International artists redefining the concept of gender
“Snails are neither male nor female. They change depending on the circumstances. Gender is not meant to stay, but to flow.” These are the words of María Torres, a Spanish-born painter and performance artist currently living in Berlin. “It’s funny,” she says, “how humans need labels, like little boxes, to understand the world around them, but the world is rarely so simple.”
You are probably familiar with the little boxes María talks about. When filling an online questionnaire, these boxes show up under the question of: What is your gender? This particular question and this particular concept have been called one of the most complicated issues of our generation. Gender is everywhere. This summer, Hayward Gallery’s exhibition Kiss My Genders, which explored different aspects of gender fluidity, received multiple five-star reviews due to its activism-focused approach. And one of the rooms inTim Walker’s Wonderful Things at the V&A was entirely focused on redefining the concept of masculinity.
Whether it appears as a discussion topic in the papers or as the focus of an art exhibition, it is undeniable that gender is slowly becoming part of the mainstream media. But visibility is a delicate matter. “There are things some people do not want to look at,” María says. “Gender outside the socially constructed binary is one of these things.” One of María’s pieces, a collaboration with the Australian sexologist Juliet Allen, is a good example of what happens when artists tap into societal aspects that are often either ignored or censored.
“Every single element is there for a reason,” María says. “From the frog and the snail to the fact you cannot differentiate man from woman that much.” The picture, which represents three figures laying on the floor, is a reflection on Juliet Allen’s experience with gender. María explains: “There is no masculine and feminine energies in Juliet Allen’s life, because they have fused in order to flow and change freely.”
Although María understands this concept can be hard to assimilate, she says everything is a matter of challenging inherited ideas. “Gender binary is a thing society made up, but if you’re never told you can choose outside those two little boxes, you’ll end up feeling trapped.”
In East London, Italian multi-disciplinary artist Veronique Charlotte goes a step further to start conversations about gender. For Veronique, gender awareness starts by creating a platform, a safe space where people can exchange experiences without fear.
Following that thought, she created GENDER PROJECT, a multimedia exhibition featuring a collection of 100 candid portraits documenting the fluidity of the gender spectrum. The emotion and rawness displayed in the portraits, all in black and white, have prompted such a positive reaction from the audience, GENDER PROJECT has been shown all over East London galleries and film festivals in Italy.
“When I was working on each individual portrait, I could tell there was a lot of emotion spread around the room. These are people’s stories, and each image is as unique as the subject telling it,” says Veronique.
It is this idea of intimacy, of abandoning the general to focus on the individual and their experience, that has made Veronique’s work stand out. The photographs are not so much about gender as they are about people, their energy, and their journey.
For Andy Passchier, a Netherland-born illustrator based in Pittsburgh, that is exactly what art’s ultimate aim should be. “It’s almost a form of therapy,” Andy, who goes by they/them pronouns, says, “creating art has always been a way of exploring my own experience.” From a young age, Andy did not feel fully comfortable with the notions assigned to their birth-assigned gender. It was not until college that they found there were words to describe what they were feeling: non-binary, gender nonconforming, gender variant…
Even though Andy’s journey began from a spot of self-reflection, it did not take them long to jump from the individual experience to the general feeling of belonging to a community. But this was not always an easy ride. When Andy first came out, they felt isolated as they struggled to find examples of their own experiences in the media. “I turned to recommendations from friends to try and find a footing for my newly discovered identity,” Andy says. “Seeing what I was feeling represented in books, cinema and other visual forms helped me find a clearer definition of who I was.”
Struck by the realisation of the impact seeing themselves represented had on them, Andy began posting their own illustrations and comics on Instagram, hoping they would provide a similar comfort. “I found there were many others out there who had felt as I did,” they say, “and I wanted to provide them with a sense of support and an online community to reach out to.”
The role social media has played in the evolution of the public understanding of gender is often emphasised. For Andy, who posts most of their work on Instagram, it’s definitely been a useful tool, but there are uglier sides to visibility. “I do get messages from people who are transphobic,” they say. “The best approach to me has always been to try and start a conversation based on compassion and understanding.”
It is vital hate speech and ignorance does not end a conversation that is so necessary and is very much alive. For these three artists, it is clear they still have a lot to say. Whereas María is focused on multiple “feisty projects”, as she calls them, Veronique plans on taking the GENDER PROJECT to a different continent. “I would like to explore the perspectives from different cultures and see the connections and differences between them,” she says. For Andy, it is obvious their Instagram journey has only started: “I hope that I can continue to chronicle my experiences as a person from a so far underrepresented group.”