Queer artists may be making headlines now, with trans and nonbinary folks, tearing up the underground art scene, but that’s nothng new. Folks who don’t conform to gender norms have been making art for much, much, longer than bending gender has been common. Here are a few you need to know.
Frida Kahlo was one of the most influential painters of the 20th century, known for her striking, surrealist self-portraits that explored her own identity, sexuality, and personal life. Several of Kahlo’s works show her depicted with masculine traits (Self Portrait with Cropped Hair, 1940), and in family photographs, teenage Kahlo can be seen wearing her father’s suits.
The accentuation of her unibrow and moustache in her self-portraits challenged notions of traditional, feminine beauty while also acknowledging the masculine energy she recognized in her own identity.
Mark Aguhar’s work as a femme-identified, transgender artist operates under the context of interdeterminacy, qualities vague and unknown to a heteronormative binary structure. Her work, especially pieces such as Litanies to my heavenly brown body, 2011, and Not You (Power Circle), 2011, de- and reconstruct her concept of self as a fat, femme, trans person of color.
She pursues visibility in her identity and how to dismantle the systems of dominance put in place to police queer bodies. Through humor, tenderness, vulnerability, and rage, Aguhar’s art questions the “glossy glorification of the gay, white, male body” and seeks intersectionality in the acceptance of LGBTQ identities.
Kent Monkman/Miss Chief Eagle Testickle
Cree artist Kent Monkman uses his work in performance, installation, painting, and video to explore the complexities of historical and contemporary, indigenous identity. Monkman’s gender-fluid alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle, appears in his work quite frequently as a supernatural character born from the indigenous recognition of a third gender, or “two-spirit” individuals.
Prior to colonization, indigenous cultures held great respect for androgynous, intersex, and gender-nonconforming individuals, and highly prioritized the spirit over the body. Miss Chief’s presence in Monkman’s work acts as the “decolonization of gender,” as heteronormativity was violently imposed onto indigenous populations by colonizers from the West. Monkman’s work subverts the colonial gaze and explores gender nonconformity in indigenous identities.
As a French sculptor, photographer, and writer, Claude Cahun worked to subvert the traditions of static gender roles in the early 20th century. In many of Cahun’s self-portraits, gender indicators and behaviors are obscured in order to undermine the patriarchal gaze and social obsession with the gender binary.
Their work, though attached to surrealist groups of Europe and receiving decent exposure, was not well-known until almost 40 years after their death. Cahun’s existence alone acted as a political statement about society’s expectations of gender expression, but their representations of gender nonconformity have influenced the visibility of queer art to this day.