Articles and Features

Celebrating Pride Month – Contemporary Artists Reflecting on Queerness, Identity, Beauty, and Self-Portraiture

Betty Mulat, Black Opulence, 2021. Courtesy of Wil Aballe Art Projects | WAAP.
Betty Mulat, Black Opulence, 2021. Courtesy of Wil Aballe Art Projects | WAAP.

By Shira Wolfe

“In my world, every human is beautiful.”

Zanele Muholi

June is Pride Month, a month of gatherings, commemorations, and celebrations, promoting self-affirmation, equality and dignity, equality, and increased visibility of the LGBT+ community. Its history traces back to the legendary Stonewall Riots that broke out in New York City on 28 June 1969 when police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay dive bar in Greenwich Village, and its patrons rebelled. Six days of demonstrations followed that spread all over the United States, sparking the modern-day LGBTQ+ rights movement. The first Pride Month was celebrated in 1970, and today, it continues to be an important time for the LGBTQ+ community. This year, in honor of Pride Month, we feature seven artists whose artistic endeavors, from photography to painting, address the themes of love, queerness, beauty, self-expression, and the complexities of identity, shattering heteronormative conceptions.

1. Robert Mapplethorpe

Robert Mapplethorpe became famous in the 1970s and 1980s for his photographs of the S&M gay scene in New York City, a subculture that was previously unexplored in art. The resulting photographs fascinated and shocked the art world and eventually earned him a place among the most important photographers of the 20th century. Mapplethorpe’s life and art blended together completely, as it was the exploration of his own homosexuality that led him to New York’s S&M clubs and therefore to his models. In his words:

“The work dealing with sexuality is very directly related to my own experiences. It was an area that hadn’t been explored in contemporary art, and so it was an area that interested me in terms of making my statement.”

Robert Mapplethorpe

Mapplethorpe’s 1988 retrospective “The Perfect Moment” brought censorship and artistic freedom into the US national discourse; discussions that continued well into the 1990s.

2. Giorgio Celin

Colombian-born artist Giorgio Celin tells under-represented stories with intimacy and honesty, and through a process of queering. Being a Colombian migrant who grew up in the South Italy countryside and then has lived in several European cities, he deals with his experience reflecting on migration and belonging, and depicting a multi-faceted Latinx diaspora inclusive of queer, trans, Indigenous, and Afro-Latinx peoples. According to Celin, all his works are in essence self-portraits, which frequently address themes such as intimacy, isolation, and heartbreak. As a queer individual, Celin uses queerness as a political tool to fight visual stereotypes such as heteronormative and mainstream gay imagery.   

3. Betty Mulat

Betty Mulat, aka Venetta, is an Ethiopian-Canadian visual artist, producer, DJ, and event organizer based in Vancouver, BC. Together with Samira Warsame, aka Zam Zam, Mulat founded NuZi, a music collective providing a platform for Black and Indigenous, trans and queer women of color in the electronic arts.  

Mulat’s visual art explores the social frameworks of Black identity, and draws on the African diasporic identity, celebrating Black womanhood. In her project Caught Out There: Ragga to Riches, Mulat evokes the glossy fashion and beauty images from the Black magazines she grew up with, such as Essense and Jet. She pays homage to the ‘90s aesthetics and employs over-the-top styling to play with notions of camp and narratives surrounding Blackness, class, gender, expressions of pleasure, power, and beauty. 

4. James Bartolacci

Queer nightlife is an important element in James Bartolacci’s work. His art explores the nostalgia surrounding New York’s pre-pandemic queer club scene, depicting the visceral experiences, emotions, and connections related to those nights out. He also shows more intimate scenes of friends in their bedrooms, those bedrooms where people spent much more time during the pandemic. By showing this blurring of the intimate and the shared, Bartolacci shares one of the elements that define queer nightlife. 

“What new boundaries has the surgeon’s incisions drawn on my body, and how does this manifest in the boredom of every day life.” 

Linus Borgo

5. Paul Mpagi Sepuya

Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s work underlines the constructed nature of the artist’s photographs, focusing on close-up studies of the human body. His subjects are often entangled in sensual exchanges, and they are not only models but also friends, lovers, and members of the queer community. Sepuya engages with “both the historical origin of the photographer’s craft as well as the privileged yet marginalized site of queer and colored sexuality and socialization.” Often, his photographs contain fragments from earlier work, appearing as strips or cuttings. These compositions, created in front of the lens and recorded in a single shot, come together as collage-like compositions. 

6. Linus Borgo

New York-based artist Linus Borgo works primarily with self-portraiture or autobiographical narrative scenes. His work deals with a life-altering accident that he experienced, and his body’s subsequent physical and metaphysical limits. He also explores his constantly changing body as he transitions from female to male. Through self-portraiture, he studies his own body, searching for the things that have been rearranged, for things that are hidden, imagined, or a memory.

Earlier this year, Steve Turner presented I’ll Grow Back Like A Starfish, a solo exhibition by Borgo featuring three paintings he created in 2021. All derive from the artist’s personal history and his lifelong interest in Italian Renaissance painting. The three paintings, all self-portraits, bring together Borgo’s physical changes with biological phenomena and religious doctrine.

7. Zanele Muholi 

Zanele Muholi defines themself not as an artist, but rather as a visual activist. Growing up in a Durban township in South Africa in 1972, Muholi struggled with the homophobic and violent society surrounding them. According to Muholi, photography saved their life:

“I use art as my own means of articulation. And it heals me. When I really needed therapy and I wasn’t willing to sit with a shrink, I started to take photographs.” 

Zanele Muholi

When Muholi began working with photography, one of their goals was to start compiling and recording a visual history of LGBTQI communities in South Africa. For this purpose, they set up Inkanyiso (‘Light’), a multimedia Internet platform meant to educate and empower queer black women to tell their own stories. One of today’s most acclaimed photographers, their work has been exhibited internationally with a major UK survey being held at Tate between 2020 and 2021.

Zanele Muholi – ‘In My World, Every Human is Beautiful’ | Tate
Zanele Muholi Tate interview

Throughout their career, the visual activist has documented the lives of South Africa’s Black lesbian, gay, trans, queer and intersex communities, shedding light on the violence and discrimination they face, but also exploring the themes of Blackness, beauty and self-representation through tender and loving depictions that show South African LGBTQIA+ people and QTIPOC people in the world that they are not alone.

Relevant sources to learn more

8 LGBTQI+ Artists You Should Know
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