A jubilant exploration of queer symbolism and iconography from the 6th century through to the present day, Helen Cantwell’s debut solo exhibition, In My Day, celebrates the enhanced visibility of the LGBTQ+ community in the present while shedding light on gaps in the community’s rich history. In My Day explores the semiotics of queer culture, addressing themes of gender, sexuality, femininity, eroticism, political activism and self-expression. Cantwell’s practice sits at the intersection of digital art, print and installation, combining found imagery with seminal texts and portraits of influential figures to forge connections to the past and further insight into contemporary queer issues. Working with digital collage and print media, Cantwell adapts the 2D image into three dimensions through print and large-scale wall vinyl. Cantwell’s methods of image manipulation, repetition and layering recall the contemporary viewership methods of visual cultures- how we encounter these objects, icons, or text is often through a screen. The rise of Internet culture over the last thirty years has resulted in cultural cross-pollination, prompting the expansion of intercontinental critical discourse. The dissemination of media and critical theory across the internet has resulted in symbols, slang terms and cultural mannerisms reappropriated by others. The digital modalities with which Cantwell’s work is created offer a meta, multilayered, distorted version of the original subject matter, ultimately bringing it back into the tangible present through the process of printing and placing it within the context of the gallery.
Situated in Backwater Artist Studios, Cork, In My Day immediately draws the viewer into the exhibition space with its large-scale prints and vibrant array of colours, the intensity of which complements the grandiosity of the figures, symbols and themes depicted through the exhibition. Exploring themes of protest and political activism, Rhinos portrays two rhinoceros-human hybrid figures in an embrace, standing behind a placard that reads, “A Lavender rhinoceros is not imposterous”. The iconic symbol of the lavender rhinoceros was created in the 1970s in Boston by artists Daniel Thaxton and Bernie Toale, for a public ad campaign by Gay Media Action Advertising. They chose the rhino as they considered it a “misunderstood animal” that people held a “much maligned” view of. The rhino was also used as a symbol of protest in Boston Pride parades, with a large papier-mâché rhino paraded alongside a placard reading “a lavender rhinoceros is not imposturous” in 1974.1 The lavender colour – a combination of pink and blue, symbolises the merging of masculinity and femininity. The term “Lavender” referenced a commonly used slang term for gay men, which began in the early 20th century as a result of the rising popularity of lavender shades in women’s fashion. By the late 1940s, newspapers were casually referring to the “lavender set” as a dismissive shorthand for groups of queer men. Political activist groups, such as The Lavender Menace, in the 1970s also referenced the colour. The Lavender Menace was an informal group of radical feminist lesbians formed in May 1970 in New York City to protest the exclusion of lesbians and their issues in the second-wave women’s liberation movement. The phrase “Lavender Menace” was reportedly first used in 1969 by Betty Friedan, president of The National Organization for Women (NOW), to describe the threat that she believed associations with lesbianism posed to NOW and the emerging women’s movement. Friedan, along with some other heterosexual feminists, expressed concern that the affiliation could hinder feminists’ capacity to effect significant political transformation.2 Dissenting activist groups like The Lavender Menace were vital in developing intersectionality in Western feminism and ensuring that the queer community was recognised in sociopolitical matters.
Widespread prejudice towards the LGBTQ+ community, paired with the criminalisation of homosexuality in most countries across the world in the 1900s, incited fear in queer individuals and ensured that many queer people kept their sexuality a secret. Owl pays homage to the spaces of sanctuary where LGBTQ+ folk could gather and be their most authentic selves. Café ‘t Mandje, a bar popular with LGBTQ+ people in Amsterdam from 1927 to 1982, was owned by Bet van Beeren, an openly gay woman. The use of the term owl in reference to homosexuals has been attributed to a plaster owl lamp that van Beeren lit to warn her customers of raids or homophobic patrols. This lamp served as a symbol of safety for her patrons, assuring that they would be protected from homophobic brutality.3 Against the back wall of the gallery sits a large-scale vinyl print of Sappho, the edges of which are framed with a border in the orange, magenta and violet hues of the lesbian flag, overlapping the edges of her marble likeness. The repositioning of Sappho in the context of this digital collage reframes this historical sapphic icon through a contemporary lens. Fabled as the world’s first known woman-loving woman, Sappho (c. 630 – c. 570) was a Greek poet who lived on the island of Lesbos. Sappho was renowned for her romantic and erotic poetry, especially those depicting homoerotic desire for women. The terms’ Sapphic’ and ‘Lesbian’ originate from her name and the island on which she lived much of her life. Sappho’s poetry contains many references to flowers, painting a picture of an idyllic pasture where women frolicked adorned in garlands.4 To Sappho’s right, following the line of her gaze, a digital amalgamation conjures the image of a flower emerging from the boundaries of the frame, breaking free from its constraints.
Situated on the same wall, referencing a similar period in time, is Peaches, a Rorschach-like, blooming botanical assemblage. The mirroring of this assemblage is suggestive of the present mirroring the past, as the past echoes through time. The rich orange fruits and green blooms conceal the identity of a figure in the righthand corner. Layered beneath the botanic collage, the solitary figure stands wearing a jacket on which a painting of Duke Ling of Wey is visible, juxtaposing modern-day clothing design with the traditional Chinese guó huà painterly depiction of the Duke. Duke Ling of Wey, who ruled the ancient Chinese state of Wey from c. 534 — 492 BC, was one of the most famous icons of queer love in China. According to the legend, he picked a peach and, upon tasting it, decided it was the sweetest he had ever tasted. He gave this peach to his male courtesan, Mizi Xia, as a sign of his affection. From the fable, the term “bitten peach” became synonymous with homosexuality in China.5 Responding to Peaches is the print 2500. This collage consists of the same imagery of peaches from the larger print Peaches and cutouts of a painting of Duke Ling. The peach motif may be more familiar to viewers as a reference to the infamous “peach scene” in the 2007 book and 2015 film “Call Me By Your Name”, which chronicles the romantic relationship between two young men in 1980’s Italy.6
Roses references the Japanese publication Barazoku – Japan’s first commercially circulated gay men’s magazine. First published in 1971, Barazoku ran for thirty years. During its print run, the publication and its founder Bungaku Itō were met with public disapproval, legal injunctions, and numerous arrests.7 Barozoku translates to “rose tribe”, a once derogatory term for gay men in Japan. Roses positions an obscured male figure at the forefront of the collage. Greyscale rose petals conceal the head of a male body providing a veil of anonymity, something that was essential for members of the queer community at that time, while the background blooms with bursts of colour. Throughout In My Day, there is a recurring motif of greyscale figures set against vividly coloured backdrops, their faces obscured, evoking the secrecy, shame, repression, and rejection of self that many LGBTQ+ individuals have dealt with throughout history. The various colours present within Roses are representative of the many meanings associated with the colours of roses in Japanese culture. The orange rose symbolises passionate romantic pursuit, the yellow rose denotes courage and strength, and the red rose symbolises romantic love. Sincerity is represented by the various colours of purple in the collage backdrop. A contrast to Roses is the mini print Lillies. Where roses symbolise same-sex attraction between men in Japan, lilies symbolise same-sex attraction between women. In Japanese, the word yuri translates to “lily”. In the 1970s, the term was first used to characterise relationships between queer women. The word yurizoku (or “lily tribe”) is believed to have been coined for the lesbian community in Japan by Barazoku editor Bungaku Itō.8 Barazoku ran a column for lesbians called the “Yurizoku no Corner” (“Lily Tribe’s Corner”) where women could advertise events and make contact with one another.9
In Monocle, Cantwell explores the intersections of queer culture, fashion and the arts in the early 1900s. In 1922, Dorothy Todd became the editor of British Vogue. Todd, an openly gay woman and advocate for women’s rights, attempted to modernise the publication by introducing literature and art addressing social and political issues into its pages.10 Todd’s publication was responsive to an era in which queer art and aesthetics helped define key aspects of cultural life. Collaging together multiple covers of British Vogue magazine from the time when Dorothy Todd was the editor, Cantwell also references the impact of the fashion world on queer self-expression from the 1900s onward. Layered over the collage of Vogue covers is an infamous photograph entitled “Lesbian Couple at Le Monocle” (1932). This photograph features a woman known as Fat Claude and her girlfriend at the Parisian lesbian bar Le Monocle. Contrasting expressions of gender identity are evident in the clothing worn by the two figures; one masculine in appearance and the other feminine. Though expression of gender and sexuality through clothing choice is commonplace in the modern day, it was less prevalent and certainly less socially accepted in previous centuries. In Monocle, we see the use of fashion as a semiotic tool of expression during a brief period in which lesbian subculture thrived in the underground queer clubs of interwar Paris. Collaged over Monocle is the framed mini print Couturiers. Couturiers sees layered fashion silhouettes from mid-20th century couture houses such as Balmain, Dior and Balenciaga. These houses, headed by gay fashion designers, have made a significant impact on Western fashions since the 20th century. The carefully posed figures in Couturiers spring to mind the dance moves of the Ballroom Scene, an African-American and Latino underground LGBTQ+ subculture that originated in New York City, and was popularised globally by the success of the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, and Madonna’s hit song Vogue which referenced the dance moves invented within the ballroom scene.11 Many dance moves in the Ballroom Scene mirrored high fashion model’s poses. They were characterised by the formation of lines, symmetry, and precision in executing poses with graceful, fluid movement. The intersections of queer culture and the world of fashion are also referenced in Ruby Slippers and Peacock. From as far back as World War II, “a friend of Dorothy” was a common slang term used amongst queer men in the US military.12 A classic icon from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, the sparkling ruby-coloured heels worn by Dorothy represented the desire for a sense of belonging or a “home”. Peacock references the use of peacock feathers by queer men in Victorian England. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, queer men would wear peacock feathers to identify themselves to others, and artists would paint the feathers into the décor in their artwork to subtly signal their sexuality.13
An ode to the great love affair between early 20th century English writer Virginia Woolf and her long-term lover, Vita Sackville West, the print Dolphins collages together a meeting of two dolphins’, their snouts touching in a kiss, against the backdrop of a vivid oyster shell. One of Virginia’s pet names for Vita was “dolphin”. Much of their relationship was detailed in the letters they wrote one another, and through their correspondence, they developed intricate codes and in-jokes. Virginia, envious of Vita’s advances on other women, once wrote that she imaged Vita as a “dolphin” who eats “a whole bed full of oysters” – and pasted an illustration of a dolphin, “executing amusing gambols” into the letter. In return, Vita later replied with a drawing of an oyster.14 The term oyster has long been referred to as a symbol of queer female eroticism. The Oak pulls together imagery from Cantwell’s reading of the lives of Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville West. Collaged together in this print are scenes of 1920’s London, West and Woolf’s profiles, and an oak tree represents the poem The Oak Tree, which appears in Woolf’s novel Orlando.15 Inspired by her love for Vita, Orlando has been described as “the longest and most charming love letter in history”.16
In My Day weaves together compelling narratives, pulling from sources across time to tell stories of queer individuals and communities from around the world. The positioning of this exhibition within an Irish gallery is notable, as Ireland was the first country in the world to vote for the legalisation of same-sex in 2015. The marriage referendum marked a significant shift in the lives of queer people living in Ireland. Where coming out, expressing one’s true self or holding a lover’s hand in public once sparked fear within, the deeply embedded threat response to homophobia has somewhat eased. Through the years, LGBTQ+ communities across the world have worked tirelessly to unshackle themselves from the restraints of shame and fear imposed upon them by cishet normative societies. We still have a ways to go, but every so often, we must look back at the road we have journeyed to get to where we are today. In My Day pedestals historical artefacts of queer symbolism, creating a joyous space of collective LGBTQ+ memory within which we can honour those who have paved the way for us.
- Grey, A. (2019). How A Lavender Rhino Became A Symbol Of Gay Resistance In ’70s Boston. Available at: https://www.wbur.org/news/2019/06/03/lavender-rhino-gay-resistance-boston
McMillan, K. (2023) Violet delights: A queer history of purple, Victoria and Albert Museum. Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/articles/violet-delights-a-queer-history-of-purple
The History of Cafe ’t Mandje and Bet van Beeren (2019) Cafe ’t Mandje. Available at: https://www.cafetmandje.amsterdam/geschiedenis/
Alsaoub, Nour. (2015) Female Autoerotism in Twentieth Century Sexology and Sex Research. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/30268672.pdf
Darling, H.-H. (2023) The Bitten Peach and The Cut Sleeve, Making Queer History. Available at: https://www.makingqueerhistory.com/articles/2016/12/20/the-bitten-peach-and-the-cut-sleeve
Jung, E.A. (2017) Armie Hammer Should Have Eaten the Peach in Call Me by your Name, Vulture. Available at: https://www.vulture.com/2017/11/armie-hammer-peach-scene-in-call-me-by-your-name.html
Nathan, R. (2020) Japan’s first magazine, and the first in Asia, dedicated to gay men, Barazoku, was launched in 1971, Red Circle. Available at: https://www.redcircleauthors.com/factbook/japans-first-magazine-and-the-first-in-asia-dedicated-to-gay-men-barazoku-was-launched-in-1971/
Yurizoku (no date) Urban Dictionary. Available at: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=yurizoku
Suvannasankha, E. (2022) What is Yuri? Queer Women Content in Japanese Media, Tofugu. Available at: https://www.tofugu.com/japan/yuri-manga-anime-recommendations/#:~:text=Barazoku%20(%E8%96%94%E8%96%87%E6%97%8F%2C%20or%20%22,and%20love%20today%2C%20often%20used
Jana, R. (2020) The Forgotten Reign of Radical British Vogue Editor Dorothy Todd Paved the Way for LGBTQIA+, British Vogue. Available at: https://www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/dorothy-todd-vogue
Wilson, J.F. (2011) Bulldaggers, Pansies, and Chocolate Babies: Performance, Race and Sexuality in the Harlem Renaissance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Leap, William; Boellstorff, Tom (2003). Speaking in Queer Tongues: Globalization and Gay Language. University of Illinois Press. p. 98.
The National Galleries of Scotland (2023) The Queer Code: Secret Languages of LGBTQ+ Art Transcript
Available at: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/sites/default/files/features/The%20Queer%20Code%20Secret%20Languages%20of%20LGBTQ%2B%20Art%20Transcript%20.pdf
Coley, A.E. (2011) Repression/Incitement: Double-Reading Vita Sackville-West’s The Edwardians Through Freud and Foucault. Available at: https://core.ac.uk/download/154468611.pdf
Woolf, V. (1928) Orlando. S.l.: Penguin Books UK.
Lindon, L. (2021) Virginia Woolf’s (not so) secret lesbian relationship – in her own words, Penguin Books UK. Available at: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2021/02/virginia-woolf-vita-sackville-west-letters-love-affair