Beaumont as Athena

On the way home yesterday I shared a train with Jen Grove who showed me this image she had found in the archives of the British Museum. It shows one of the world’s most famous trans women as the goddess Athena. Given that I have been talking about Amazons all month, I thoroughly approve. Also it is great to know that she used that name. I understand that she went by Lea when she was working as a spy in France, but the name she uses here is far more grand so I shall use that in future.

I would love to see this picture on display as part of the BM’s LGBT+ Trail. It would also be nice to see a bit more respect in the official write-up.

Solstice Card


Yes, it is that time of year again. And because I am still in the Northern Hemisphere today is the Winter Solstice and a wintery card is required. If you were among the small group of people to whom I still send paper cards (mostly ancient relatives who don’t do the Internet much) this is what you would have got in the mail. The art is, as always, by my very talented friend, Dru Marland. You can find her Etsy shop here.

Happy Solstice, everyone! Thanks for being here over the past circuit around the sun.

Scythians at the British Museum


As I had to be in London all day Saturday I took the opportunity to travel a bit earlier than I needed on Friday and check out the new Scythians exhibition at the British Museum. This was a research trip, because many people believe that the Schythians were the original source of the Amazons legend. More of that later. First the exhibition.

The most obvious thing you see when you go in is that this exhibition was mounted with the assistance of the Russian government. Many of the items on display are from the Hermitage, and there is a lot of material about how early research into Scythian history was encouraged by Peter the Great. There’s even a big portrait of Peter to emphasize the fact. Of course Scythian territory is now almost entirely within the Russian Federation, which is a bit of a nuisance for those of us who can’t read academic papers in Russian, but I rather suspect that the Scythians are “Russian” in much the same way as the Celts are “English”.

The other obvious thing is that the Scythians were very fond of bling. There is loads of lovely gold jewelry on display. Personally I prefer some of the horse coverings. The Scythians clearly felt that their horses should look as good as they did.

I very much enjoyed getting to see all of this, but I was a little disappointed with the way that the write-ups tended to reinforce Western ideas of gender stereotypes. There are a couple of places where the text mentions that Scythian women rode horses, and could be fierce warriors. However, Scythian women are almost always shown wearing full-length dresses which are completely impractical for horse riding. Where a set of women’s leggings are displayed, they are described as “stockings”.

There is also an unspoken assumption throughout the text that warriors are men, despite the fact that large numbers of burials of Scythian women have been found with horses and weapons. One does have to be careful not to assume this means a “warrior grave”, but some of these women show clear signs of being wounded in face-to-face combat (as opposed to being cut down while running away, which is the usual way of dismissing wounds as evidence of women warriors).

I couldn’t see any mention of the Amazon legend in the exhibition, though a couple of books on the Amazons were on sale in the gift shop. The exhibition book excuses this by quoting Herodotus as saying that the Amazons regarded themselves as distinct from the Scythians. However, the term “Scythians” is about as precise as the term “Celts”. It refers to a group of peoples united by common language and culture. It seems entirely likely to me that all Herodotus meant by this was that the Amazons he met refused to acknowledge the local Scythian king as their overlord.

Anyway, I am glad I went, and I did pick up a few valuable bits of information from the exhibition. Now I need to get round to writing a presentation for next February.

Today on Ujima – Art, Literature, Feminist SF and Vampires

Today’s show was full on culture, starting off with the fabulous Amy Powell from Bristol Art for All, an amazing organization that looks to provide cheap or free art courses that anyone can be involved in (even a total klutz like me).

Next up we had Amy Morse from the Bristol Festival of Literature previewing all of the fabulous events they have lined up for this year. The Festival is bookended by Bristol Horror Con (on Friday 13th, naturally) and by BristolCon (on the 28th). Of particular interest will be Stories of Strong Women – Unconventional Heroines on Friday October 20th. This features not only me, but also Lucienne Boyce, Virginia Bergin, Jean Burnett and Becky Walsh.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

Talking of Virginia, she was my guest for the third segment of the show. Most of the discussion focused on her latest novel, Who Runs the World, which is a YA take on the classic “world without men” trope.

And finally I welcomed Anna and Orla from the Food and Theatre Company who specialize in immersive dining events. In October they will be staging Loco Lost Boys in the tunnels beneath Temple Meads station, where the audience can enjoy a fine meal and hopefully avoid becoming a tasty snack for the local vampires.

You can listen to the second hour of the show here.

It being Black History Month, I decided to have all of the music from amazing black women who are no longer with us. We did the whole gamut from Josephine Baker to Whitney Houston. Here’s the playlist:

  • Aretha Franklin – Respect
  • Josephine Baker – Blue Skies
  • Billie Holiday – These Foolish Things
  • Big Mamma Thornton – Let Your Tears Fall Baby
  • Bessie Smith – A Good Man is Hard to Find
  • Ella Fitzgerald – Everyone’s Wrong But Me
  • Memphis Minnie – Doctor Doctor Blues
  • Whitney Houston – Love Will Save the Day

On the subject of Ujima, we are running a fundraiser for disaster relief in Dominica tomorrow night at the Watershed. It is 10:00pm – 1:00am, so not the sort of time I can be in Bristol, but if you are around please consider dropping by.

Picacio Sales for Disaster Relief

Hugo-winning artist, John Picacio, is making some of his work available in a sale to benefit disaster relief for those affected by the earthquake in Oaxaca, Mexico on September 7th, and victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. There are five original works of art available for sale. A portion of the sale price of each one will go to the disaster relief effort of the purchaser’s choice. For details of the items available, see John’s blog.

Dragon Hunting in Bath


As I mentioned earlier, I took yesterday off. Donna Hanson was in Bath as part of her GUFF Trip (that’s the fan fund for taking fans from Australia and New Zealand to Worldcon). I offered to pop into town and show her around. She’s seen a lot of Bath before, but there was something going on that I wanted to see, and I figured it was right up her street as well.

The Victoria Art Gallery is running an exhibition called Here Be Dragons. It features dragon art by a number of well known illustrators of children’s books, including Chris Riddell, John Howe, Axel Scheffler and Cressida Cowell. The illustration above is a bad photo (by me) of a LEGO mosaic based on an original piece by Cressida Cowell.

The exhibition also has a companion app that allows kids (of all ages) to hunt dragon eggs around town. The “eggs” as posters with pictures of the eggs on them. The app has a compass that will point to a selected egg, and tells you how far away it is. When you have found the poster in question you use the phone’s camera to prove that you have found it. I was especially interested in this because it uses some of the same technology as I’m hoping to use for app ideas I have.

The exhibition is open until October 8th. It isn’t huge, but it is fun, especially for kids.

Jukka Rintala Exhibition at Didrichsen

Didrichsen is an art museum in a wealthy suburb of West Helsinki. It was originally the home of Marie-Louise and Gunnar Didrichsen who collected art and cultural artifacts. As they got older they decided to turn their home into a museum so that everyone could enjoy the things they collected.

The particular passion was sculpture, and the museum has several Henry Moore pieces as he was a personal friend of the Didrichsens. There is also work by Eila Hiltunen who is most famous for the Sibelius monument in Helsinki. Much of the sculpture is in the garden. Inside there are some paintings, including one Picasso. There is also a small collection of ancient items from Latin America and the Far East.

However, the main item in the museum right now is an exhibition devoted to the work of artist and fashion designer, Jukka Rintala. He’s made a lot of dresses for models and actresses, and has also done quite a bit of theater work. Here are some photos. Enjoy!

Camille Auer Exhibition – Trans in Finland

Today’s Helsinki Sanomat had a huge feature on Finnish trans artist, Camille Auer. Her photo took up the whole of the front page of the culture section, and there was a big article inside which is reproduced on their website (in Finnish, obviously). Naturally I had to visit the show.

The exhibition is fairly small, and is mostly installations, which may or may not be your cup of tea. The two biggest are both about the process of medical transition. One is made up of empty packaging from the vast amounts of medication that trans people have to take. It might not seem much on any one day, but it builds up quickly through your life. The other is made from (heavily redacted) letters from various medical people. They are all in Finnish, but I knew the sort of things they’d say.

Trans medicine is evolving slowly, and these days most Western doctors don’t think that merely being trans makes you insane. However, in order to get treatment, you have to prove that you are mentally disturbed because you are unable to live in your assigned gender. It is a degrading process.

In Finland things are worse on at least two counts. Firstly the country has naming laws, so if you want to change your name you have to apply for permission. Secondly, because Finland’s law about changing your legal gender is very old, it is necessary to prove that you are infertile before you can do so. That’s not necessary in the UK because our law is more modern (though still very much lacking compared to the newer Irish law).

Any trans people passing through Helsinki for Worldcon might want to pop in to give Camille some support, but mostly I hope that lots of Finnish people check it out. Their laws need an overhaul.

The exhibition, rather delightfully titled Antiphallic Dick, is at the Project Room at Lönnrotinkatu 35. It is open from 11:00-18:00.

Creative Histories – Day 1

As promised, I am in Bristol. I have not yet got to explore the zoo, but I have listened to four interesting papers and made a bunch of new friends. I have also discovered that you get very well fed at the zoo. Or at least you do if you are a human (or masquerading as one). I can’t vouch for anyone else.

Creative Histories is all about engaging with history in creative ways, not all of which involve fiction. The first session today was all about more visual arts. We learned about a project to make textile arts based on stories found in the historical archives of Hertfordshire (which featured alchemists, pirates and witches). We also heard about preserving the artistic heritage of Wiltshire, including making pottery in the style of the Bronze Age “Beaker People” (because Wiltshire looks down its historical nose at most of the rest of the UK in the same way that Egypt does at Greece and Rome).

Session two was all about children’s fiction. We saw a great interactive ebook project based on a YA novel about the Spanish Civil War (which sadly sank without trace because Apple’s big plans for interactive ebooks never amounted to much). There was also a really powerful paper about the evolution of children’s historical fiction in Australia which had some of us in tears. Also bonus Shaun Tan mention.

Tomorrow I get to do my paper. I am in a great session. I have Sonja who is currently based in Newfoundland but is a newcomer to Canada. She’s talking about writing about Colonialism when you are a person whose culture was colonized. And I have Joanne who is talking about teaching history though comics. Her paper is titled, “Punching Hitler” and she has an awesome batgirl-logo necklace.

Basically all is well, apart from the flamingos who have been barracking loudly from their enclosure just outside the windows.

Chris Riddell at Mr. B’s

On Monday I took myself into Bath in the afternoon for an event that was intended mainly for kids. However, some of us refuse to grow us, and anyway Chris Riddell put in a few things clearly aimed at adults.

The event took place in Bath’s Masonic Hall which is, as you might imagine, a weird-looking place. On the stage there was a throne decorated with arcane symbols. Chris elected not to sit in it, but he did draw himself doing so.

The way Chris does events is a lot of fun. He asks for questions from the audience in advance (written on postcards), then draws randomly from these and finds something to draw to illustrate each of his answers. Several kids went away very happy with sketches he had done for them.

I didn’t put in any questions because I wanted the kids to be able to get the attention, but I did buy some raffle tickets because they were being sold to support Mr. B’s charity of the year, Bath Welcomes Refugees. I had fully intended to put mine back if I won anything, but then Chris threw in the sketches he had done while he was waiting for the event to start. The one of him in the Masonic chair came up and it occurred to me that I would love to win that. And guess what? I did.

More surprise was to come. The top prize was to have your portrait done by Chris live at the event. It was won by my friend Marjorie, who was delighted to win and even more delighted at this drawing of her as a princess.

All in all, it was a very successful day. My thanks to Chris and the staff at Mr. B’s.

New Judith Clute Website


My dear friend Judith Clute had a brand new website. For a bunch of complex reasons it has been easier to have a new domain, and that means it is not yet appearing high on Google searches. Judith needs people to link to the site to get it noticed, hence a bit of promo from me.

The site includes the original artwork that Judith did for the new Amanda Palmer & Edward Ka-Spel album, I Can Spin a Rainbow, which I have included above. Head over to Judith’s site to see the high res version.

Today on Ujima: Bookshops, Podcasts, Art for Health & Drag Queens

Despite the fact that England Women were playing South Africa in Bristol (of which more later) and it was a beautiful sunny day, I took myself off to the Ujima studios to do a show. I love you folks that much.

First up was my good friend Alistair Sims who runs Books on the Hill in Clevedon. We talked about bookselling, tea, and some of his personal projects. If you want to buy some of their specialty tea (which I highly recommend), you can do so here.

My second guest was Gwyneth Rees whom I met at the Sound Women event last week. She’s been getting into podcasting, and we talked about that. You can find her Woman of the Week podcast on iTunes. I suspect that you’ll be hearing more from Gwyneth in the near future.

You can listen to the first hour of the show here.

In the second hour I began with Joy Johnson who is an art therapist. I had no idea anything like this existed, but apparently it is quite common. Joy doesn’t have her own website, but this is the Art & Heath South-West site that I mentioned during the interview.

Finally I was delighted to welcome Donna La Mode who is part of the Drag Queen Story Time project. Donna and her friends will be at Bristol Pride on Saturday telling more stories. If you can’t make it there, the crowdfunding appear that we mention on the show is here. Every little helps.

You can listen to the second half of the show here.

The music for today’s show has a very summery theme.

  • In the Summertime – Mungo Jerry
  • Under the Boardwalk – The Drifters
  • Sun Is Shining – Bob Marley
  • Long Hot Summer – Dizzy Gillespie
  • Summertime – Sam & Dave
  • Farewell My Summer Love – Michael Jackson
  • Summer Night City – Abba
  • Hot Stuff – Donna Summer

Eurocon Trip Report


Germany’s recent Eurocon was quite small in comparison to recent events in places such as Spain, Sweden, Croatia and Finland. The total attendance was under 300, and seemed to skew towards an old, white male demographic. That was a shame, but nevertheless it ran well and was an enjoyable weekend for those of us who attended.

Dortmund is not high on the list of German tourist venues. Razed to the ground by the RAF in WWII, it boasts a modern, mostly pedestrianized city center surrounded by a ring road. The small airport has direct bus links to the railway station which sits on the ring road and is a short walk from several hotels and the convention venue. It was all very convenient.

The city seems obsessed with winged rhinos. Not only do they have a large collection scattered around the street, they are also used widely on signs and posters. Apparently the animal is the mascot of the local orchestra.

Dortmund’s main tourist attractions are a large soccer museum (reflecting one of the city’s abiding passions), a beer museum (reflecting the other) and a tram museum. The city’s tram network has been moved underground recently, though part of a line through the center has been preserved, complete with a tram restaurant. The museum was running vehicles on the Sunday and a fair number of British fans disappeared off to see them.

Back at the convention, I spent most of my time behind the Worldcon #76 table. We were not expecting to sell many membership, but sometimes it is good just to fly the (bear) flag. Also I wanted to gauge feelings about the convention in Europe. Most people, of course, simply couldn’t afford to go, but of those who could more than half cited fear of the current political regime in the USA as a reason for not attending.

I got to see very little programming, but I was delighted to get a chance to listen to my Czech friend, Julie Nováková, hold forth on the subject of icy moons. There is way more water in the solar system than anyone expected, and the possibility for some form life existing on one of those moons is encouragingly high.

The Art Guest of Honor was German-based Brit, Autun Purser. In his day job he works with as a deep sea ecologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremen, doing fun things like photographing life on the sea floor using remote controlled submarines. Julie, as an astrobiologist, and I, as a former oceanographer, we delighted to see some of his footage.

To get an idea of the sort of thing Autun does, check out this article in which he is talking about the supremely cute ghost octopus. And of course he does art too.

Sadly I didn’t get to see any program items featuring the other Guests of Honor: Aleksandar Žiljak, Andreas Eschbach and Dave Hutchinson.

There were a lot of dealers. Thankfully most of the books on sale were in German, so I did not get tempted to buy any. However, I was very impressed by the steampunk group who had a big stall covering one end of the room I was in. Steampunk is clearly a big thing in Germany, and they told me how they tried to avoid any association with Prussians and German imperialism. The Griffin that they use in their arms is the symbol of the Grand Duchy of Baden.

A much more suitable hero for a steampunk story might be King Ludwig II of Bavaria, most famous for his fairytale castle but also a keen designer of airships. Which brings me to mention of my new pal, Ju Honisch. She has a lot of big fantasy novels out in German. However, she has one available but unpublished in English which features Ludwig, albeit briefly. You may hear more of this book in the near future. Charlie Stross and I both liked what we heard of it. Ju (pronounced “you”) is also a very fine filker and those of you on the convention filk circuit may have already met her.

I didn’t manage to get to the Business Meeting as I had a table to manage, but I understand that there was not much business to discuss and the sessions were over very quickly. Efficient meetings are appreciated by all.

The ESFS Awards were given out on Saturday evening. Many of them are encouragement awards for up and coming talent, so I don’t expect to know their work. One may be known to you, however. Hanuš Sainer is a talented Czech writer, one of whose stories, translated by Julie, has appeared in Strange Horizons.

In the career awards I was pleased to see some recognition for Judith Clute. Ian Watson, having staged a very successful Eurocon in Barcelona last year, was given the Best Promoter award (which he rightly said he was sharing with his Spanish wife, Christina). This year’s Hall of Fame award went to Serbia’s Zoran Živković, and about time too.

Incidentally, all of Zoran’s work is in the process of being reprinted in beautiful new editions. See here for details.

That was Eurocon done for another year. In 2018 we will be in Amiens in France, a city that was home to Jules Verne for most of his writing career. The easiest way to get there is by train, either from Paris, or Eurostar to Lille if you are coming from the UK or Belgium. In 2019 the Eurocon will be in Belfast, hopefully the weekend after the Dublin Worldcon if all goes according to plan. Rijeka in Croatia is still unopposed for 2020.

My thanks to Ju & Jela Schmidt who were great company in the dealers’ room, to the Ukrainians for the honey-chili vodka, to the convention committee, to the kind people who transported Worldcon #76 materials back and fore for me, to Fluff Cthulhu for refraining from eating me, and to all of the fine folks who made it such a lovely weekend. I still owe you a beer or two, Christina.

My final picture is the most science-fictional thing in Dortmund, the space elevator.

Welcome to Afrometropolis

Last night I was at The Arnolfini for an event curated by my friend, Edson Burton. Afrometroplis was a multi-media experience inspired by Afrofuturism. The idea was to create a futuristic and funkadelic city state inspired by African culture. I tried hard not to think of Rosewater, because I’m not sure that I trust Tade’s aliens.

There was a lot of stuff going on, including a preview of a short film by Ytasha Womack and a very impressive jam session. You can learn more of what went on from the website.

I spent much of the evening in the Manifesto Development session. The idea was to come up with a political manifesto for life in Afrometropolis, and in theory we were supposed to be inspired by writers such as Octavia Butler. I was rather hoping to have a discussion of Earthseed, the religion that Butler developed for the Parable books. As it turned out, the rest of the people there were more interested in discussing what African identity meant, and whether Bristol was a successful multi-cultural city, which is perfectly fine. I’m hoping I can lure Zahra Ash-Harper onto my radio show to talk about how the discussion went (and about our shared love of Black Panther).

My thanks to Edson and the team at Come The Revolution for a great evening. I’m sorry I couldn’t stay for the party.

Queer Art at the Tate


The Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain is a major undertaking and something I am very pleased to have seen. I’m by no means an art expert, so this is very much an amateur review, but hopefully you’ll find it useful.

One of my main reasons for wanting to go is that the exhibition features several pieces by Simeon Solomon. They are very fine, but the thing you see as you go in is another work by an unfairly ignored Pre-Raphaelite artist Evelyn De Morgan. The image above (which has rather poor color rendering – sorry) is “Aurora Triumphans” and represents Dawn escaping the bounds of sleep. Which is all very interesting except that the model for Aurora was a woman who was believed to have been De Morgan’s lover, and who she was fond of painting tied up.

The collection includes a number of well-known pieces including Charles Buchel’s portrait of Radclyffe Hall and William Strang’s portrait of Vita Sackville-West. There are also several Aubrey Beardsley pieces, for those of you who like priapic art. (Personally I love Beardsley’s style, but the prevalence of giant penises is a bit much after a while.)

Another of my favorite pieces (though not so much for the quality of the art) is this one by Walter Crane. It is titled “The Renaissance of Venus” and it looks like a fairly standard mythological picture. It only becomes obviously queer when you know that the model for Venus was a young man called Alessandro de Marco. Crane’s excuse was that his wife would not allow him to use nude women as models, so he had to use men instead. Yeah, right.

Which brings me to the whole vexed question of trans inclusion. In my post on the Claude Cahun exhibition Andrew Butler mentions a feedback card that accuses the exhibition of not having any trans representation. Frankly I think that’s ridiculous.

To start with there is much trans imagery on show. There’s the issue of Picture Post with Roberta Cowell’s coming out story in it. There is a famous photo of Fanny and Stella (which is much sharper in real life than any of the digital versions I have seen). And there are some fascinating photos by John Deakin. One of them is from a series called “drag” which was once thought to be of drag queens but has since been discovered to be of women dressed as drag queens. Another is of a person known only as “Colin”. The originals are in the Getty Archive (e.g. this one) where they are labeled as being of a drag artist, but the Tate notes that we don’t know who Colin was, or how they identified.

There is also a very strange Hockney piece titled “Bertha alias Bernie” which could be seen as representing a trans identity emerging from the original body of the subject.

The curators have made a point of getting trans input on the show. There are cards giving input from people such as Juno Roche and Sabah Choudrey.

It is true that there are no binary trans artists exhibited. The show covers the period 1861-1967, a period in which male homosexuality was illegal in the UK. This was not a time when anyone who was openly and obviously trans was likely to become a famous artist, so I’m not entirely surprised at the absence. But there are at least two artists who identified openly as non-binary. One is Cahun, who is included because they lived in Jersey. The other is Gluck who is the face of the exhibition. Just look at this and try to tell me that this is not a trans person of some sort.

Gluck was assigned female at birth but eschewed that identity. They famously insisted on being known only as Gluck, with no prefixes or suffixes. Anyone who dared refer to them as “Miss Gluck” would be on the receiving end of a mighty strop. Being non-binary is not a new invention. There were people who were proudly non-binary at the beginning of the 20th Century.

There are two pieces by Gluck in the show. The other is “Lilac and Guelder Rose”, a painting of a flower arrangement. This was one of the paintings done for Gluck’s sometime girlfriend, Constance Spry, who was then the official flower arranger for the royal family. I’ve seen lots of pictures of it online, but none of them can capture the remarkable texture of the real thing. Gluck built up layers of paint to make each leaf and petal stand out physically from the canvass.

The painting is displayed in Gluck’s trademark frame style, which is supposed to be painted the same color as the background wall. It’s a shame that the Tate was unable to do that.

Where I will fault the exhibition is on deadnaming. Gluck and Cahun both have their birth names paraded as their “real” identities. I don’t think either of them would be happy about this.

All in all, I’m pretty happy with the exhibition. I’m certainly glad I went. My thanks to Clare Barlow and her team for putting it on.

While I was there I had a look around the rest of Tate Britain. As an art gallery it is a bit limited by being devoted to British art. There’s quite a bit of Pre-Raphaelite material in there, but frankly most of them weren’t very good. Solomon was perhaps the best of them, and they treated him abominably when he was arrested for sodomy. De Morgan was also good, but she was a woman and has been passed over because of that. The best Tate Britain can do is John William Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shalott”. Personally I much prefer Frank Dicksee’s “La Belle Dame San Merci” which is in Bristol Museum.

What Tate Britain does have is a huge Turner collection. If you have any affinity for the sea you should go take a look. Currently they also have a small William Blake exhibition which I also very much enjoyed. Alongside the Queer Art exhibition they have one devoted solely to David Hockney. I didn’t see that because you needed to book in advance to get in, but I presume it will be rather good. It is a shame, however, that so little of Hockney’s obviously homoerotic art found its way into the Queer Art show.

Claude Cahun at the National Portrait Gallery

Claude Cahun
Seeing as I was in London on Saturday I took the opportunity to stay over and do some art gallery visiting. With this year being the 50th anniversary of the start of the decriminalization of homosexuality in the UK, there are a lot of interesting exhibitions being staged. The most high profile is the Queer British Art show at Tate Britain. More of that later. Right now I want to talk about Claude Cahun.

Cahun and their partner, Marcel Moore, were French surrealist artists who lived together in Jersey in the 20th Century. Both deliberately adopted gender-neutral names and Cahun at least was adamant that they was neither male nor female. This is reflected in their art. That’s one of Cahun’s many self portraits above. During WWII both Cahun and Moore were active in the French Resistance, and were imprisoned for some time by the Nazis.

Cahun and Moore were forgotten by the British art establishment after the war, but Cahun in particular were rediscovered by a British artist, Gillian Wearing. As far as I can make out, Wearing identifies as female. Certainly all of the self-portraits in which she is being herself are obviously feminine. However, Wearing has a fascination with masks and gendered appearance. She has done many “self” portraits in which she is playing someone else. Her subjects include Cahun, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and various members of her family, including her father and brother. When playing someone else she makes a mask of that person’s face to change her appearance (and in the case of her brother she wore a full body suit to allow her to appear shirtless). The National Portrait Gallery has made the interesting decision to stage an exhibition featuring Cahun and Wearing together.

Gillian Wearing as Claude Cahun

This is Wearing impersonating Cahun in the persona that Cahun used for a famous series of photographs titled, “I am in training don’t kiss me”. The mask that Wearing is holding is of her own face. There is a very large version of this photograph at the opening of the exhibition and it is quite stunning.

What isn’t immediately obvious from Wearing’s impression is that Cahun is dressed as a circus strongman. In the Cahun photos the strongman’s barbells are present. The cute hairdo and makeup are therefore acting to feminize a very masculine figure; a statement that is lost by Wearing.

Personally I found the exhibition quite disturbing. Some of that obviously was a result of the art. Both Cahun and Wearing set out to discombobulate their audience. But what really got to me was the persistent misgendering of Cahun throughout the exhibition. It was as though the National Portrait Gallery, despite prominently quoting Cahun’s self-identification, was insisting that a non-binary identity was invalid, perhaps even impossible, and that therefore Cahun could only be female.

Part of this, I suspect, is that Cahun refuses to abandon their feminine side. These days “androgynous” is often taken to mean “male” by the media. Long hair, feminine clothing, colors coded feminine, and heavy make-up are all deemed inadmissible. Many of the photos of Cahun are recognizably feminine, and indeed the pictures of her on the beach on Jersey remind me of the mental image I have of Tristessa St. Ange from Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve. However, many of the images are recognizably masculine, and the fact that Cahun sometimes presents as feminine should not invalidate their non-binary identity.

Mostly, however, I think the NPG is being clueless. There is a common view that non-binary identities are a 21st century invention. The more I learn about the early 20th century, the more obvious it is that this isn’t true. When I get to talking about the Tate exhibition I’ll be mentioning Gluck, who was adamantly ungendered. The NPG manages to be respectful of Lea de Beaumont in their famous portrait of her. They should have extended the same courtesy to Cahun.

A Day at the V&A

The Siege of RanthambohrI spent most of today at the Victoria & Albert Museum in the company of some of their volunteer tour guides, in particular my friend Dan Vo with whom I have worked on various LGBT History projects. I was there to talk to Dan and his colleagues about trans terminology, and how to represent trans people in a respectful and authentic way when talking about them during LGBT-themed tours of the museum. We also took the opportunity to have a look around some of the galleries to see if we could spot some trans-themed exhibits. I’m pleased to say that I found a few. Nothing on quite the scale of a Grayson Perry Vase depicting April Ashley, which has to be their prize exhibit, but I was pleased with what I found.

I also found a mystery, which I’m going to talk about here. The picture to the left is in the South Asia gallery and is one of a series depicting the conquests of the Mughal emperor Akbar. It shows bullocks pulling cannon up a hill to attack the fortress of Ranthambhor in Rajasthan.

Most of the characters in the scene are depicted with facial hair, either mustaches or full beards, and they wear turbans. But my eye happened upon one character in the painting who is clean-shaven and is wearing what looks to be a more feminine style of head covering.

Possible hijraI know nothing about Mughal art, but I do know that hijra were common at the courts of the Mughal emperors. (They were, for obvious reasons, used in the harem as guards and servants, which gave them a place of honor in Mughal society.) So I am now wondering whether the artist has chosen to depict a hijra among Akbar’s army. Dan is going to make inquiries with the museum staff for me to see if anyone knows anything about this. If anyone reading this is an expert on Mughal history, I’d love to hear from you.

At the end of the day I got to see Dan in action doing one of his guided tours. The V&A has a wealth of LGBT+ material and Dan is very knowledgeable. If you happen to be in London on the last Saturday of a month I recommend popping along. You may even get to hear one of the guides talk about an item I found for them. Though of course the tours can’t be too long, there are several depictions of Roman emperors, and I could talk all day about them. Dear Goddess, Tiberius, what were you thinking?

Angela Carter at the RWA

Pomps of the Subsoil - Leonora CarringtonYesterday afternoon, having a couple of hours to kill between radio work and the talk to the medical students, I finally got to see the Angela Carter exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol.

What, may you ask, is a writer doing having an exhibition in an art gallery? Well, there is a lot of material. Some of Carter’s books were lavishly illustrated as well as having great covers. Many artists have created works inspired by her writing (Fevvers is a favorite subject, as is Red Riding Hood). And Carter herself was an art lover so the exhibit also includes a number of works that she is known to have been fond of.

I thought it was a great exhibition. Indeed, there is one part of it that I’m not going to talk about because you really have to go and see it for yourself. The only slightly off note for me was the fact that there was no mention of The Passion of New Eve save for a listing of Carter’s works. Given the breadth of work available, I suspect this may have been a curatorial decision.

The exhibition website has a gallery showing many of the works on display. Some of them are much more impressive in reality than as web images. I particularly like “Hades II” by Anna Marie Pacheco and “Grandma’s Footsteps” by Angela Lizon. (Did I mention that most of the art is by women? Of course it is.) However, some of the best work isn’t in the gallery so I have found copies for you here.

The painting at the top is “Pomps of the Subsoil” by surrealist artist, Leonora Carrington. Given that she was a feminist and fond of themes of female sexuality, she’s an ideal person to have in an Angela Carter exhibition. But I am embarrassed to say that my favorite image is one by a man. It is “The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania” by Sir Joseph Noel Paton. In my defense I note that Carter was apparently very fond of it too.

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton