave work to 10,000 artists around the US © Blaise Tobia
A critique of these very material terms must be part of any queer agenda as well. Patrick Steorn points out how “social categories are implicitly present in setting standards of aesthetic quality and establishing a canon” governed by agents of the normal. This aesthetic quality Steorn refers to is not only established by the objects on display but also by the very conditions of their appearance. Thus an “alternative archive […] is not necessarily about completely different objects but about different emotional and political attachments to objects.” 2Patrick Steorn, “Curating Queer Heritage: Queer Knowledge and Museum Practice,” in: Curator: The Museum Journal 55, no. 3 (July 2012), 355–65, 357.
Now where do we stand in this apparatus of meaning making that is the cultural production of knowledge? How to meet the overwhelming authority of the normal, the things that we are not supposed to question? In her groundbreaking essay on “Situated Knowledges,” Donna Haraway set forth a highly adaptable concept for queer approaches by “arguing for the view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring, and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity.” 3Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” in: Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1988): 575–99, 589. The body is a frame too.
Admittedly, for a blog series on queer issues in photography and art, so far there has been relatively little talk about the body. Bodies, however, have been an integral resource for the works discussed: as a vital scale to gauge perceptual positions and relations in Duane Michals’s Things Are Queer or as a stage for the social performance of gender and its normative regulations in Zoe Leonard’s images of bearded women, each post was tied to a corporeal instance. The body as frame and image simultaneously, however, appears to be deliberately explored in the work of Paul Mpagi Sepuya. The Los Angeles-based artist pushes the boundaries of portraiture: his focus on human, mostly male, mostly gay subjects is accompanied by an equal attention to the generic objects, tools, props, and printed matter that populate his studio space, and not infrequently directed to a combination of both.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, SHOOT, no. 1, 2005 (book cover)
Bodies proliferate Mpagi Sepuya’s oeuvre. Right after graduating, the artist began publishing SHOOT, a series of zine-like booklets, each devoted to a single person or couple, wearing few or no clothes at all. DIY-style and cheaply reproduced in Xerox, mostly in black and white, with titles and captions slovenly copy-pasted throughout the pages, the booklets refer to the aesthetics of illicit gay porn magazines as much as they form an incomplete inventory of the artist’s friends and acquaintances. Supposedly not explicit enough for the former but too sexual for the latter, SHOOT displays as physical an encounter as the medium of photography allows.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Figure (_2010037), 2017, archival pigment print, 24 x 32 inch © Paul Mpagi Sepuya
Since then, the artist has complicated the relationship between model and photographer in his work. Recent works insist – more or less explicitly – on including the artist and the means of image making. In Figure (_2010037), portraiture appears to be just the starting point from which the whole process of picturing unfolds to the beholder. The artist is present in the image, as is the tripod that carries the camera, facing the ultimate subject, which is reflected in a huge shard of a mirror. Mpagi Sepuya’s model is only captured as a blurry fragment, revealing some light-skinned legs, those of the model crouching on the floor in front of the photographer, who is actually standing in front of the beholder. And isn’t there a third person in the background? “Which background?” one might ask: Mpagi Sepuya’s or the model’s? Layer after layer, we try to discern what is “real” and what is mediated through a mirror, or if there is such a thing as an immediate image at all.
Still, Mpagi Sepuya doesn’t play what Haraway so fittingly has called “the god trick” – that is a view from above yet nowhere, a view that suggests an objective view, one that is all too readily ascribed to the medium of photography too. The photographer is in the picture: apparently naked, he exposes himself equally as vulnerable as his model. This work is not just about looking and the gaze, the grand tropes in photography and visual theory since the 1970s. Mpagi Sepuya performs a kind of embodied looking. The eye is bound to a body that is Black, gendered, sexed, and sexual as the subtle eroticism of the scene clearly demonstrates. An image here is never just one (or even self-identical). It is made up of shards and fragments, bits and pieces that only together form the social landscape of Mpagi Sepuya’s vital environment. The common notion of a “body of work” couldn’t be more apposite here. This visual body, as the artist AA Bronson observed, eventually forms a community: “Paul’s process of creation is more than a creation of images, or of installations: I will go further and say that Paul’s art also exists in the creation of community. In this sense, he falls within a long line of queer artists and writers whose place in community was an important part of how they were and what they produced.” 4AA Bronson, “Paul Mpagi Sepuya,” in: Evidence of Accumulation, exh. cat. (Harlem, New York: Studio Museum, 2011), 14–16, 14.

An “evidence of accumulation,” 5Lauren Haynes, “Evidence of Accumulation,” in: Evidence of Accumulation, exh. cat. (Harlem, New York: Studio Museum, 2011), 1, 1. as curator Lauren Hayes coined Mpagi Sepuya’s aesthetic approach, to some degree also applies to the work of Zanele Muholi. Though in a quite different iconic tone, the artist and visual activist built a large photographic collective of formerly invisible lives: the queer lives of lesbians and trans people, “embodying a new vision of African sexuality,” 6Gabeba Baderoon, “Gender within Gender": Zanele Muholi's Images of Trans Being and Becoming,” in: Feminist Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, RACE AND TRANSGENDER STUDIES (Summer 2011), 390–416, 402. as Gabeba Baderoon put it. The 2006 series Faces and Phases is an ongoing project to depict a community that for a long time didn’t even know it existed. To date, more than five hundred, formally homogeneous black-and-white portraits – some barely bust length, some almost full figure – together form a visual archive of fights for survival, social exclusion, and a practice of concealment that is still the reality of queer life in many areas of the African continent where these images were taken. Nevertheless, Muholi presents proud and powerful individuals. Her models look straight into the camera to meet the beholder’s gaze; the larger-than-life prints, usually installed in a grid pattern right across the exhibition walls, outdo their audience in both number and size, as if to protect the individual within the shelter of the group.
Exhibition view of Zanele Muholi’s Faces and Phases 13 during an exhibition run at Stevenson gallery, Johannesburg, 2019
Just like Mpagi Sepuya, Muholi creates images of heightened intimacy. Unlike Mpagi Sepuya, however, Muholi leaves her protagonists clothed. Still it’s their bodies, their sexuality, and a performance of gender that place the individuals in a certain social position outside of the norm and yet within a certain community of not just like-minded but also like-bodied people – like-bodied despite the differences that distinguish them, alike not so much in terms of appearance and composition but rather in respect of their self-determined desires and dreams of a safe life.
Once again, where do we stand? At the beginning, I would say.