Queer Community in the Gallery: Queer Identities at I.C. Contemporary
Chase Joynt, Devin Wesley, B G-Osborne, Reitano Holly, Shane Oosterhoff, Joslyn Panasiuk
Curated by Ignazio Colt Nicastro
August 2020 – October 2020
By Rebecca Casalino
Queer communities connect like links in a chain, each circle intersecting with the next, spanning identities, generations, and geography. The tangles of my community lead me to art that reflects queerness in its ever-changing form. I met writer, singer-songwriter, and trans activist Robbie Ahmed, through my friend and fashion designer Adrienne Wu, in the cheap seats of Vivek Shraya’s How to Fail as a Pop Star (2020) in Toronto’s Distillery District. So, when I saw Ahmed’s portrait in my daily flash of Instagram stories, I had to click through to see where it was showing. The image is moving — purple haze warps the composition, so his nose is in focus and centred while the glow of purple blurs his features in a halo effect. A few quick taps lead me to I.C. Contemporary’s pre-recorded tour of the digital exhibition Queer Identities shown on their website through an embedded Youtube video. The wood floors of the gallery are pixelated, the ceilings are high with walls acting as stark panels of white and black. I hear people talking right away and the frame moves towards a black and white video in a dark alcove.
I’m Yours (2012) is an experimental short video by moving-image artist and writer Chase Joynt, featuring two people appearing in rotation, seemingly giving answers to unasked questions. They speak into the camera and introduce themselves, “My name is Nina,” says a woman with dark curly hair and dramatic winged eyeliner. Her lips are dark and shining, a delicate mole rests on her cheek, she’s wearing silver hoop earrings and an assortment of necklaces. “Hi, my name is Chase Ryan Joynt,” says a bare-chested man with tattoos and trim facial hair, he is wearing a thick silver ring on his hand. The camera flashes to performance artist Nina Arsenault again, “Before my name was Nina, my name was Rodney,” and my heart tightens, she’s blinking and looking away from the camera, but her voice is smooth and casual. The video cuts to Joynt, “I don’t tend to answer that question. Mostly just because people who know that name tend to start using it,” he’s shaking his head and looking away, blinking just like Arsenault but is more outwardly uncomfortable, shifting in his chair. He shrugs at the end of his answer.
The media, which Joynt casts as the voiceless interviewer in this performance video, is a frequent platform where people are deadnamed or misgendered because of the ignorance or bias of uninformed cis people. Both artists’ experiences are tied by the same questions posed to gender non-conforming people but split through their individual lived experience and identity. This video is not intended as an educational balm to correct cis prejudices. Rather, the video showcases the difference in trans people’s experience and the shared monotony of answering cis people’s questions.
Both Arsenault and Joynt have extensively written and made work about their transitions. Despite prominent examples such as Arsenault’s solo show Silicone Diaries (2009), presented at Buddies in Bad Times, and Joynt’s co-authored book You Only Live Twice (2012), written with HIV-positive movie artist Mike Hoolboom, people continue to question their bodies and identities by making it the focus of every conversation.
The walkthrough’s frame exits the dark alcove and backs up to view a series of portraits along a white wall. Photographer Joslyn Panasiuk presents their on-going series category: HUMAN, which centers on trans men as its subjects. The first three portraits are glowing with oranges and yellows blurred over the subjects’ faces as Panasiuk uses tilt-shift lensing and motion blur to complicate each composition. The next three portraits are blue and purple, and amongst them, I spot Robbie Ahmed’s image as well as the face of photographer Wynne Neilly, whose portrait is hung beside Ahmed’s. Half of Neilly’s face is blurred while he wears a silver hoop in one ear—an abstract effect is created by the repetition of the shining earring. Ahmed’s portrait is blurrier with only the center of his face in focus. Panasiuk has maintained her subjects’ auras as I can still recognize my peers’ faces in these distorted images.
Their voice begins to explain the work’s emphasis on humanness and the similarities that join people. The blurring and distortion function to protect her subjects from toxic stereotypes projected onto trans masculine people and to move away from documenting differences like surgery scars or hormone shots. They speak about the making process as a bonding experience between herself and community members, as well as an opportunity to engage with other aspects of her queer identity. Viewed together from afar, Panasiuk’s subjects look like a colourfully lit chorus on stage.
The main room of the digital exhibition breaks off into a brightly lit room with blocks of poetry on each of the six panels on the curving white wall. Wide columns of thick glass bricks make up sections of the opposite edge of the space which creates an airy tranquil space for reading. Reitano Holly uses the collection of poetry, from his up-coming series Metamorphosis I, to lay out stages of queer self-discovery and self-acceptance. Through my headphones, the artist’s voice explains the work as a “schematic for the process of queer identity that can be used as almost a guide or a reference.” He uses coloured text allowing for moments of vibration, the word ‘faltered’ melts like butter into the white wall. I can spot myself and others in his words—forbidden longings, confused fumbling of young queers finding themselves, and self-love. His words trace queer lines of desire and push against perceived limitations of the queer body; “too far to try to reach” (emphasis added). Holly flips crude conversations or curiosity of queer people’s bodies into lust and love writing “[a]nd found Gold between the richness of your thighs.” His writing brings the works in the exhibition to thoughtful pause. What changes when queer subjects are portrayed by queer creators? Can sick curiosity become tender attention?
Curated by fellow queer artist and curator Ignazio Colt Nicastro, Queer Identities is in response to the subliminal thought processes of queer artists. In email correspondence with Nicastro, he points to the exhibits’ unintentional weight on more ‘masculine’ artists, and the overall pattern of “the display of hegemonic gender roles [and] male dominance in art spaces” which he hopes to tackle more intentionally in future projects. This level of self-awareness in his practice was, to say the least, refreshing as a femme queer woman working in spaces dominated by cis men.
The artists featured in Queer Identities exist under minority stress in a heteronormative society that dictates so-called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ norms. Nicastro includes moments of acceptance and celebration for viewers, and this inclusion provides a fuller spectrum of queer experience. No artwork is a token or stand-in for a whole aspect of the queer community. However, these artworks trace the interconnectivity of queer experience as bodies are linked through romance, friendships, encounters, and art.
Vivek Shraya made a play about her career in the Canadian music scene, including how Tegan and Sara helped her get her start. Robbie Ahmed is an alum of Shraya’s mentorship program. Adrienne Wu introduced me to Ahmed and takes me to plays when I’m too nervous to go otherwise. Spaces, online or in person, that carve room for queer voices to speak the truth freely without censorship or misidentification allows queer bodies to gather in community. It’s essential that queers make space for other queers, linking each other together across identities, generations, and geography.