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Queer Love, Desire and Faith Event (10 December 2020)

How do queer, trans and gender diverse people relate to religion and faith? And how might we relate to the religious collections at RAMM?

Religion and faith are one of the core themes of Out and About: Queering the Museum at RAMM. At this event, Writer In Residence Natalie McGrath shared an early-stage creative response to two translated love letters between lesbian medieval nuns. Natalie’s writing has also been inspired by medieval objects from RAMM’s collections and she has been exploring representations of queer people of faith from the medieval period and beyond. In addition, Natalie will consider the process of writing during a pandemic and ideas around where writing and devotion meet.

To frame the reading, Prof Jana Funke (University of Exeter) drew on her research on lesbian and trans history, to explore how people in the past engaged with different religious beliefs and faiths to understand their gender and sexual identities. Jana’s research focuses on LGBTQ+ writers who engaged with Christianity and found meaning within religious ritual, community and iconography.

We were delighted that Belinda Dillon from Exeter City of Literature, one of our project partners, joined us to open the event.

The event was hosted by Ellie Coleman, one of our project co-directors, and Engagement Officer at RAMM.

Charice Bhardwaj and Carina Miles

Digital Short by Charice Bhardwaj and Carina Miles

Welcome to the matchbox cabaret … where the wall tastes like sugar, and the dancefloor’s alight, but the world is bigger in here, so we like it.” Well, sometimes. We’re struggling to find our way into the matchbox, and we’re worried that we’re underdressed, but we’ll squeeze in anyway and try not to burn our heads off too much under the stairs. Inspired by a 19th century matchbox in the RAMM collections during lockdown, and a variety of tiny objects, collaborators Charice and Carina discover a small queer world of pink hares and dark cupboards. 🕳 🔦🐰🔥✌️

Find out more about Charice Bhardwaj and Carina Miles.

Inspired by RAMM’s metal matchbox!

Content Description: The video contains some profanity and flashing lights.

Artists’ Platform (29 October 2020)

Artists’ Platform

During lockdown, we commissioned Charice Bhardwaj, Carina Miles, Caleb Parkin and Oren Shoesmith to work with us on queering the museum. At our live event, which you can watch below, the artists shared some of their initial work and talked about their process. What are the challenges when working on the collections without being able to visit the museum? What ideas and forms of collaboration have emerged in their practice as artists? How can we queer the museum and engage with the collections at a distance?

The event featured conversations about queer and trans art, thinking and practice, as the artists covered a range of topics and themes including: the rejected gay sand of collector Ivor Treby, poetry inspired by scattered language and the art of queer failure, a variety of tiny objects (including a 19th-century matchbox) leading to the discovery of a small queer world of pink hares and dark cupboards, and finding queer and trans resonances in religious stories of transformation.

Queer Objects: William Keble Martin Lily Illustration

 William Keble Martin Lily Illustration

by Ashley Eyvanaki

Lillies by William Keble Martin (RAMM Collections)

Have you seen William Keble Martin’s illustration of flowers in the lily family? The Reverend spent much of his life studying plants and capturing their likeness in sketches and paintings. In 1934, his work took him to the vicarage of Great Torrington, where he devoted his energy to visiting parishioners and preparing sermons. However, his free time was spent in the garden and nature, studying botany from real life. For example, Martin drew the meadow saffron flower or Colchicum Autumnale seen in the bottom-right corner of the illustration from life, basing it on a specimen found in Torrington. This illustration of flowers in the lily family was a preliminary plate to be included in his book The Concise British Flora in Colour, which was then published in 1965.

Historically, lilies also hold significant meaning within the LGBTQ+ community. For example, the floral paintings of artist Georgia O’Keeffe have widely been thought to have a dual meaning. In particular, her delicate paintings of calla lilies have been viewed by some art critics as an intimate depiction of the female genitalia, so have been repurposed into an erotic lesbian symbol. During the 1970s, a new wave of feminists began to celebrate O’Keeffe’s portrayal of nature, the body, and themes of gender, despite her neither encouraging nor discouraging such interpretations of her work.

By 1999, artist and activist Michael Page suggested that the trillium flower be used as a symbol of bisexuality. The flower is significant as a member of the lily family, as well as for first causing scientists to use the word ‘bisexual’, albeit in reference to them having both male and female sex organs, rather than in reference to sexual orientation. Page wanted to create a prominent symbol for the bisexual community, much like how the rainbow gay pride flag had become emblematic of the gay community after its creation by Gilbert Baker. As a result, the bisexual pride flag consisted of a pink and blue stripe, with the former representing homosexuality and the latter representing heterosexuality, with both overlapping in the middle to form a purple stripe that symbolised both sexualities becoming one. This flag design emblazoned with a trillium grew to be widely accepted across Mexico by 2001, intertwining themes of nature with bisexuality.

What is your favourite LGBTQ+ flag design? Tell us in the comments below.

Queer Objects: The Canterbury Bell Slide

The Canterbury Bell Slide

by Ashley Eyvanaki

Magic Lantern Slide: Flower Studies – Canterbury Bell (RAMM Collections)

Can you spot the magic lantern slide of a Canterbury Bell? This slide by William Weaver Baker shows a flower specimen renowned for its bell-shaped, violet-blue colour. Baker was a keen photographer and produced many collections of slides with different themes throughout his lifetime, with this slide being one of fifty-two floral images.

Historically, purple flowers such as violets have been linked to the poetry of Sappho (c.610-570 BCE), a Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos. She is believed to be the first woman to openly express loving another woman, and her legacy resulted in the word ‘lesbian’ as we commonly use it today. Although only fragments of her poetry remain, many of them describe her idyllic island life and deep love of nature, as seen in the following fragment:

‘Rejoice, go and

remember me. For you know how we cherished you.

But if not, I want

to remind you

[…] and beautiful times we had.

For many crowns of violets

and roses

[…] at my side you put on’

– Fragment 94, Sappho in translation by Anne Carson

There are also many other notable instances of violets appearing in connection with the LGBTQ+ community, in both colour and floral form. In the play The Captive of 1926, one female character gave another a bouquet of violets, creating sapphic undertones. This led to public uproar, resulting in the New York City district attorney’s office shutting down the Broadway production in 1927. Across America, the link between violets with lesbianism led to a lack of violet sales in florists. However, in Parisian showings, many lesbian and bisexual women began to wear violets on their lapels in solidarity with one another.

The colour violet went on to appear on the original rainbow flag, which was created to celebrate LGBTQ+ love, life, and pride in 1978. Taking inspiration from this, The Violet Quill group of gay male writers would often meet to critique each other’s work in New York City, from 1980 to 1981.

What colour do you associate with love? Tell us in the comments below.

Queer Objects: Sampler with Carnations

Sampler with Carnations

by Ashley Eyvanaki

Sampler (RAMM Collections)

Have you seen this sampler of religious verses surrounded by botanical patterns? It is the work of a seven-year-old Sarah Bechin, who was born in Surrey in c.1776. Both strawberries and carnations are common motifs on samplers, likely as strawberries symbolise innocence and purity, whilst pink carnations were emblematic of maternal love. Interestingly, by 1892, the green carnation had become emblematic of LGBTQ+ love, when queer author and playwright Oscar Wilde requested an actor wear the flower pinned to his lapel, on the opening night of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan. This resulted in many of Wilde’s friends within the audience also wearing a green carnation tucked into their buttonholes, with the flower blooming into a symbol of same-sex attraction within Wilde’s social circle.

This subtle homosexual coding continued into the 1900s, acting as an earlier version of the more explicit handkerchief code, in which gay and bisexual men would use different coloured hankies to indicate their sexual preferences. In late 1892, Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas wrote a poem called Two Loves. It draws on natural imagery to create a floral utopia, in which heterosexual and homosexual love are personified as two beautiful youths. The former is self-assured of their status in society, whilst the latter is deeply saddened by the fact that they represent ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.

However, the novel The Green Carnation by Robert Hichens was published in 1894. The plot was believed to be based on the real-life affair of Wilde and Douglas, so was quickly withdrawn from circulation. However, by this point the damage to Wilde’s reputation could not be undone, and both Douglas’ poem and Hichens’ novel contributed towards the evidence used against Wilde during his two consecutive trials for gross indecency. He went on to be sentenced to two years of hard labour in 1895.

Despite this, Wilde never revoked his complicated feelings of love towards Douglas. Despite his ruined reputation and legal hardship, he went on to summarise his time with his lover in a letter to his solicitor Leonard Smithers in 1897, writing: ‘He understands me and my art, and loves both. […] He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him – it is the only thing to do.’

What qualities do you look for in a partner? Tell us in the comments below!