Art Redefining Gender

JJ Levine, Alone Time, photographies. Vitrines sur l'art, rue Peel, 2018

Invited by Art Souterrain to curate the third edition of Vitrines sur l’art (Storefronts for Art), I agreed to collaborate on an event around gender, the theme chosen by Art Souterrain in 2018 in connection with recent news, particularly the “me-too” denunciations.

Although challenged by social issues, I cannot claim to be an expert on gender, gender identities and roles, or contemporary feminisms. The opportunity that was thus offered to me, allowed me to discover artists that were unknown to me, or to take a different look at works that were previously appreciated by virtue of another approach.

In this context, in collaboration with Art Souterrain, we opted for a varied sample of works, approaching gender issues from different angles and showing the complexity and richness of the subject. We hope to have enough of an outline of the issues at stake to allow for a rethinking of preconceptions and to open up everyone’s horizons regarding gender issues.

The presentation in the windows of unoccupied shops obliged moreover to a certain modesty. Some of the artists whose work is described here did not find an exhibition space. The electronic trace of the event will allow to do justice to their works and to the project as it was originally conceived.

The question of gender is above all a social construction, unlike sex, which is a physical reality linked to the reproductive system. The notion of gender, as opposed to sex, was brought to light by gender studies, particularly in the United States in the early 1970s, and opens up a field of research into sexual identity and orientation, sex roles, power relations and discrimination between the genders and sexual identities.

Art has not escaped this reframing, quite the contrary. The image plays a determining role in the definition of gender, the promotion of stereotypes and the maintenance of relations of domination. It is therefore not surprising that artists reappropriate this vocabulary to inflect it, to perform gender and to explore its multiple facets as they see fit.

In this context, contemporary artists are deconstructing unspoken conventions and transgressing social norms related to the question of gender, which we would like to impose as natural, or take for granted. Cross-dressing, more or less explicit denunciations, performances at the limits of the body, art asserts itself as a place of transgression, of redefinition or invention of the gendered order. The freedom of expression authorized in contemporary art allows a glance at the same time critical or ironic, even sometimes playful linking the art to the question of the gender, and sexual identities.

More than ever topical, in the context of denunciations linked to the “me too” movements and the claims of the LGBTQ+ communities, this theme thus challenges contemporary artists. They feed on reflections surrounding gender roles and prescriptions, and contribute to the deconstruction of prevalent heteronormativity and the invention of new genres.

Peel Street

Kent Monkman is a Cree artist exploring the historical precedents linking First Nations peoples to Europeans and colonizers. Since the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, Aboriginal people have performed their own peoples within the parameters imposed by others, including as captives, performers, and specimens in the human zoos popular in the 19th century. In the video, The Immoral Woman, Monkman reappropriates these enactments into an Aboriginal version, centered around her alter ego Miss Chief Eagle Testicle, a two-spirited character embodying the coexistence of diverse gender identities in the same person.

JJ Levine holds a BFA from Concordia University with a concentration in photography and gender studies. Levine’s works Queer Portraits, Alone Time and Switch explore gender identity and queer spaces. They have been shown across Canada, the United States and Europe. The photographic series Alone Time exhibited in the 2018 edition of Art Showcases has been published in art magazines and other internationally distributed works. It consists of photographs of couples in everyday life where the same person, chosen among relatives of the artist, embodies each of the protagonists of the couple in question. The verisimilitude of the images, made with an agreed-upon protocol, puts forward a commentary on the tenuous, even phony character of “heteronormativity”, serving a queer ideology that rejects socially imposed gender identities.

“Skin Deep” is a series of photographic self-portraits by Catherine Chun Hua Dong exploring the feeling of shame. In English, the word “shame” comes from an old German word “scamen” which means “to cover”. In French, we say “se couvrir de honte”. In many cultures, including the Asian culture to which the artist refers, the feeling of shame contributes to imposing control and social harmony in order to prevent citizens – especially women – from acting in ways that disrupt the status quo. In this series, the artist masks her own face with Chinese silk brocade fabric and transforms the pose inspired by an ID card photograph into a cultural symbol of this conservative pressure on women.

St. Catherine Street

At a very young age, a boy’s expression of a feminine component stirs up hatred. Bullying and harassment are often carried out in full view of consenting, or at least silent, witnesses. The photographic series Fall as a Girl. FAG: Fall as A Girl by Carl Bouchard and the slide show projected in the evening illustrate a metamorphosis inspired by the memory of an angsty dream from his childhood, when he was 8 or 10 years old. At the top of a staircase, surprised from behind by something invisible, frightened, he runs down the stairs to find that his fall has turned him into a girl. Covered in shame, he wakes up distressed and sheepish. Fortunately, today’s reality is apparently different, but isn’t there still some residue of a normative attitude that looks down on the Other?

Evergon had been entertaining the delirious and burlesque fantasy of having a character tattooed on his belly since his youth. The latter would have become bigger and stronger like him over time. In collaboration with the artist Ian Shatilla, he created Crossing the Equator, Going South, Pacific Rim, this fiction of a big mermaid with red hair covering almost all her chest. She shares her navel with his and extends her fish tail along her right thigh. Alone in his studio, Evergon then documented the result of this performance playing mischief with gender identities. The resulting Master Sailor photographic works are inspired by an initiation ritual that took place when ships crossed the equator where new recruits celebrated their first time in drag.

Dayna Danger is a Métis, Saulteaux, Polish, queer and mixed race artist who grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba and is currently based in Tio’tia:ke, the unceded territory of Montreal. She holds an MFA in photography from Concordia University’s Department of Fine Arts. Using photography, sculpture, performance and video, her practice challenges the demarcation between sexual empouvoirement and objectification by claiming an explicit monumental space of expression for practices perceived as deviant. Through reference to practices of consensual sexual exchange using pain and coercion, referred to as BDSM for bondage, discipline and sadomasochism, she explores the complex dynamics of sexuality, gender and games of power and submission.

Julie Favreau‘s approach is situated at the intersection of visual arts and choreography. Her research on gesture and performative movement feeds into the production of aesthetic objects, stimulating in return a reappropriation by the body. Through video, sculpture, performance, photography and installation, she creates characters, objects and gestures that compose enigmatic and disturbing universes between the intimate and the unconscious, inspiring a heightened sensory and bodily awareness. In her recent projects, eroticism is approached as a form of power and a living force. The artist is interested in the erotic texture of the world, in the way animate and inanimate things touch and affect each other.

Robert-Bourassa Boulevard

Céline B. La Terreur is a feminist artist interested in phenomena that reveal the condition and affirmation of women. Sensitive to political and psychological dimensions, she explores female fantasies and the links they weave between the expression of a female identity and freedom, power and masculinity. Her works use different subversive strategies marked by humor, caricature and satire, and reappropriate both the symbols and codes of novels, as well as the representations of women from popular musical culture. Since 2004, she has been working on a photographic series in which she stages herself in various feminine stereotypes, a body of work constituting a long-term performance realized in the studio in collaboration with various photographers.

Visual and media artist Caroline Monnet explores the complex ideas surrounding Aboriginal identity through the examination of cultural, non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal histories. In her video Creatura Dada, she depicts six Aboriginal women engaging in a Roman orgy, or Dada feast, reappropriating these Western traditions in favor of expressing strong Aboriginal female figures, in contrast to the images often portrayed of them. Similarly, the photograph Renaissance depicts the same protagonists with native attributes in a group portrait evoking the representation of nobles during the Renaissance, thus reversing the subjugation of the First Peoples of the New World imposed by the colonizers.

A homosexual man from Iran, Ebrin Bagheri has been observing the expressions, gestures and clothing of the people around him since his youth. This exercise allows him to understand how to integrate into a society that offers him few models. Feeling trapped in the confined space of the closet, he identifies with the words of the Iranian feminist poetess Forough Farrokhzad. Echoing her words with the series of drawings “Someone Who Is Like No-One”, he revisits his early feelings of isolation with watercolor and ballpoint pen drawings, the tools he used as a youngster to compose his identity. Today, he also explores the tensions that define Middle Eastern masculinity, which are rooted in historical traditions steeped in homosexual desire that he reclaims, but which are now disavowed by a Western heteronormative conception of sexual practices.

Anne Parisien is a multidisciplinary artist. Her performative work questions the duality between loss and desire. Through the staging of intimate experiences with collaborating friends and family members, she brings into play certain intriguing gestures that remind her of moments from the past, of banal, everyday moments. She purifies these movements and gestures, which she recycles until they are exhausted in a performance, stretches them into video sequences, manipulates words and reformulates sounds in order to draw out a sensation and install a state of contemplation, sometimes troubled. As part of the 2018 edition of Showcases on Art, we selected her videos, The Green Chair and The Couch highlighting the sensuality of scenes of family intimacy.
The Green Chair, 2010 and The Couch, 2010.

Place Victoria

This photographic portrait marks the end of a year-long performance realized in 2013 and 2014, by Michelle Lacombe, in collaboration with Sarah A Tremblay, photographer, and Azl Golanski, tattoo artist. Concretely, the project consisted of drawing, by means of inkless tattoos, a thin line of blood on the artist’s legs at each of the thirteen full moons over a twelve-month period. The height of each line indicates the volume of blood in the artist’s body and marks the top of this fluid interpreted as a body tide. The marks accumulate over time, eventually scarifying where they overlap. This work creates a link between the female body and the ocean. Both linked by their linguistic similarity (mother/sea), by their homophony and by their similar relationship to the moon, a celestial body that defines their respective cycles (tides and menstruation). As such, this work addresses and embodies notions of fertility, feminine ritual and transcendence. It is also a reflection on the female body that the artist appropriates as her work, rather than seeing it defined by the gaze of others.

Also known as Coco Riot, Coco Guzman is a queer artist of Spanish origin known for her activism and exploration of gender equality, gender inequities and feminist issues. She has been working since 2008 on a collaborative project called Genderpoo where she stages pictograms distinguishing between men’s and women’s restrooms and dividing the world in a binary way. She modulates and recomposes these schemas in order to reveal the stereotypes that they convey and that they contribute to maintain and impose. In its participatory component, this work also invites visitors to add their contribution, based on their personal experience of gender identity.

Adapted from an original text written by Art Souterrain and descriptions of works provided by the artists, or taken from their websites.

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