To celebrate Pride Month, I wanted to share a couple of queer artists’ work in recognition of their accomplishments. Here are some of the artists who’ve had a big impact on me as a trans and queer photographer.
Kehinde Wiley is a contemporary artist working in traditional media and style. This year, he became the first black artist to paint the official presidential portrait with his monumental painting of Barack Obama. Wiley’s work addresses the lack of art historical representation of black subjects, referencing Jacques-Louis David and the French Rococo movement, replacing oft-represented heroic figures with young black men, bringing them positive visibility. This particular piece repositions a muse greatly desired by the artist from a queer perspective, another theme throughout Wiley’s work. Though not a lens-based artist, I’ve found that Wiley’s art-historical references have greatly influenced my practice and widened my knowledge of classical art history, and have helped expand these narratives into a world closer to my own experience.
Another contemporary artist working with ideas of representation and visibility, Mickalene Thomas’ works are defined by their depiction of powerful black women. Her work references in equal parts art historical figures and subjects, including Courbet and odalisques, and blaxploitation films of the 1970s. Through her multi-media portraiture, Thomas goes about re-examining the artist-muse relationship with an updated understanding of agency, repositioning the subject from a perspective of same-sex desire. Seeing the desire of a woman so prominently and unabashedly displayed in works of art is rare, even in the modern and post-modern era, making Thomas’ work empowering and satisfying for me as a queer person.
Hannah Höch, Untitled, photocollage, circa 1925-30. Sold February 17, 2004 for $24,150.
The sole female member of the Berlin Dada group (among many important women contributors to the movement), Höch used photomontage — a technique she helped to pioneer — to depict androgynous individuals. She would often combine masculine and feminine traits to create one body and use these traits in her subjects to blur traditional gender roles. Her work explored the contrast between how women were portrayed in media and their lived realities, and believed women’s liberation to be of a kind with other social and political revolutions. As a queer person attracted to multiple genders, it is rare that I find an artist who both addresses in their work and openly identifies with bisexuality, but Höch’s approach to both attraction and gender in her work is a welcome reminder that the B in LGBTQ+ is very much present and valid, despite widespread belief that this isn’t so.
Known for their gender-bending photographs, Claude Cahun began photographing themself around 1912, at age 18. Their direct gaze in these self-portraits, when combined with their shaved head and the obfuscation of typical gender signifiers, challenged expectations of gender, sexuality, and beauty in early twentieth-century France. Though there are many exceptionally talented transgender visual artists, Cahun is one of the very few whose work is not overlooked due to their identity. To me, Cahun’s work was an early introduction to representation of nonbinary trans people through photography; their writings and photographs encouraged me to explore varied expressions of gender openly, especially through photographs. Their work is a reminder that femininity does not have to be absent from nonbinary representation, and that, contrary to popular belief, being trans, and particularly being nonbinary, is not a twenty-first-century phenomenon.