From Closet to Canvas: Coming Out at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Birmingham Museum’s new exhibit ‘Coming Out’ showcases and celebrates 50 years of unapologetically queer art.

2017 marked 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of male homosexual acts in England and Wales. Since then, we’ve seen significant progress in LGBTQ equality in the United Kingdom, most notably the introduction of same-sex marriage. But LGBTQ visibility in mainstream culture is still rife with stereotypes, misinformation and ignorance, and huge swathes of the community remain vulnerable — especially trans people, who are consistently required to justify their own existence and convince “concerned” citizens that they pose no threat, in much the same way that queer people have had to do throughout history.

The LGBTQ community contains multitudes, crossing all boundaries of lived experience, from race to class to religion. It’s not one community, as is so often suggested, but many. The diversity contained within this broad, shared identity is the inspiration behind Coming Out, a new touring exhibit which is now on show in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s Gas Hall space following its stint at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool over the summer. The show was developed in partnership with the Arts Council Collection to coincide with the 50th anniversary of decriminalisation, providing insight into how gender, sexuality and identity have been expressed and explored by artists from 1967 onwards.

Coming Out comprises more than 80 artworks in the main exhibition space, along with a selection of other pieces scattered throughout a specially created extensive gallery trail, and a rich event programme which includes workshops on Polari, the secret language once used by gay men to conduct affairs while avoiding persecution, and the art of drag. The exhibit encompasses film, sculpture, installations and print pieces, by a diverse range of artists from LGBTQ, BAME and feminist backgrounds.

“It’s difficult with a show like this to be all-encompassing; you try to be as representative as possible,” says curator Lisa Beauchamp, who worked closely with local LGBTQ organisations SHOUT Festival, Unmuted and Ageing Better to ensure authenticity in the exhibition and events programme. “What I hope this show will do is start people talking about these subjects, and spark a discussion. I think the show will, hopefully, appeal to a broad audience. There are some difficult pieces; there’s lots of nudity, there’s content on sexual health and the AIDS crisis — we’re not going to shy away from those topics at all.”

One of the key pieces in the show is ‘Claire’s Coming Out Dress’, the garment created by Grayson Perry to announce his identity as a cross-dresser to the art world. Also included in the exhibit, acting as a kind of mirror to the dress, is Perry’s ‘Who Am I?’, a ceramic vase which he made four years prior, the surface of which illustrates the different facets of his personality. 

In addition to Perry, the exhibit includes pieces by other famous artists such as Francis Bacon, Tracey Emin, and David Hockney. But Beauchamp is eager for visitors to discover works in the collection by lesser-known artists. “People may come for the big names, but hopefully once they’re here, they’ll become intrigued by the other works,” she says. “We have a fantastic piece by Margaret Harrison, I don’t think she has been shown enough. And sculpturally, I’m very excited by Eric Bainbridge; his ‘In Heliotrope’ is a camp, striking addition to the show which influenced the colour palette of the entire exhibition space.”

Beauchamp also felt it was important to incorporate works by artists with close links to Birmingham and the West Midlands, including Bob Jardine, who photographed ‘The Promised Land’ of Milton Keynes’ subcultures in the 1980s, and Vanley Burke, often described as the godfather of Black British photography, whose images of protests against Section 28 in 1986 Wolverhampton provide a local snapshot of the gay rights struggle at one of its most pivotal moments.

We need far more cultural artefacts that explore gender. There’s so much tired thinking about how we approach it, and one of the main ways we achieve change is through culture and media. – Joe Lycett

The collection is provocative, for sure, but not gratuitously so, with no more flesh on show than your average Renaissance exhibit. It is an explosion of colours and ideas that are exciting yet accessible, in-your-face but also funny and relatable. “I’m trying, through the curation, for this to not feel like a silent, static space,” explains Beauchamp. “So if you’re walking into the museum for the first time, you won’t be put off. We want it to be warm, dynamic and welcoming, with plenty of sound and movement.”

Sound and movement were certainly evident at the Coming Out’s launch, which featured ebullient live lip-sync performances by a quintet of Brummie drag artists; Lacey Lou, China, Paul Aleksandr, Yshee Black and Ginny Lemon. The exhibit was officially opened by comedian Joe Lycett, who praised Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery for putting together such an inclusive exhibit.

“Something like this is really brilliant in that it gives a safe space to see how much is going on in this community. I find that there aren’t enough spaces like this,” he tells me at the launch event. “The way we look at gender needs to change. We need far more cultural artefacts that explore gender. There’s so much tired thinking about how we approach it, and one of the main ways we achieve change is through culture and media.”

A fan of Francis Bacon, he was also struck by the photographic work of Sunil Gupta, which chronicles the experiences of gay men in India, and feels both timely and necessary. Just this year, the government in India has been trying to legislate against gay freedoms. Including pieces with such direct contemporary parallels was a conscious decision on Beauchamp’s part, to prompt conversations which visitors might otherwise not be having.

“I think sometimes people think that homosexuality was decriminalised and then everything was fine, when that’s not the case,” she says. “If somebody came into the museum to see the pre-Raphaelite gallery, this might be new and surprising to them. But if they go away thinking and talking about these subjects for the first time, that can only be a good thing.”

Credit: Instagram @philipellis

“It means a lot to me because I’m part of it,” says Lycett, who identifies as pansexual, and like Beauchamp, hopes that the Coming Out collection will inspire people outside of the LGBTQ community to consider these issues and become allies.

“I think we’re going backwards, in some ways, in how the press are talking about trans people and TERFs; there’s no nuance, no understanding of how people are different,” he says. “It’s sort of fascinating that it’s been 50 years [since decriminalisation] — that’s within my parents’ lifetimes, within a lot of people’s lifetimes. How people used to treat gay people, and justify that treatment legally, that’s exactly what’s happening to trans people today. And then there are all of the countries around the world where you can still be killed for being gay… Shows like this matter. We’re nowhere near done.” 

Coming Out is on show in the Gas Hall at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until 15 April 2018. Find out more here!

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