When I organised my very first group exhibition in June 2019, I knew the project was going to be a challenge, but the last thing on my mind was that I would be asked to remove some of the artworks on display because they were not ‘’suitable for public viewing’’. The project, ‘Unvoiced’ was a chance to show artists who, like me, don’t always feel part of the mainstream- in art or in life in general. Faced with the necessity of finding an affordable exhibition space, I settled on a quirky heritage site in Hackney, keen to feature more exhibitions in their existing programme of cultural activities. As the show was about to open, I worried about many things. I worried that the building, what remained of an early 16th century Church, would catch fire in the night. I worried that no one would turn up to the private view. I worried after I realised the stone table I was using to display visitor handouts was a tomb that contained the remains of an entire family. Maybe their vengeful ghosts would haunt me as punishment. I worried when I got the keys stuck in the front door and had a 20-minute battle with ancient wood and iron. Then the real trouble started.
Here comes trouble (‘’there might be a dick…’’)
Most of the art on show was about body representation, gender and sexuality. Pedro Miguel Baeta and Claire Mariette, a loving couple in real life, chronicled their passionate but often rocky relationship by producing glossy, black and white photographs where nudity was a natural illustration of their vulnerability. Part soap opera, part visual diary, their work was less Playboy and more agony aunt territory. Pedro Miguel asked me if it was OK to have nudes in the show and that “there might be a dick’’. My reply was ‘this is an art show. Of course, nudity is fine’’. I made sure we had visitor hand-outs warning that the upper floor contained photographs unsuitable for anyone under 18. I would reinforce this verbally to anyone who came in with children.
A busy and exhilarating private view went without a hitch. The following day I was cornered by a rather sheepish venue manager who held a smart phone in front of me and said ‘can you remove these two photographs from the show’. She added ‘We try to be as inclusive as possible, but…’ The suggestion was made that I should offer visitors the opportunity to see the two works and take them out of storage if they expressed an interest in doing so. I hated this idea as I felt I would turn into a sex shop owner who has to keep the ‘hardcore’ stuff behind the counter, but who could offer to take it out for regulars after a nudge and a wink. In that scenario, I felt more Larry Flynt than curator.
Art, not pornography
The idea that adult visitors could not cope with seeing a full-frontal male nude in a visual art show was bizarre. We were removing the right of the audience to make an informed choice and deciding on their behalf what they should find acceptable or not. We were also telling the two photographers that their vision was pornography, not art. Had those photographs displayed only a woman’s body and simply aimed to titillate, I would not have shown them. But I was intrigued by the artists’ willingness to reveal themselves and I felt the works were no different from a Greek statue or a Manet nude. I also liked the fact that these were two people in their 40s, not airbrushed 20-something porn stars, who were letting it all hang out…
Pedro Miguel said: ‘’We wanted to tell a story and find a way to represent our passionate but complicated relationship. These images were not meant to shock. They were about emotions and feelings and showed us at our most vulnerable. They were part of a wider narrative about power and conflict. Claire and I decided that that we would each shoot images of the other’s nakedness so that there was complete equality. Looking for love is such a focus of our lives and sex is a big part of why we start romantic relationships. So, I don’t see why showing nudity as part of our real relationship would get anyone upset. It is also all a bit hypocritical. We have popular shows such as Love Island that draw people in using the possibility that people will have sex on TV, albeit under the covers, in an artificial situation. But we can’t show a picture of a naked man in an art show? In the end we took it all in good humour and it does not mean we will start being more self-conscious or worried about offending when we create our work in the future.’’
Social media giants hate nipples
Random censorship of artworks happens all the time on social media. American painter Betty Tompkins saw her twitter account being taken down in April 2019 for posting her photorealistic painting, Fuck Painting #1 (1969). Instagram reinstated it within a day in part due to outrage from the art world. The canvas is in the collection of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. If only they were as quick when it came to removing images of violence, hate speech and misogynistic content.
Censorship for the powerless
I wonder how many artists who are queer, feminist or interested in representing their ‘non- vanilla’ sexuality face these reactions to their practice. This is especially an issue for those beginning their career and who do not have the backing of a gallery. Established exhibition spaces have enough experience and access to legal advice to smooth any potential controversy and probably welcome it as excellent publicity. But for artists who are trying to establish themselves and rely on non-traditional, local, community and pop up spaces to show work, it might mean being forced to tone down their art.
Last year I interviewed the author, painter and lecturer Dr Helen Gorrill for my art blog as she published ‘Women can’t paint: Gender, the Glass Ceiling and Values in Contemporary Art’. As an art student her degree show was censored. She said ‘’The institution and the police said it was the issue of men being shown in sexually submissive pictures because we just aren’t used to seeing them. So, I would have been fine showing just the female artists because we are used to seeing scantily-clad women – in fact outside my degree show there were billboards with women in provocative poses draped over cars, selling chocolate and wonder-bras. I had my work censored quite a lot at art school, and eventually left one fine art course because they substantially down-marked my work when I worked with gender issues. I have heard this is a widespread issue, according to some of the artists I interviewed for my book.
In the end, I don’t bear a grudge towards the venue. I don’t know whether their decision was based on a complaint or whether they were pre-empting any potential backlash. I was even tickled by the idea that my first show had been censored. But the experience was an opportunity to reflect on freedom of expression and a stark reminder of how precious a commodity it is for us artists to be able to make and show work without worrying about how it might be perceived and even misunderstood.
‘’The truth can walk around naked; the lie has to be clothed.’’— Yiddish proverb
By Fabienne Jenny Jacquet.