My interview series continues with curator, writer and champion of queer art and artists Gemma Rolls-Bentley. Having worked in the contemporary art scene for over 10 years, focusing specifically on queer culture, equality, representation and inclusivity, Gemma is currently the Head of Curation & Collector Engagement at Artsy collaborating and working closely with artists, galleries, fairs, institutions and auction houses, all on one platform. Gemma was a columnist and curator for Gay Times, and was a founder member and Director of the East London Fawcett Group, running the year-long campaign in 2012 to assess the representation of women in London’s art world.
We spoke in depth about Gemma’s curatorial practice and the incredible project, Queertopia, a collection of short films exploring Queer communities and their spaces curated for Daata Editions and presented at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, BFI for Art Night 2018 and at Somerset House for Pride in London.
You work across many areas of the arts, however each role has a common focus; to support artists. How did you come to work in the arts, and what has been your trajectory up until now?
Across all areas of my work I support artists because that is, without question, what I’m passionate about and what interests me. In my main role at Artsy I rarely work in close contact with artists however I really identify with the company’s values and mission, which is to expand the art market to support more artists and art in the world. I really believe Artsy is empowering different people to start collecting because the platform offers a range of different price points, and those sales in turn create opportunities for people to make art. That’s what I find really exciting about Artsy. I think the online space is interesting because it creates a level playing field for artists.
I grew up with art mainly because of my granny. My immediate family like my mum, my dad, and my brother are not into art particularly but my granny went to art school in the ‘60s in Sheffield. She was a really talented woman. She actually received a scholarship to go to the Slade when she was 18, however she turned it down to marry my granddad and work in her mum and dad’s shoe shop, but always loved art. She used to take me to all the museums. I remember the paintings she would love to see, like the George Stubbs, Whistlejacket Horse. I remember, the work went on a tour of the UK at one point and it came to Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield and she took me to see it. She was so excited. I remember that day vividly. That was a really formative moment for me.
I remember, when I was studying in Edinburgh, she came to stay with me and I took her to the National Gallery of Scotland. There was this Rembrandt self-portrait hanging next to a door, as we walked through the door she turned around and saw the painting on the wall behind her, she took a gasp of air she was so excited. It’s a self-portrait of him aged 51. It wasn’t even a particularly amazing painting but she loved it. Seeing her appreciation of art is definitely what led me to work in the arts. We would spend a lot of time drawing together. When I was at school I was always super crafty and creative, and always loved art. When I was studying my A-Levels, I really loved art. I was always in the art room. Even to the point where I would get into trouble for wagging because I was just always in the art room. I wasn’t actually being naughty. I just wanted to be making art. I loved it so much.
Then when I was doing my A levels, as well as liking art, I also really liked maths. These were my two chosen subjects. I did art, maths, physics, and German. I like all of them actually. I loved school. Maths and art were the two subjects I really liked and I wanted to do something that combined them. I did a work placement at an architect’s firm as I thought this was the only possible intersection. When I was finishing at school I applied for a fine arts programme. I actually found the letter not that long ago where I’d been offered a placed at Glasgow School of Art. However, because I loved maths so much my maths teacher convinced me to apply to study maths instead. I actually ended up going to Edinburgh, because with the Scottish education system you get to pick up different subjects. My main subject was maths and I was allowed to pick two secondary subjects, I chose artificial intelligence and I also picked art history, which pissed everybody off because I was in the science faculty.
When I started university I found it incredibly intimidating because everyone had an A-level art history qualification and were extremely posh. I was the complete opposite and found it weird but I still really loved the art history. I actually found maths really hard and ended up hating it. After my first year, I asked if I could switch courses because of the credits I had built up in art history. I thought that maybe I would have to start all over again, but they did let me switch. I really had to make a case for why and have to show how passionate I was about the subject. I was really lucky because doing art history at Edinburgh they run a joint honours programme of Art History and Fine Art, which is a five-year course. Many of my classmates were on that joint honours course, which connected me to the art college and that meant that many of my friends at Edinburgh were artists, people like Mary Ramsden, Charlie Billingham and Than Hussein Clark, who are all now super successful. That was my introduction to artists and how they worked.
In my last year at uni I curated an exhibition with my friend Ian Bruce. He is a portrait artist, and did a show for Deptford X a couple of years ago at Buster Mantis. He and I curated an exhibition, which was the first time I had ever curated anything. I loved working with artists. We worked with a lot of performance for the exhibition, it was really good fun. Than Hussein Clark formed a band called ‘the most teenage band of all time ever’ and they performed all these songs about teen angst, songs by Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins, with a bit of East 17 thrown in. They all wore Kurt Cobain wigs. It was really amazing. This girl called Shaunie Brett was playing the cello for the Smashing Pumpkins song. It was really cool. That was the first thing I ever did. An incredible 200 people attended. I managed to get my hands on an old shop unit on the bottom floor of the Student Union. It had been a big STA, Student Travel thing, which we completely cleared out. I managed to convince them to give me the office, for free, for a couple of weeks. Actually, thinking about it, that’s definitely the side of me now, I’m good at negotiating; partnerships, and facilitating. I obviously didn’t realise it at the time. I even managed to get the Art History Department to give me £100 to cover all my production costs. That was the total cost of the show. I was really good at it. I was just resourceful. I was meant to pay electricity bills for that space, but in the end, I invited everyone on the Property Planning Board to come to the party and make sure they had a glass of wine. Then, of course, I didn’t have to pay the bills in the end. It was quite fun.
That was the first time I worked directly with artists. When I was living in Edinburgh, in my last year, I did my undergrad thesis about the graffiti on the Berlin Wall. I started looking specifically at the politics of East vs West to provide a context for the graffiti that I was writing about and that got me interested in the history of Eastern Europe. I was writing my dissertation at the same time Poland had joined the EU and there was an influx of Polish people moving to Scotland. It was all in the media about Eastern Europeans milking benefits and things like that. It was very negative press. There were all these Polish people in Edinburgh. You could hear people talking in different languages; it was very sudden and really exciting. This dynamic thing was happening in the city I was living in and because I had an interest in the art coming out of Eastern Europe my friend Than and I decided to curate an exhibition of Polish artists who’d moved to Scotland. We got our friend Domino, who now works on WOW (Women of the World), she’s half Polish, to translate an advert for us that just said, ‘looking for Polish artists to be in an exhibition.’ I put this ad on some Polish forums and we did an open call, inviting people to come. We just sat in this Italian restaurant on Leith Walk in Edinburgh for one morning and 50 people turned up. We actually couldn’t see everybody and get through all their portfolios. We had to do it again the next Saturday. In the end, we formed an organisation called Polish Art Scotland. I think it still exists now. It’s called Polish Art Europe. When I left Edinburgh it was taken over by the artists who have since hosted other events including film festivals for Polish artists.
Over a couple of years we did three exhibitions, two that Than and I co-curated and one that I curated on my own. We managed to get support from this guy, Richard Demarco. He’s a key part of the Scottish cultural landscape and he had done a lot of stuff across the iron border. He opened up many more opportunities for us. Doing that project was really amazing. We worked with amazing artists it was so exciting. That for me was like, my God, this is what I want to do. It felt incredible.
Then I came to London to do my MA at the Courtauld so that I could continue exploring that area of interest. The course was called ‘Towards Contemporary Art, Post-Communism and Postmodernism in Europe and Beyond’. For that, I wrote about women involved in Soviet rock culture. My thesis was called ‘Punk Provocation Perestroika Women in Soviet Rock Culture, 1983-1993’. While I was doing my MA, Than and I lived in a big, shared house in Mile End with loads of other creative people. We’d organise house parties and put on exhibitions in the house. I ran a hair salon in the basement for a while. I would ask artists from Berlin to come over to do live performances. It was really fun.
Around this time I started to navigate the professional art space, mainly because I was doing a lot of these projects but wasn’t making any money. I needed a job so I did an internship in an auction house after my MA. I thought about maybe working in that space, but the class thing was pretty full on at that time, I found it quite shocking. I had a northern accent and a shaved head with a tattoo on one side, which didn’t really make sense in that environment! I worked really hard and because of that they really wanted to give me opportunities but it just wasn’t the right fit for me. They did offer me a job at the end, but the salary was £15,000. It’s impossible to live on a salary like that so I said, no, thanks, and left. Because I was working for free during my internship I had to sublet a room from a friend who lived in artists’ housing in Mile End. I was just paying a couple of hundred pounds a month to live in this appalling place. I had a blow-up mattress with a hole in it. It was really bad. I knew that I needed to earn proper money.
A guy who I’d worked with at Sotheby’s called me and said, one of our contacts is looking for someone to work for them and I thought you’d be a really good fit. Can I put you forward? He said, Damien Hirst needs an exhibition assistant. I was like, great. A controversial Northerner? I can definitely fit in there. I remember going to the interview and them saying to me, we’re looking for loads of shipping and registrar experience. I remember saying yeah, I don’t have that but I’ve done this and this, oh and I run a hair salon in my basement. I’ve made some money, I can put art up on the wall and things. I think they liked my energy. I got the job and I worked there for five years. It was great. I had a really good time. I’ve since been at Artsy for nearly three years.
When I graduated from art school it was very much about artists setting up their own gallery or artist-run space. Now it seems there is a focus on setting up your own collective whether that’s an online, digital space or a network of artists. Ownership or the occupation of buildings, especially in London, seems to be completely unattainable now. What are your thoughts?
When I was in Edinburgh, the work I was doing felt quite revolutionary as there wasn’t a lot of other stuff like that happening. Whereas, when I moved to London, events and projects were happening all of the time. I think these days the galleries and the institutions are a whole lot better at engaging with more grassroots, self-organised individuals and collectives in providing a platform. I can think of loads of examples where like König Galerie, for example, worked with Queer CAMP-er-VAN. The ICA will often do really great stuff where artists-run organisations come in and occupy the space. I feel like there’s more cohesiveness and so maybe that’s what makes it more formulaic. It doesn’t have to be quite so scrappy, maybe. I’m also aware that opportunities for artists and curators are limited. I can remember when I was at the Courtauld, one of the people I studied with was Jeremy Epstein, who is a really good friend of mine. He founded Edel Assanti Gallery. They had the gallery in Victoria for ages. Now, they’re in Fitzrovia. However, in Victoria, they had this really amazing thing going on. They were within this huge building with people like Gordon Cheung who had his studio on the floor above. Jack Bell founded his gallery in that building. It had such a mix of people. They managed to get this huge building right by Victoria Station through working with the Council. It was a really good setup and gave them the springboard to build a really successful gallery. I don’t think those opportunities exist in the same way these days.
Our house in Mile End was very much a residential space. It was a big student house. We had five bedrooms, however, in reality the five of us were often like seven or eight actually living there. We were just really resourceful as well. We would curate these exhibitions in the house. We did a big exhibition of Charlie Billingham’s paintings. He needed somewhere to store them, so I offered to take the works and hang them up the stairs. I would then invite everyone around to the exhibition opening. We just made it up as we went along. We would throw massive parties, but with quite conceptual themes and live performances. For me, even just living with art is something that’s really important to me.
I would like to ask you about your curatorial practice and how this centres on Queer culture and gender equality. I want to discuss your dedication to a type of exhibition making focusing on inclusivity, and accounting for practices that have been marginalised. Where did your interest in this work begin and why?
I guess, selfishly, a lot of the topics that I look at are related to my own experiences. I might be looking at queer art or female struggles, because they directly affect me. It also has a lot to do with my own politics. I’m very liberal and very interested in equality for all and because of that, I tend to think about issues that extend beyond gender and sexuality, thinking about race and class. Much of my thinking comes from my own beliefs and set of values. I think that’s a really key part of it. Thinking about the Mile End house parties, it was a fun and a silly two years, but it was amazing because of the people I now know. My good friend, Fiontán Moran is a curator at Tate Modern. He’s in Queer CAMP-er-VAN. He does really amazing performances. He’d used to come and do these Andy Warhol style performances in our house because it was a safe space where people could experiment. I’ve seen him do probably 50 performances since then, if not more. They are one of my favourite things to watch. I love feeling that I’m somehow part of that or somehow providing a platform for those people and those makers.
When I did my thesis at the Courtauld about Russian punks, there were a handful of key texts written about Soviet punk and rock culture. There’s this guy called Artemy Troitsky, he used to write a lot, but it was always about men. No one was writing about women. I managed to get in touch with a couple of people who had been involved. There is a really amazing woman called Natasha Hull, who was a photographer, that’s her married name by the way. She married an English professor. She was a great photographer who would go on tour with punk bands. There were loads of these incredible women and amazing fashion designers and performers but no one had written about them. It was really hard to get the information. In the end, I just had to contact these people and ask, who else was involved in this scene? I remember thinking, if I’m going to write my MA thesis I want to find an aspect that no one else has written about or is somehow overlooked. I didn’t realise that I would be writing about a whole gender. I didn’t realise, at the time, that women in general were completely overlooked. This was the moment I really started to consider feminism in relation to my life.
I remember completing a film module when I was doing my art history degree at Edinburgh. I looked at Hitchcock films from a feminist perspective. I got really bad marks from the teacher who was a really famous Hitchcock scholar. At the time, I didn’t understand it. Now I understand it’s because he was supporting the skewed and weird ideas of Hitchcock as a filmmaker. He didn’t like that it was being challenged. Also, my essay probably wasn’t that well written, or whatever, I’m sure it’s not just because of that. But I couldn’t even get him to engage with me on it. I didn’t understand it at the time. I had a couple of friends, one called Charlotte Jarvis, she’s a really great artist who does a lot of bio-art now, she used to lend me her books on feminism. I never studied feminist modules; I’ve never had any formal education around this topic. When I started learning about it I was like, what the fuck? Why haven’t we been taught about this stuff? I had to figure it out for myself.
I guess for me, when I got really into thinking about gender equality was with my friend Hannah Philp who set up the East London Branch of the Fawcett Society. The first event Hannah ever did was about Women in Art. I was on the panel with some really interesting people. At the time I remember feeling like a real fraud because I didn’t have that much to say on the subject other than my personal experiences. Through working with Hannah, it just became so obvious to see how skewed things were for women in the art world. Quite soon after, the group started to think of projects and so I suggested we do the art audit. I conceived this campaign idea because I wanted to find out what the gender balance looked like, as there wasn’t any data.
We did the one-year project, which was amazing. It was all volunteer run. We produced all that data that is still being referenced today. No one had ever done anything on that scale. It really wasn’t particularly well organised or structured.
Did you realise the extent of the data you came across?
No, I didn’t realise how bad it would be. Actually, Kate McMillan, who’s an artist that just did a PhD around gender in the arts recently did a study of galleries in London and it’s still pretty much the same ratio. One area of progress is there are a few more galleries now that show more women than men, and represent more women than men.
There’s a lot of discussion around diversity as well as challenging organisations that fail to engage in those conversations. What’s a concern of mine is that it’s all talk and not much action.
I think people fail to look at the whole picture. They’re not thinking about intersectionality or they’re looking at things in small pockets in a really compartmentalised way. We did it ourselves with the art audit; we just looked at gender in really binary terms, for example. We did that study seven years ago. I remember changing the language on the art audit, because a lot of what the Fawcett Society was talking about was this being a movement for women and men trying to be inclusive and productive. I thought that was great, but this needed to be a movement for people. I realised that it wasn’t a naturally inclusive language.
I was glad I realised that, but sadly I don’t think we really realised it in time to include data or numbers on non-binary artists. Although saying that, I do remember having a few conversations about it at the time. We accessed the majority of this information through whoever was representing these artists or providing a platform for them whether it’s the gallery, or larger institutions, those people are not very good, I realised, at providing accurate representation of their artists’ gender.
Art is very good at shining a light on underrepresented groups of people and providing platforms for people who haven’t necessarily had platforms or opportunities in the past. I did a panel last week about art and gender. I asked the communications team at Artsy to do a bit of research for me just looking at data on Artsy. I asked the team to look at our gender data. They said, Artsy has data on gender for around half of our artists and within this we consider male, female, and non-binary, which I thought was really exciting to hear. It shouldn’t be, but it is. However, out of 55,000 artists that we had gender data for, 60, six-zero, non-binary artists. This is incredibly surprising to me because I can think of 60 non-binary artists right now. There’s a lot of catching up to do. As an artistic platform, Artsy is taking a very responsible approach to how it looks at the art world, engages with it, presents it and makes it accessible. There are so many systematic problems, I just think it’s going to take a really long time and it needs a lot of people. You need to have a critical mass of people engaging with this and really trying to make that change. That goes for all. There are some really great organisations and institutions that are doing really good and important work. It’s much more in our vocabulary now and in our minds.
That moves on nicely to my question about your curatorial project, Queertopia. This work has been important on many levels, but the main point is the representation of Queer art and artists. How did you go about researching for this work; what was your process of selection?
The reason it came about was that Daata Editions asked me if I would like to curate something for them, but it was quite an open invitation. I really thought about what I would like to put forward and doing a queer art project was a natural choice for me. Mainly through my own interests, and why art is important to me and the work I’d been doing with Gay Times, and looking at queer art and putting it in my column in 2017, I was really aware of all these amazing artists who are engaging with themes around queer identity, representation, history, legacy, and the future. I love their work, having followed each of them for a long time. This was an opportunity for me to bring some of those voices together.
It was actually quite easy because these were all artists whose work I was really familiar with. The great thing about doing a project for Daata Editions is they already have this great archive of work. They have all this video work online. I was allowed to choose anything from their archives to use in my project and then introduce whatever new element I wanted to bring in. They were very open to my ideas. I knew that Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hasting’s UK Gay Bar Directory was in the Daata archive. I’m just obsessed with them, that project and their work. Jacolby Satterwhite’s work I had seen it on Daata, I guess. This series of work lives in a lot of different formats. I saw some bits in New York at Frieze that were clearly from the same stream of thoughts. I think bits of those work and Rashaad Newsome’s videos as well, I’d seen on Daata. I’ve been following his practice for awhile so it’s really nice to have those three things to work with from the archive. I then brought in new artists, who were all people that I had been following for a long time. Rindon Johnson, who I first met in Miami three years ago, I followed their work on social media. Then with Zoe Marden, she’s at an early stage of her career compared to everyone else. She is at the RCA and is part of my Coven. We talk a lot about her practice. I love learning from her. I love thinking with her about what she is making and getting to be in those conversations. It’s just the best because I’m not an artist and I’m not making art but I don’t feel sad about that, because I get to be part of the journey of so many other people and I feel like anything I can do to help those people to have a platform and to keep making work, what an honour to be able to collaborate in that way. The film that she made fitted in so perfectly with the project. Holly Blakey is a choreographer; I first saw her stuff when she collaborated with Hannah Perry for a Boiler Room performance. I had taken Danielle, my wife, to see it and it was just one of the best things I had ever seen. Mica Levi was doing the music. I mean I’m also obsessed with Hannah and Mica, and all of those people together, it was just genius. Then Holly did this project for Commune East at the Ace Hotel during Frieze London 2017. It was a Frieze week closing party and Commune had brought together Holly Blakey and Caitlin Price, the fashion designer. Everyone was just in the Ace Hotel, eating burgers and feeling totally exhausted. Then the dancers came out and it was an amazing troop of incredible dancers, moving in a way I had never seen before. There were some really intense, romantic and erotic moments that were not just traditional, male, female couples that you might usually within our culture. It just felt like something I can totally relate to. It made me feel really excited. It felt like I was in a queertopia. I really wanted to work with Holly. She doesn’t very often present in a fine art capacity. She is normally within the choreography or art direction world. She very kindly made this film using footage from the rehearsals from a project she done called ‘Some Greater Class’, performed at the Royal Festival Hall. That was really amazing. Puck Verkade is the other artist I brought in. I had seen Puck’s work at her degree show at Goldsmith’s and then I saw her again at Sunday Art Fair with Dürst Britt & Mayhew, her gallery and loved her work.
I had an interesting moment when I was putting all of this together where I was thinking, is this a project of queer artists? Does the work reflect who they are or is it representing what these artists are thinking about? Is it a reflection of things they are thinking about and exploring in the world? That’s when I got to a point where I wasn’t even asking the artists how they identify in terms of gender or sexuality, other than to check their pronouns of course, because it actually wasn’t relevant. The work is about queer issues and identity and not necessarily whether they are queer artists or not. That’s what I see. Of course, I have had conversations with the artists and I’ve told them what the project was about, and they were super excited to participate and contribute. They all provided work that they had just made or are working on. It has been an amazing project.
The work now lives online on the Daata Editions website, so anyone can see the films at anytime. I launched the project in San Francisco at the Palace of Fine Arts, which is just the most unbelievable venue. I had no idea. I was really excited about the project. I’d given time to choosing the artist and talking to them but in terms of the logistics of showing the work, I wasn’t involved at all. I remember saying to Daata, do what you want with the work. I just wanted people to see the project. I didn’t care where it went.
I hadn’t even look up this venue in San Francisco, or the art fair called ‘If So, What’ which is why it was part of the programme. I remember pulling up to the venue in a taxi and saw this unbelievable, neoclassical palace. It felt really amazing because I had been thinking about queer spaces and landscapes and it was nice to think of this crumbling, classical relic in the middle of San Francisco, steeped in queer history, it was just perfect. The project was also shown in London during pride week at Somerset House, which was really exciting. It was also shown as part of the 2018 Art Night festival and screened at the BFI in the public spaces so everyone could see it.
Do you believe that the Internet, online literary and criticism has helped to bring people together and embrace intersectionality, especially when thinking about your work for Artsy, Gay Times and Daata Editions?
I think it’s really amazing to see the role that the online has played in politics. I find it exciting how young people are engaging with the world in a political way because the online space has provided opportunities to connect, to speak up and to educate. I think that is so valuable.
For me, the dissemination of information and collective action is just amazing. The idea that we’re not limited by geography is really important. I think whenever anyone is facing a challenge or facing a struggle they will always be able to find someone who has had an experience that they can identify with in some way.
I think the power of connection is what keeps us sane and is essentially what keeps the world turning. The gay communities are a really great example of self-organising and creating families. Like RuPaul always talks about, we create our own families. Very often connections come from a shared place of trauma. The gay community has a great history of being a support network decades before online spaces even existed. Now LGBTQ+ communities use the online to connect in a deeper and far-reaching way. For my community, and me it’s so important. I remember being in Basel just after the Orlando tragedy in 2016. I think the news broke on the day I arrived. I received a Facebook message from other art world gays that were like, are you in Basel? I went and met up with Hannah Quinlan and Rosie Hastings and had a little cuddle in the middle of the art fair. It was really amazing. It shows how we’ve all faced such difficult times, globally. You get the most amazing sense of community. I think that online spaces can really harness that; to expand your own strengths.
I also think that online spaces can really provide new opportunities for people and that’s something I’m interested in at Artsy. It is a place of discovery. When someone who is new to collecting art visits Artsy’s website they might type something like Andy Warhol into the search function. Chances are they can’t afford to buy an Andy Warhol, so instead Artsy has created The Art Genome Project where we have a whole team who look at our works and come up with different categories, which very cleverly use extended algorithms. These then connect people to discover new works that they might be interested in. So instead of narrowing peoples search, it’s expanding it in a huge way. Most people don’t know what they are looking for. This way, by typing in a key word you can discover a whole other world of items. Like Andy Warhol will bring up pop art or queer art. It’s one example where an artist has an opportunity to be showcased to a new audience because of the Internet. I think there is a lot of amazing things that can happen like this. Activism that happens online can build new communities.
A strong part of my new interview series is to explore the role of the female influencer, and for iheartwomen to act as a resource of women/womxn who are role models, particular focusing on the art sector. You are quite a force as an independent curator, and in your previous roles as trustee of Deptford X and Girlguides, as well as your online presence. Do you feel a responsibility there?
That is really nice that you see me in that way. I sometimes think I’m way too obsessed with my phone. I love going on Instagram and learning about what other people are doing. Being able to access so much information in such a rapid and digestible way is really great. These platforms allow you to figure out who you are, and understand things that you do not come across in real life. That’s really cool and I love following different art world people online and seeing what they are doing. I also follow activists and different people around in the world.
My main inspiration comes from my granny, for the reasons I have already mentioned, however there are a lot of other people as well. One person, who I absolutely love, is Julie Bentley she was the CEO of Girlguiding. She is leaving to move to a different children’s charity but she is really active on twitter. I don’t use twitter that often but I’ll use it to look at her stuff because I love to see what she is tweeting about. She keeps it quite personal as well. I first got to know her by listening to her desert island discs; it must have been four or five years ago. I was a young leader in Girlguiding until I was eighteen. My friend Sam used to joke about me being the oldest girl guide, I was volunteering, I was a rainbow leader. They even joke about it now. Even at 33 I’m still going to Girlguides. I had grown up being part of this community and my mum is a guide leader too. However, when I got older I felt it wasn’t for me, it didn’t make sense, it felt too old school. Then I heard Julie talking on the radio, and that changed everything. She was talking about consent and helping girls understand that all careers were accessible to them. She used to be the chief executive Family Planning and would bring all these different issues to girl guiding, like a curriculum around relationships, education, consent, gender identity, career options. She was very interested in what was being left out of the school curriculum. I heard her talking and I was like oh my God, how can I get involved. It was similar to the work I was doing with the Fawcett society. Hearing Julie describe Girlguiding made it feel like a really tangible way of actually supporting and influencing people. I think especially being gay, I really thought that it would be a nice opportunity for me to be a role model and that’s one of the reasons I did my training to become a guide leader. I now go only a few times a year to organise one of the meetings. I created a girl band night that I have used for a couple of different south east London guide units where we will look at different girl bands and what they represent and things like that which is really fun.
The Girlguides in southeast London come from really diverse communities, including some with strong religious beliefs. I had to be aware of that and take a more sensitive approach rather than turning up at a guide meeting waving my rainbow flag. If the girls ask me whether I’m married, I would say yes. They would then say, it’s nice you have a husband, and my reply would be, I’ve got a wife! You could kind of see their tiny brains exploding. I didn’t know anyone gay when I was growing up. There was no one who I could identify with, or if there was it was like a very typical only gay in the village story, there was no normalised gay identity. If I had gay people in my life, as role models, I think I would have had a really different experience. There are around 50 kids at the girls guides I attend, so statistically, at least five of them are going to be gay, I’d say probably more. Even if those five people remember that they once knew a lesbian who seemed quite nice, then that is great. Certainly that’s the kind of role model I’d like to be and I think organisations like Girlguiding are opening up those opportunities for younger people.
Do you feel like you have responsibility to tell your story?
Yes, absolutely. I think both Danielle (my Wife) and I feel very political in the work that we do. Danielle, for example, works in healthcare and she sometimes volunteers with this amazing charity called Opening Doors. It’s for LGBTQ+ people in elderly care who have dementia to help them come together and tell their stories. We have no idea what it’s like for trans people, for example, and how they are mis-gendered as they get older and develop dementia. As young queer people, it’s really our responsibility to think about these issues. This is what Queertopia is all about, looking back in order to look forward. I’m really aware of the generation that came of age in the ’80s and ’90s, the generation above me, who experience a culture of guilt, shame and silencing. It’s really hard for us to access that history and those stories. I think it’s our responsibility to go and find them. My granny went to art school in the ’60s so she knew all the gays. Two of her best friends, brothers Miles and Hamish, live in Brighton and Manchester, respectively. I’m really close with both of them. I just sent Miles his birthday card for tomorrow, he’s in his 80s. Danielle and I have marched in Brighton Pride with Miles three times. I really make sure that I ask about their lives and hear their stories because they don’t have kids, and so they don’t have that support network. I want to hear their stories because that informs who I am and where I’ve come from. It makes me understand why I’ve got what I’ve got, and how lucky I am.
I highly recommend The Versace drama, have you watched it? It’s the one programme that I haven’t been able to binge because I find it so difficult to watch, but it’s so important. I think it’s the most educational and eye-opening programme I’ve ever seen in terms of how gay people were treated during the AIDS crisis. I have encouraged everybody to watch, also because it’s so beautifully made. It’s a gorgeous piece of television. Those stories have to be told. I think there’s some really great stuff happening, especially in the arts.
In the last couple of years there have been some really great exhibitions. I think people; artists and curators are engaging with these topics, I really do. I think for me, when I first started engaging in political activism, it was more around gender, thinking about being a woman and the challenges I have faced. As I’ve grown older, I think a lot about identity as a whole, about being a woman, and being a gay woman. I think a lot about being a queer person in general.
I feel like there are some really amazing people, young people, younger than me, doing very important things. Hannah and Rosie, doing their UK Gay Bar Directory, which is an amazing project. Sam Cottington, who they collaborate with a lot, does this Section 28 film club, which is so amazing and they show different films about queer history and host conversations as part of the screening. It feels really like its creative but really socially responsible and educational. There is amazing stuff like that happening.
It’s horrible when I hear people saying they don’t need to engage in these topics, as it doesn’t affect them. That’s scary to me. Take the older generation, as I previously mentioned, throughout their lives they have been kept silent. It was a different time. We now have a responsibility to help them tell their stories. It also allows us time to reflect on our own challenges because we definitely do face challenges that our straight friends don’t. Although, it has to be said, being in London, we’re very lucky. In the UK, we’re very lucky. It’s something I care about a lot.
What more, do you think, needs to be done to give exposure and visibility to female and queer artists? I think we’re heading in the right direction, but do you think anything more can be done?
That is such a hard question. There is always more to be done. Definitely. I think there are some really great examples of things that are being done. I definitely think we’re heading in the right direction. There’s a lot more women in positions of power. People like Maria Balshaw, Director of Tate, who has such an important role. There has to be people in positions of influence and power that take responsibility and lead by example. I think there are some organisations making changes in this way. I think the Contemporary Art Society is very switched on with ensuring things are changing. The collaboration with Valeria Napoleone around collecting art for institutions by women artist, this is really an improvement. Charlotte Keenan McDonald in Liverpool, curator of the Walker Art Gallery, was awarded a big grant; I think £150,000 to buy queer art for Liverpool art galleries. She brought Hannah and Rosie’s UK Gay Bar Directory as well as some Zanele Muholi prints, and some other amazing works. That’s in Liverpool now. I think there are some really amazing things happening. Even being at Frieze, I was with my colleague who, yes she exists in the art world but doesn’t necessarily have the queer understandings that I do. We were walking around the fair and I was like, wow, look at these amazing Tom of Finland cocks! There were so many amazing, amazing examples of queer art. It just felt so exciting. I probably saw like five or six really great things, and I don’t mean artists who are queer, but artists who are explicitly engaging in queer experiences within their practice. What’s incredible is that it’s pride of place at a blue-chip gallery at an art fair. The more of this work is in the mainstream, the more normalized it is.
Finally, can I ask you about your Coven Sisters of the Sanitary Cloth? How did you form this group?
My friend Hannah brought a group of women together and it just kind of stuck. There are 13 of us and we support, love and inspire each other in all areas of our lives. We make spells, help each other prepare for job interviews and collaborate on exciting projects. Sisters of the Sanitary Cloth was sort of a joke name but it really does feel like we are sisters.