DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics

22 August – 14 October 2018

HENI Project Space, Southbank Centre’s Hayward Gallery

In what may be the first major institutional show of its kind, exploring drag culture beyond traditional representation and stereotypes, DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics provides a fascinating look at how drag has been used as a trope that has empowered individuals from wildly different backgrounds to challenge barriers of class, identity, gender and race. All of this takes place through the form of photographs, paintings and audiovisual pieces in the HENI Project Space at the Hayward Gallery.

Upon entering the exhibition space I was automatically drawn to the work of the pivotal crossover figureheads with whom I was most familiar with, figures such as Robert Mapplethorpe, VALIE EXPORT and Renate Bertlmann. Indeed it is hard not to be drawn towards of the latter upon entering the gallery, as you are met with an extravagantly-dressed doll dominating the centre of the space like an anchor for the exhibition. This was a piece from Bertlmann’s 2001 sculptural series Enfants Terribles, and it wasn’t until the third time that I turned to it that I realised that the doll was infact made up of a phallus. 

Alongside such relatively big names however comes an exploration of the underground, with DRAG exploring the work of a number of emerging artists, as well as showcasing the work of legendary performer David Hoyle in an institutional setting for the first time. There is no obvious organised narrative – different collections on different parts of the wall catch the viewer’s eye turn by turn, in a series of collages, photographs, drawings, and videos on flat screens. Works are presented equally, and visitors to the gallery are able to explore a parallel stories of self-expression.

LUCIANO CASTELLI His Majesty the Queen, 1973 Collage, photograph, watercolor
90 x 66 cm (framed)
Courtesy Christophe Gaillard, Paris

DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics does however make its point clear: it showcases how drag is used as an artistic tool for self exploration, not only in respect to gender, but also to questions of class systems, politics and race. It moves away from the perhaps dominant cultural perception of drag as merely performative or exhibitionist, re-framing drag as a deeper conversation within identity politics.

The exhibition does not shy away from any topic, political, racial or religious. Post-colonial themes and AIDS crises are among the many cultural shifts it addresses. Genesis P-Orridge humorously criticises middle-class, middle aged mothers in the video Weird Woman (2003), delving into issues of gender and class stereotypes.

A very eye-catching photograph is Oreet Ashery’s Self Portrait as Marcus Fisher, which captures the artist’s male, Orthodox Jew alter-ego, in traditional dress , hand cupping a breast through an open shirt.

Playing into the ambiguities of gender, the artists displayed also use drag as a tool to criticise and challenge cultural and racial stereotypes. In an 8 minute long audiovisual piece, Ming Wong takes on Polanski’s representation of gender and race in his 1974 film Chinatown. After Chinatown (2012) deconstructs gender and ethnicity , tackling the big questions surrounding identity.

24 Heures dans la vie d’une femme / Phantasmes
La Maternite, 1974
color photograph, text
60.8 x 53 cm (framed)
Courtesy Christophe Gaillard, Paris

Francesco Copello presents El Mimo y La Bandera (1975), a self-portrait with a strong political message. Dressed in drag, the artist dances with a Chilean flag. This piece is not only a statement of sexual identity in a regime where individuality is not tolerated, but also a comment on the artist’s own status of exile.

The intimate HENI Project Space is full of eye-catching pieces, which nearly over-whelms, but is positively coherent despite an absence of an obvious linear narrative. What this demonstrates however is that every voice in the room is powerful enough to stand on its own, and presented in this way these myriad voices are able to sing.

Words by Laila Obeidat

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