Respect Your Elders: In Conversation with Biju Belinky

Biju Belinky. Drawing based on a 1993 photograph by Del LaGrace Volcano. 2021. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Based in Brazil, Biju Belinky is a visual artist and illustrator who recreates historical queer photographs, reinterpreting them into colourful and vibrant illustrations. Belinky captures the tenderness of these relationships, depicting the queer romance throughout history that has always existed but is often rendered invisible by society. Often sensual and emotive, her drawings bring fresh energy to the historical photographs of the LGBTQ+ community of yesteryear.

Biju Belinky studied at Central Saint Martins and the London College of Fashion. Before working as a visual artist, she worked as an arts and culture journalist for seven years, which aligned with her interest in queer archives and documentation. Belinky also finds inspiration in tarot and magic, her drawings inspired by the bright colours and pastel palettes of animated shows and vintage Japanese advertisements. In the following interview, they speak more about drawing inspiration from historical queer photographs, overcoming self-doubt, and their creative process.

Biju Belinky. Self Portrait. 2021. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I am drawn to how you recreate historical and contemporary queer photos and create new energy and vibrancy to them through colour and line work. Can you speak more about your practice and why you use these historical photos and references? Do you have an example of a favourite photograph (or era) that you’ve recreated?

To talk about how I started working with that kind of subject matter, I would have to go back to four years ago, when I went through a long period of time not making art at all because it fucked with my self-esteem a lot. I just had a lot of issues with thinking everything I did was not good enough. But I could see that not doing art was also fucking with my brain, so I decided that I was going to challenge myself and force myself to finish things without thinking too much about it. And I knew I had to do it working with something I thought was beautiful constantly so that I was sure that my brain couldn’t go “this isn’t interesting anymore.”

I initially drew from my personal collection of images of queer love and affection that I had saved on my computer from previous research I had been doing for a while, and I started creating artwork from there. From then on, I kind of noticed that this subject was just an endless source of inspiration, and the documentation on it varies so much, from tender to sexy and affectionate. [There are] so many different expressions of queerness and women-loving-women relationships and through that, I had found a way to express myself through my art in a way that didn’t make me suffer. 

It was a cool exercise to find these photos and the history behind them. You end up finding more about these photographers that worked throughout the centuries, these images that were lost through time. For a while, I was interested in more Victorian photographs and women seemingly in love in vintage photos from the 1920s and the 30s. It was quite interesting spending a long time thinking “Where does this photo come from?”, “What’s their relationship?”. And the stranger one to research: “are these women together or are they sisters?”, because oddly sometimes you’d find a photo where you think that they’re definitely a couple, but you do research and find out that they’re actually sisters. 

I always try to research a lot and find sources, to make sure I’m representing people correctly, [which] allows me to develop my practice more. Once I became more comfortable with drawing regularly, I started adding colour and I started figuring out again what I wanted to experiment with and the [types] of images I wanted to see in my work. From then on, I started to add different vibes to the images. When I started doing bright, colourful monochromatic representations of the black-and-white photos, it was fun to look at the photographs and think of what colour this makes me think of in a completely subjective way. I couldn’t explain why [one] feels pink or [one] feels purple. I’m not going to say it’s the aura of the photo because it’s not. It’s just me looking at the photo and feeling it. Like this thing feels yellow and so on.

My work and the images I draw from are not all soft, I hate describing them as soft. But they do exist at the intersection between sensual and tender. I’ve had long arguments with people about this because some people are like “your images are sexual.” And they are, but they aren’t, I’m not making explicit erotica. Even the images that are more overtly sexual where [the subjects] are naked or half-naked, have tenderness and sensuality to them. They’re not geared towards creating the sort of “Oo you’ll feel hot and bothered by this” feeling. If you find them sexy that’s cool, but at the same time for me, there’s more of a tenderness to it and I try to communicate that with my pieces.

Biju Belinky. Drawing based on a chloe atkin’s photograph from Girls Night Out. 2020.

That’s interesting. I wonder since they are queer images too, how that influences how sexual they seem. 

Yeah, people hypersexualize my work a lot. I’ve had quite a few commenters, especially men, come up and be like, “Oo sexy, threesome,” just that kind of gratuitous bullshit. If you want to consume sexy content geared towards straight men, there’s plenty of it out there. This work, my work, is not for them.

I think seeing my work as purely sexual kind of stems from the same type of thought where people see queerness as something that’s purely linked to sex and that’s it. Of course, sex and romance are a part of it, but queerness is such a complex, whole identity. So, for people outside of the community to just try to narrow it down to “oh it’s about who you want to bone,” feels reductive.

If queer women see it as super sexy it’s cool because it’s self-representation. But when it’s straight men projecting, fetishizing, and commenting weird stuff then it always makes me really uncomfortable. There is this skewed way of thinking that if something is queer and it involves women, it’s perceived by men as inherently sexual and often performative “for them.” So yeah, I think there is a hyper-sexualization of my images because they represent queer women being affectionate in a variety of ways. At the same time, thankfully my art has seemed to reach mostly the people it’s meant for.

Biju Belinky. Drawing based on an image printed on postcards by Steven Meisel for the SAFE SEX IS HOT SEX 1991 initiative, organized by the Red Hot Organization. 2020.

I think it’s good to have that sense of softness and tenderness in your work. I was drawn to it since it highlights that queerness has always existed by going back to the archive.

I think a lot about queer elders and older LGBTQ+ people and how many of us got the chance to meet older LGBT people that were around us growing up. It’s such an important reference to have and I didn’t realize how important it was until I met someone over the age of 60 who was a married woman with a wife, and I was like “you have so much knowledge in life.” I think this absence of role models doesn’t happen only because of the silence around sexuality but also the fact that almost an entire generation of LGBTQ+ people died throughout the 80s. There were so many major losses during that time that it just became commonplace to not know older LGBTQ+ people.

One time, I was showing my cousins some of my drawings. Only the very tame, appropriate ones, mostly from Victorian times, and with their mothers’ permission. My one cousin is around thirteen and the other one is around ten and they asked to see the drawings since I had been working on them nearby. My 13-year-old cousin was like, “how come none of these people are old? How come so many of them are so young?” And I was like, “well it’s hard to find photos of older LGBTQ+ people to draw. I’d really love to do that but it’s hard to find people above a certain age that you can draw. And in this era, people were often made to get married after a certain age, even if they weren’t in love.” And she [said], “That’s sad, I hope that you can find many pictures of old people and that you [can] draw them soon again.” 

I was emotional about that because she was rooting for there to be older queers. I never expected that at all. I [thought] how do I explain to this young child the horrible, horrible things that might have happened? I was coming up with ways in my head to explain it in a way that was simple but also was true.

I think that growing up as queer people in the 90s, we didn’t see cheerful representations of queerness. We saw the struggle, you see the trauma, you saw people coming out and then how their parents now hated them. But we hardly ever saw affection for the sake of affection, in all their forms. I mean, small acts between queer people are revolutionary in themselves. But at the same time, it’s nice to just see yourself represented in something soft and loving without feeling like it needs to be a statement all the time. 

It’s nice too because a lot of the narrative in mainstream media is about coming out or trauma. I don’t want to say there’s a shame, but there’s stigmatization to queerness. To see that queer joy, does bring you so much joy.

I just want to see happiness; I want to see queer happiness and show as many sides of it as I possibly can and as many different types of relationships and kinds of people as I can because I feel like there’s not enough of that out there. I mean other artists are doing this kind of stuff, but when you look at other media like movies or TV shows it’s still so rare for you to be able to watch a film where the characters are queer and in love and that’s that, a film where you don’t have to watch a straight relationship for two hours just hoping for the side plot to be kind of queer. Sometimes you want to watch something sweet and soft and it’s not about suffering or about shame. Violence might happen in the street, that’s a reality, I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been afraid at one point or another. But it’s exactly because of that reality that I feel like my illustrations exist in a space outside of that, where violence is not a concern and there’s just this mutual understanding between the viewer and me of what the illustrations are and what they’re representing.

As much as we know this, logically, our history has been erased so many times that sometimes it’s good to remember that queer people have always been around, they’ve always been affectionate.

There’s a lot of art that I want to make about queerness that is a lot more painful or might be more complex in the way it develops and builds. But to have a space where I’m just able to see, especially when you look at older photographs, that queer people have always been around, is amazing. As much as we know this, logically, our history has been erased so many times that sometimes it’s good to remember that queer people have always been around, they’ve always been affectionate. People kissed and hugged and had sex and everything else, for centuries. Queerness is not a side note in history, an imaginary bond we project today between “best friends” from the 19th century, it exists, it is registered. Its evidence is scattered throughout history and lives on even after so many attempts to wipe them out. It’s nice to be able to bring all that memory back to the surface through my work and to consume that for myself through my research.

Biju Belinky. The Lovers, 2021. Photo courtesy of the Artist.

Who are some of your artistic influences and artists you look up to?

I love anything by chloe atkins, her photos are amazing, and she did the Girls Night Out photography book. That photobook has such sexy and fun photos of nightlife. You can see that the people in the photos are so into each other, and drawing-wise it’s such a cool series of photos with so many dynamic poses. 

I also love the archival work that Gerber/Hart does. They have an online database of queer everything, they have zines and photography and stuff. They’re such a good reference, whenever I’m stuck, I always scroll down their website and Instagram [to find] inspiration. 

I’m really drawn to colour, not only in my drawings but also in the tarot series. I love the aesthetic of 70s and 80s Japanese advertisements for toys. They’re so bright and in your face, while still combining pastel tones with everything else. That is such a huge inspiration for me. As for artists that inspire me, there’s Nanaco Yashiro (@nanaco846) who’s a Japanese artist, there’s also Choo (@choodraws) – they do very dynamic comic book-y scenes. Choo can draw clutter like no other person can. 

A lot of artists I’m inspired by have a unique voice to [their work]. I feel like I can see what type of person they are since they have such a clear visual language. Having that language [as an artist] is a huge ambition of mine. There’s an amazing wood engraving artist who does images of lesbian couples, Gessica Ferreira (@gessicaferreira100). There’s also Katie Aki (@miss_luckycat), Peter McAteer (@pete.ey), Anna Dietzel (@anna.dietzel), Helena Obersteiner (@helenaobersteiner), Savanna Judd (@heartsl0b), Joanna Folivéli (@foliveli), and Ing Lee (@inglee).

Biju Belinky. Spooky Girlfriends. 2021. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Do you have any advice for emerging artists who are just discovering their style and sensibility as an artist?

I’m an emerging artist myself – but a huge thing for me was a conversation that I had with one of my best friends, Helena, when I was initially getting back into writing. She has built her whole practice on the idea of mistakes and how accepting mistakes [can be one] of the best things that can happen to you. It was so important to talk to her and accept that my work isn’t going to immediately look the way that I want it to look. And it’s in the path of trying to make it look the way that it does in your brain that you’ll find the best things about your work. There’s a big way to go between your brain and your hand. When the image in your head is not doable hand-wise, you should just try to do it anyway—You’re never going to know what you find unless you try. That reaffirmed the phrase, “better done than perfect” for me. I tend to be a perfectionist, but I can’t let my frustration stop me from finishing things. 

Another piece of advice I have is don’t be afraid to take breaks. I think we live in a culture where people want to consume things at way faster pace than what we produce things in. It’s okay to rest and take time for art. There’s a huge benefit of recognizing and respecting your limits. Do you, but don’t die trying to do you. Take breaks when you need them since it takes a lot longer to recover from burnout than it does to just stop once in a while.

Do you have any other future projects that you’d like to share?

I am currently working on my store that [has recently opened]. I will be including my art and an entire series on tarot cards. I am working on a zine with 20 other female artists in Brazil in the UK. It’s about myths about vengeful and raging women from across the world. We’re looking into feminine anger and stories of mythical creatures that are [based off angry] women. We’ve been working on it for a year and it’s in its finishing stages now.

[My friends and I] just opened a tattoo studio called Arachne (Arachne.tt). named after a mythical woman. The three of us have different levels of tattooing, I’m still starting out and practicing on willing victims. It’s all original designs by primarily fine artists in the language of tattooing. If you’re in Brazil come and get tattooed by us!

You can view more of Biju’s work on her website or Instagram.

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