Image: Camilo Godoy, AMIGXS (Self-portrait with Brendan, Carlos, and Jorge), 2017. Installation view at night of billboard produced by the International Studio & Curatorial Program (ISCP) at the Southeast corner of Ninth Avenue and 37th Street, Manhattan. Courtesy of the artist; PROXYCO Gallery, New York; and Dot Fiftyone Gallery, Miami.
“Kiss Protests – Queer Intimacy as Political Practice in Art” delves into the powerful role of art in showcasing queer intimacy as a form of political resistance.
Han Vogels essay highlights different examples of artistic exploration of queer tenderness and privacy, which has now transformed into a public political act. Artists use their work to make bold statements about queer realities and intimacy, commenting on political, cultural, and historical contexts that shape their experiences.
The significance of queer intimacy as a political practice is acknowledged to be intertwined with the artist’s unique perspective, influenced by race, gender, geography, and class. The diverse range of artworks and perspectives serve as a source of healing, courage, collective cohesion, and a potent political weapon on the path to queer emancipation.
What is a kiss? Two pairs of lips meeting. A collision of two people. “Kisses are the language of love,” the German poet Johann Georg Keil wrote. Nothing is as romantically embellished and loaded with different layers of meaning as a kiss.
Nevertheless, a kiss can also be resistive. Especially when the two bodies kissing do not conform to the heteronormative image of society. In the LGBTQIA+ community, the kiss has almost become a standardized political tool to make a statement at protests.
Showing queer intimacy in public spaces is often subject to risk. Homophobic and transphobic abuse, violence, arrests, and even death can result from a public kiss in some regions.
In 2017, the New York-based Colombian artist Camilo Godoy presented the work Self-portrait with Brendan, Carlos, and Jorge from AMIGXS, No. 1, on a larger-than-life billboard, depicting four men embracing in an intimate kiss. This caused a stir, serving as a protest against the (political) stigmatization and discrimination faced by gay men during the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s.
The representation of queer realities and intimacy was long confined to a select few, but today, artistic exploration of queer tenderness and privacy has evolved into a public political act. With the rise of queer liberation, which gained momentum globally from the 1970s onwards, visible examples have multiplied, wherein every kiss, every embrace, every revelation of one’s queer identity translated into artworks becomes a commentary, a form of resistance. This commentary is always intertwined with political, cultural, and historical contexts that may also reflect the artists’ own positioning within these spaces.
“Instead of a “mute” anonymized and objectified Bblack body, we see participants in the photographic process who are an active part of the process of creating the image.”
This political power is especially evident in the work of the South African photographer Zanele Muholi. Having grown up between apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, Muholi’s photographs stand for the visualization of the Black queer community in South Africa.
In 2021/2022, Muholi’s entire body of work was exhibited at the Gropius Bau in Berlin. The exhibition opened with the series titled “Being.” One room showcased images of Muholi themselves, friends, lovers, and companions in moments of carefree togetherness. These photographs exuded radiance, a sense of freedom, and self-assuredness. For example, the photographs “Katlego Mashiloane and Nosipho Lavuta, Ext. 2, Lakeside, Johannesburg (2007)” depicted a lesbian couple in their home. They were shown together in a tub, washing each other, and in another moment, Muholi captured them sitting on the floor, arm in arm, laughing joyously.
Since 2006, Muholi has been working on the series “Being,” photographing queer Black individuals, predominantly lesbian couples, in their homes and private spaces. On one hand, this domestic context aims to highlight new forms of chosen kinship and care. On the other hand, private retreats within the queer community hold particular significance: the private space can be a safe haven where sexualities and gender identities can be expressed without the threat of discrimination and violence. However, what happens when this privacy becomes public, when a large audience bears witness to this everyday intimacy?
Muholi’s photographic works refer to a collaborative process between the photographer, the photographed persons, and the viewers:
Here, Muholi consciously breaks with patriarchal and colonized structures of the gaze. Instead of a “mute” anonymized and objectified Bblack body, we see participants in the photographic process who are an active part of the process of creating the image. Through this kind of participation in the photographic act, the participants experience healing: to see themselves, bring themselves into the picture, be courageous, and perceive themselves as something collective. This kind of self-definition is the only way to break free from fantasies of others that can eat you alive, according to Black and lesbian thinker Audre Lorde, who provided a seminal example of intersectional thinking with “Sister, Outsider” in the 1970s. Making oneself visible, Lorde argued, means showing one’s greatest vulnerability, but it is also the most important source of strength and courage.
These images of Black queer bodies presenting their affection without fear of the camera can also be equally healing for viewers. Depending on the position the viewing body takes, whether it is Black and/or queer, it can see itself in these images and build a sense of connection.
Muholi sees themselves more as a “visual activist” than merely a photographer. The act of making privacy and the everyday visible is intended as a political statement. In this regard, Muholi aligns with photographers like J.E.B. (Joan E. Biren), who consider their camera as a revolutionary tool. The photo book “Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians,” first published in 1979, is a milestone on the path to lesbian visibility. With this book, J.E.B. provides a visual testament to everyday private lesbian lives. We see lesbians working, playing with their children, participating in demonstrations, alone, and with partners. However, J.E.B.’s depiction of lesbian everyday life often excludes intimacy and sexuality. In contrast, Muholi interweaves the private aspects, images of familial togetherness and mutual care, with depictions of intimate and sexual moments. The representation of sexual acts and queer tenderness is an integral part of Muholi’s visual activism. According to Muholi, “sensuality, when bodies are connected and come into contact, can shatter limited understandings of gender and sexuality.” The portrayal of sexual acts between queer bodies also derives its power from their everyday nature. It is the “normalcy” within queer intimacy that gives the images their political impact.
“[S]ensuality, when bodies are connected and come into contact, can shatter limited understandings of gender and sexuality.”
The everydayness of queer intimacy is also one of the main motifs of U.S. artist Jonathan Lyndon Chase. Like Muholi’s work Liza I (2017), in which we see Muholi lying naked on a bed in an intimate embrace with a partner, Chase’s work Two Men on Bed (2015) also depicts a sexual act between two queer bodies in a private setting. In paintings, drawings, video, and sound works, Jonathan Lyndon Chase engages Black, queer, and genderfluid bodies in intimate moments and moments of being. Almost floating, flowing into one another, the figures move in spaces that initially seem private to us: We see bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms. Chase’s works refer to doubling the intimate through the gesture of drawing. The figures are put on paper with delicate strokes. Yet the garish colors, flat backgrounds, and pop cultural references inscribed in the locations dissolve this privacy. Jonathan Lyndon Chase plays with the boundaries between the private and the public and with the self that moves within these spheres.
Queer intimacy as a political practice can never be seen independently of the artists’ point of view. It is always interwoven in a social web in which race, gender, geographic point of view, and class play an overriding role. The diversity of artworks and the different perspectives on queer intimacy can serve as a source of, healing, courage,collective cohesion and as a political weapon on the way to queer emancipation.