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'Queer Spaces: London, 1980s-Today' Review – Whitechapel Gallery

2 April – 25 August 2019

Gallery 4

FREE Entry


Queer Spaces: London, 1980s – Today explores the past, present, and future of LGBTQ+ venues in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. Although London is known for its bold queer scene, the period between 2006 and 2016 saw a decrease in queer spaces from 125 to 53. The artists participating in this exhibition seek to express this issue.

Before the showcasing of the gallery itself, a live spoken word performance called the Fabulous Façades was presented. Paying homage to a group of architects forming a human skyline of New York in 1931, six performers came together to personify London’s LGBTQ+ venues. In eye-catching costumes and makeup, the artists voiced documents outlining the ever changing legal and social context of the queer community.

After the performance ended, I was led to the exhibition space. Alongside the compilation of art work, archival material collected by University College London (UCL)’s Urban Laboratory was presented making it hard to make out the boundaries between creative work and sources. As both the archives and art work together to convey the overall message of the exhibition, having both displayed was definitely a forte.

Hannah Quinlan & Rosie Hastings, The Scarcity of Liberty #2, 2016. Cork board mounted on wooden frame, magazine pages, pins. Courtesy the artists and Arcadia Missa

One standout piece was Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings’s The Scarcity of Liberty #2, a dynamic, colorful cork board collage made up of leaflets, posters, and cut outs collected from trips to over 170 gay bars in the United Kingdom. This work is not only visually pleasing but is educational – the viewer learns something new every time they observe the piece.

Various mediums were used by the artists to take on the history of LGBTQ+ venues in London. Ralph Dunn uses photography to portray gay cruising grounds via public architecture while Evan Ifekoya utilizes a combination of sound, collage and poetry to explore both gender and race. Installation artist Prem Sahib’s work modifies decorations from the gay sauna Chariots to explore body mutilation, sexual expression and modernity. It was simply remarkable to see how drastically different art works using contrasting media came together in this single exhibition to explore the topic of queer spaces.

In addition, the gallery did a splendid job in compiling archives from marginalised groups within the LGBTQ+ community. One side of the exhibition was solely dedicated to sources from the Black Lesbian and gay Centre. Case studies on the Glass Bar (1995-2008) a venue for women, trans women, and non-binary people was present as well. It is important to acknowledge that the queer community does not only consist of white gay males but also females and people of color.

Prem Sahib, Helix IV, 2018, Plaster, chromed steel, Photo: Plastiques Photography, Courtsey the artist and Southard Reid

The exhibition was not without its flaws. Crowding all archival material and art work into one small room indirectly undermined the importance of the issue at hand. The viewer may find the exhibition underwhelming compared to what they expected walking in to the gallery. However, although the venue may be small, the visitor could easily spend more than an hour in the gallery interacting with the art, videos, and sources.

Members of the LGBTQ+ community or people simply wanting to know more about queer communities in London would greatly enjoy this exhibition in its entirety. As a historian, interacting with the artwork and documentations made me feel as if I was an archivist rummaging through sources first hand.

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