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OUT: Queer Looking, Queer Acting: art to be waved in the air and worn

by Rebecca Rose

Crown Jewels of Corporate Greed, part of the OUT exhibit, is made of expired AZT “the principal medication used for treating AIDS at the time. Photo Rebecca Rose
“See No Evil”, James MacSwain. Photo Rebecca Rose
Photo Rebecca Rose
Photo Rebecca Rose
Robin Metcalfe, curator of both the original and current show. Photo Rebecca Rose
Photo Rebecca Rose

(K'JIPUKTUK) HALIFAX – The queer art that currently lines the walls of the Khyber Centre for the Arts was never meant to be shown in a gallery. It was to be stapled to polls, handed to passers by, waved in the air and worn.

OUT: Queer Looking, Queer Acting Revisited; at the Khyber Centre for the Arts until Saturday October 18; features posters, pamphlets, placards, T-shirts and buttons from the gay and lesbian, queer and trans, movements between 1972 and today. The original exhibit and the current were curated by queer activist icon, Robin Metcalfe, who conducted a narrated walk-through last week.

“It’s really a good moment to do the show again, because it’s a moment where younger activists are reaching out actively for their history and for contact with older activists,” says Metcalfe.

The remounting of the exhibit coincided with the 125th anniversary of the Khyber Building as well as a resurgence of radical queer and trans activism in Halifax. It also, unfortunately, coincided with the eviction of the Khyber Centre for the Arts from the Khyber Building itself.

“This was the first exhibition that had to be postponed because it couldn’t be done in the Khyber space,” says Metcalfe. “It was really intended for that space because we wanted to reanimate … the Turret.” The Turret, the stuff of legends in the queer community, was the first of two community-run gay bars in Halifax and operated out of the third floor of the Khyber Building from 1976 to 1983.

Both shows were meant to evoke spaces important to the queer activist community: the street, the office or meeting space, the dance floor, and places such as washrooms and parks where sex might happen. Metcalfe chose the KAS bathroom to display a PWA (People With AIDS) Coalition of Nova Scotia poster and pink triangle adorned condom packages advertising safer sex. “If you haven’t been to the bathroom you haven’t seen the whole show,” he jokes.

The street is best illustrated by three cartoonishly painted placards on the back-left wall. The figures, first painted by James MacSwain in 1979 and recreated by MacSwain in 1997, depict an Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) Officer, a CBC announcer and a Canadian Border Services agent covering their eyes, mouth and ears. Evoking the “See No Evil” monkeys, they were used for an anti-censorship demonstration in 1979 addressing the three issues of the day: the OPP’s raid and censorship of the Body Politic (Toronto-based gay magazine) in 1977, the CBC’s refusal to run gay public service announcements in 1976 and a Canada Customs decision to detain and return a shipment of lesbian books en route to the leftist Halifax bookstore Red Herring in 1978.

A T-shirt that reads “HOT SWEATY BODY” evokes stories of the dance floor. When asked about the shirt Metcalfe responds, “There are a lot of big stories in here.” He continues, “That’s from what I called the shirtless wars… Having a space that was controlled by a diverse community meant we had a good long history of working things out, and then we had a history of not working things out.”

Gay men, Metcalfe included, began to dance shirtless at the community-controlled Rumours in the early nineties. A debate about men dancing shirtless, in a mixed space, ensued, with one woman writing that she didn’t want to rub up against men’s “hot, sweaty, bodies”, prompting Metcalfe and Andrew Harwood to create the T-shirt.

The crisis also lead to one of the “most joyful [experiences] of my entire life”, when several lesbian members of ACTUP decided to dance shirtless after the 1991 Pride March. “They had these round stickers that said Silence=Death. They had roles of them, and they put them on their nipples,” says Metcalfe. “At one o’clock in the morning, a group of women took their shirts off on the dance floor. Within 30 seconds half of the dance floor, both men and women, had their shirts off. It was an incredible claiming of freedom.” The debate that followed, Metcalfe writes in the catalogue, involved “fundamental questions of safety and personal agency”, and lead to the decline of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Nova Scotia, and Rumours.

Only one piece was made specifically for the gallery, for the 1997 exhibit: the haunting “Crown Jewels of Corporate Greed”, by the late Chuck Gillis (AKA drag legend Lulu LaRude).

The fragile crown and sceptre are made of $4,000 worth of expired AZT “the principal medication used for treating AIDS in that period, [which] was highly toxic and was the source of a whole bunch of profits for drug corporations,” says Metcalfe. Metcalfe calls the piece, adorned with red sequined AIDS ribbons, a “conservator’s nightmare” because the pills are not archival.

The exhibit also acknowledges the new generation of queer and trans activists. Emily Davidson, Genevieve Flavelle, Beck Gilmer-Osborne and Adam Myatt collaborated with Metcalfe on a wall of contemporary queer ephemera.

For Gilmer-Osborne, a former member of the NSCAD Queer Collective, it is the maybe unlikely 1980’s Rumours logo that inspires them. “It’s just so damn good,” says Gilmer-Osborne. “I know people have been trying really hard the last few years to get a semi-permanent space. To have a place to meet, to have fun and to feel safer. [The Rumours logo] is kind of a motivation for that sort of thing.”


OUT: Queer Looking, Queer Acting revisited.

Friday 19 September – Saturday 18 October, 2014
Curated by Robin Metcalfe
In collaboration with: Emily Davidson, Genevieve Flavelle, Beck Gilmer-Osborne, Adam Myatt
5521 Cornwallis St. Halifax


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