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Drawing the line between queer and queer art

When the pendulum of public opinion swings your way, it can be tempting to grab on to it with both hands and claim your victory, the fight for acknowledgement and acceptance seemingly over.
queer arts
Queer Arts Festival organizers SD Holman and Rachel Iwaasa outside of the Roundhouse. Photo: Jennifer Gauthier

When the pendulum of public opinion swings your way, it can be tempting to grab on to it with both hands and claim your victory, the fight for acknowledgement and acceptance seemingly over.

That pendulum, though, can just as forcefully be pulled away. Such is the queer struggle in an uneven field of civil rights.   

More than 26 million Facebook users have given their profile photos a rainbow hue in support of the US Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage in the last two weeks. However, in January, Vancouver writer Raziel Reid, who at 24 is the youngest person ever to win the Governor General’s Award for Children’s Literature, still found himself at the centre of a bizarre petition and national controversy over whether Canada could handle a book about the "vulgar" sexual experiences of a trans teen.

As Vancouver arts collective Kiss & Tell celebrates 25 years since their groundbreaking participatory look at queer censorship, pornography and female sexuality, pornography has never been more ubiquitous, Internet trolling and anonymous commenting devastate the collective dialogue, and "meninists" aggressively accuse feminism of oppressing men's rights and subverting masculinity.

And even though national arts critics extol the talents of queer artists, many still disdain "queer art". 

The weight of this imbalance rests heavily on SD Holman and Rachel Iwaasa, two of the key people responsible for Vancouver's acclaimed Queer Arts Festival.

QAF celebrates the work of artists who identify as LGBT2SI – people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, two-spirit, and intersex. Each year, local and international visual and performing artists bare their bodies, minds and politics in the curated visual arts exhibition, performing arts series, and workshops for adults and youth.

Since joining the Pride in Art Society board in 2006, Holman and Iwaasa have, through fearless programming, pushed the festival to new heights, gaining the attention of the international community and earning a top-five ranking in the Melbourne Sun-Herald of queer arts festivals around the world.  

This year, QAF has chosen the 25th anniversary of Kiss & Tell's Drawing the Line exhibition to celebrate the impact of that show and question where Canadians draw their moral lines now. 

"We're theming the whole festival after Kiss & Tell," says Iwaasa, seated next to Holman on a couch in the Westender office one recent afternoon.

Drawing the Linewas a belief- and identity-challenging photography show from 1990 that displayed erotic images of women in escalating degrees of sexual embrace, from kissing to whipping and bondage, and encouraged the audience to scrawl their reactions to the photographs directly onto the walls of the exhibition – to show where they met their limits.

"In the Oxford Dictionary of Art, the reference source for visual arts, they actually surprisingly pick out one show as the one they feel is the most representative – the epitome – of what LGBT arts are, and that was Kiss & Tell'sDrawing the Line," explains Iwaasa, QAF’s director of development. 

It's an incredible feat, to be exemplified in the annals of international art history; and a reflection of how influential the Vancouver show – which went on to tour internationally – truly was.

For Iwaasa, a student at the University of Victoria at the time, Drawing the Line was transformative.

"[Co-creator] Lizard Jones came to the campus to do a talk, and I bought a copy of the postcard book, and it literally changed my life. I went to that talk, I heard what she had to say and I looked through the images, and I said to myself, 'My life doesn't have to be the way it's been. I can be something completely different than I ever imagined,'" she says, her eyes welling up with tears. 

Iwaasa says the images released her from a vicious cycle where her politics and sexuality were at war. 

“At the time, I was barely out," she recalls, softly. "I was involved in the women's centre and people in that context sort of knew me as bisexual, but I was in an opposite-sex relationship. I was very timid and measured about exploring my sexuality, and I had bought – hook, line and sinker – the idea that sexual representation of women was automatically exploitative; that there are certain types of sexual acts that are acceptable and others that made me a part of the patriarchy; that I couldn't be a feminist and explore what in my secret self I desired.”

Seeing her sexuality juxtaposed in Kiss &Tell’s photographs forced Iwaasa to examine her ideas about intimacy and feminism.

"Which of the philosophers said, ‘What we march against by day we fantasize about by night'?" asks Iwaasa reflectively. "I guess it's the classic Rocky Horror [line]: Don't dream it ­­– be it,”’ she finishes with a smile.

Holman was an Emily Carr student at the time, and sought out mentorship from Kiss & Tell member Persimmon Blackbridge after Drawing the Line debuted. The photography-based artist was also powerfully affected by the show, and attests that Drawing the Line had an impact on almost every woman who experienced it. Twenty-five years later, though, a simple restaging of Drawing the Line at QAF would hardly have the same affect. 

"When we approached Kiss & Tell about doing [QAF] they were resistant at first, and part of it was they were saying that show was about a particular time in history, interrupting a particular thing," says Holman, who just recently won the YMCA Woman of Distinction Award for her work as QAF’s co-founder and artistic director. "It was the censorship, it was the Canada Customs [book] seizures, it was the Red Hot Video bombings

“That’s when I learned ciu bono,” she continues. “Who benefits?That was a really important thing that they were talking about. Who's making the rules? Who benefits from that? Because we know the seizures often went after queer work. It didn't go after some of the really nasty pornography that the feminists, that the women, were having a problem with.”

So, Holman started thinking instead about how those challenges manifest now. Where do people – the rule makers, the activists – draw the line of censorship now?

It was only a matter of reading the headlines to find out.

“Part of the reason we’re calling it Trigger: Drawing the line in 2015, is that our lines are drawn in very different places then they where,” says Iwaasa. “In 1990, 25 years ago, the conversation was largely about censorship, pornography, representation. That was a really key flashpoint for activist art. 

“And we’ve come an interesting full circle. You only have to look at the Raziel Reid controversy around the Governor General's Award and Canada Reads [competition], where, in that final show, all the people … kept [saying] the reason they were choosing the other book was that they didn't think Canada was ready.”

Meanwhile, it can be difficult to even have clear discourse anymore when the Internet has dramatically altered the world into which Drawing the Line was born.

“The Internet has changed those parameters completely,” says Iwaasa. “Pornography is ubiquitous now. But also, at that time, the idea that the audience could respond was absolutely revolutionary. And now it's not. Look at every newspaper article; anybody who reads the comments section of any news website has thoughts about the wisdom of giving a platform to anyone, everyone, all the time."

However, Holman was ultimately able to persuade Kiss & Tell to reunite for QAF – for the first time publicly in 13 years – and bring with them 30 images from that original show. 

And the festival, running July 23-Aug. 7, further expands on their Trigger theme with a number of highly provocative pieces, starting with performance artist Aiyyana Maracle at the opening night party July 23. 

"She's going to have people drawing lines on her. And in light of the revelations that have rocked the country with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, her piece as an indigenous trans woman presenting herself and her body as the canvas… is a really powerful statement on where we're at with colonialism,” says Iwaasa. “That dialogue has been going on in Canada for a very long time but it's just right now starting to hit the mainstream."

Holman has also invited Montreal performance artist Coral Short to do a video curation called Trigger Warning (July 27), as well as a reprise of her devastating performance piece, Stop Beating Yourself Up at the opening night of the festival. 

"She's only done it once before and she said she'd probably never do it again because she got a concussion the last time she did it," says Holman, leaving the implications of that to the imagination. "But she was really enthralled with the festival and just said yes. She was willing to do it again because she thinks this festival is so important." 

Meanwhile, the festival continues to intrigue with more than a dozen other art, theatre, dance and performance pieces, including its tongue-in-cheek Salon des Refusés at Little Sister's for artists who are considered too risqué for the main exhibition at the Roundhouse. 

“Because it's a community centre, they don't allow frontal nudity," explains Holman. "But our communities are very sensitive about being censored, so for the last couple of years I've been wanting to do a Salon des Refusés, which is a wink and a nod to the famous 1863 French show for artists who were ‘the rejects’.

“It's a celebration!” she says with a laugh. “It's like reclaiming queer.” 

But for all the winks and jokes and cheeky nods, the Queer Arts Festival has a serious mandate – to increase and expand queer representation in art. To allow queer people to see themselves not just represented sexually in art, but recognized as artists. 

"We've come to a place where we can name artists as queer, but not claim that as having any kind of deeper import," says Iwaasa.

"It's right in our mandate to show the historical contributions that queer artists have made," adds Holman. "It's a disservice that the art world – from Michelangelo on – that most of our masters have been homosexual, and we're told that that doesn't matter."

According to Iwaasa, even the imperiously impartial – the art critics – aren't immune to having biases. 

"I was talking to a critic at the Globe and Mail who will remain unnamed, who I've known for a very long time," says Iwaasa, "and he said to me, ‘Well, you know, queer art is basically crap.’ And I said to him, ‘WH Auden and Claude Vivier are your two favourite artists, and they're queer. How can you say that queer art is crap?’ And he said, ‘Well, yeah, they're queer, but they don't make queer art.’" 

For Holman, the distinction is confounding.

"Everybody loves queer art. Everybody loves queer art," she says again, for emphasis. "But the mainstream doesn't like it to be named that. It’s very much about the naming. Andy Warhol never really became famous until he went back in the closet and became this androgynous dandy who never talked about his sexuality.

“We've gained so much,” she concludes, ironically, “so it's ‘not supposed to matter’. But it does. It still really does."


Queer Arts Festival Highlights


TRIGGER: Drawing the Line in 2015

Curated by SD Holman, QAF’s signature visual arts show honours the 25th anniversary of Kiss & Tell’s legendary Drawing the Line exhibition. Artists are asked, “Where do you draw the line in 2015?”. July 23–Aug. 7, Roundhouse Exhibition Hall


Salon des Refusés

In a cheeky salute to the iconoclastic 1863 Paris exhibition of the same name, anti-censorship champion Little Sister’s exhibits visual. July 23–Aug. 7, Little Sisters Book & Art Emporium.


Kiss & Tell

Notorious Vancouver collective Kiss & Tell’s first public appearance together in 13 years, co-presented with Kickstart Disability Arts & Culture. Videos with talkback moderated by Janine Fuller of Little Sister’s. July 25, 7:30pm, Roundhouse Performance Centre.


Sister Mary’s a Dyke?!

Co-produced with the frank theatre, this coming-out tale set in a Catholic girls’ school becomes a fantasy of attacking church patriarchy. Kim Villagante stars in Flerida Peña’s energetic solo show. July 28–Aug. 2, Roundhouse Performance Centre.


A Queen’s Music: Reginald Mobley in Recital

Countertenor Reginald Mobley and harpsichordist/pianist Alexander Weimann shine a light on music by gay composers from the 18th century onwards. Co-presented with Early Music Vancouver. Aug. 6, 7:30pm, Roundhouse Performance Centre.


• The Queer Arts Festival runs July 23-Aug. 7 at the Roundhouse Community Centre (181 Roundhouse Mews). Tickets range from free to $40, available at and Little Sister’s Bookstore (1238 Davie).