Refraction is defined as “the deflection from a straight path undergone by a ray of light or energy wave in passing obliquely from one medium into another in which its velocity is different.” This term, familiar with those of us who have studied physics at school, lends itself to describe behaviour which is alternative and doesn’t necessarily subscribe to the so-called ‘straightness’ of a relationship between a man and a woman.
Light doesn’t travel unfailingly in a straight line unless it is in a vacuum. Transposing this metaphorically to a human sexual context, the choice of lifestyles is determined by numerous factors that are refractory and direct sexuality away from ‘orthodox’ paths. However, orthodoxy doesn’t carry much weight in contexts such as these, ones that are beyond straitjacket categorisations.
Photographers like Wilhelm van Gloeden (1856-1931) and Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) investigated homoerotic themes that, especially in the case of the former, were reductively labelled as being pornographic and promoting ‘promiscuity’. The fate of any photographic work portraying exterior genitalia, especially male ones, was summarily dismissed as such. Mapplethorpe had to face the HIV/AIDS-related early 1980s demonisation of the male, gay communities. He sadly contracted the disease, eventually succumbing to it in 1989.
Awareness and general acceptance have progressed in leaps and bounds, especially during these last few years when LGBTIQ+ rights have been recognised by much of the civilised world. However, pockets of resistance to such realities are mainly found amid religious fundamentalism where homophobia still lingers on. Occasionally, blind hatred rears its ugly head as blind retaliation against something that goes beyond its limited, self-absorbed prejudice.
An event, such as Refraction, strives to educate and elucidate. Its mission statement declares this: “The platform brings visibility to voices beyond the heteronormative and homoerotic bubbles that we are accustomed to. It also highlights the multitude of experiences faced by LGBTIQ+ individuals from different parts of the world.”
The perspective of 16 artists/artist groups from all over the world are presented as narratives that, through the investigation of different cultures, situations, preconceptions and contexts, illustrate the difficulties encountered by people who are trying their hardest to live a dignified and fulfilling life, despite everything.
One of the participating artists, photographer and visual artist Lau Baldo, succinctly reflects on this: “They forget that, just like cisgender people, transvestites and transgender people also feel affection, and more importantly, they also need to receive affection in return.” The ostracisation, the humiliation and the persecution originate from a mindset that LGBTIQ+ individuals are not worthy of respect for ‘refracting’ away from norms, ones which are erroneously regarded as being universal to all of the almost eight billion human beings that overpopulate the planet.
American poet, writer and gay icon, Dorothy Parker, decades ago defiantly remarked on the patronising non-inclusive attitudes of ‘straight’ people: “Heterosexuality is not normal, it’s just common,” she affirmed. Refraction’s curator Bobb Attard, through his choice of artists for this collective, investigates this through perspectives that invite an audience, saddled with its own baggage and issues, to realise that this is indeed real-life drama experienced by fellow human beings, and to empathise with people who need to feel loved, to feel safe, not to be stigmatised or summarily categorised, to be human.
Some of the narratives
Dirk H. Wilms defines himself as an introvert, suffering from social anxiety. His photographs are self-portraits that could be regarded as cathartic and redeeming. He tells his life story through these documents as different life chapters that will act as his autobiography. His use of props evokes the work of American photographer, Cindy Sherman, an artist who also relies on self-portraiture to tell stories of self-transformation and loss of identity while she explores human diversity, sexuality and stereotypes.
A spinal cord injury did not impair Robert Andy Coombs from pursuing photographic projects that he had embarked upon while being a college student. His disability and the fetishisation of prostheses are the themes he regularly explores, amid a strong homoerotic element that somehow suggests that erotic love is not excluded when suffering lifelong physical damage. Life’s misfortunes can be transcended to create art and deliver a message.
It is an exhibition in which the public is invited to observe, evaluate and empathise, hopefully acknowledging that, ultimately, love transcends all
Life in Palestine is certainly not a piece of cake. Photographer Samar Hazboun’s project explores the queer Palestinian community that has to deal with the struggles of internecine civil conflict that has plagued the country for decades. Palestine is the cradle of three main and antagonistic monotheistic religions, all of which generally harbour fundamentalism as a trait for survival.
Therefore, existing as gay men in a warmongering male chauvinist society is no mean feat. Hazboun’s photographs of individuals who have to juggle their sexuality and quest for love, amid an explosive scenario of death and destruction, celebrate these men who, in the artist’s words, “since day one of coming out to themselves with their sexuality – and possibly even before – they’ve built incredible resilience”. Much more so in such situations, resilience is necessary for survival.
Being based between Cairo and Glasgow, Huss makes use of his multidisciplinary abilities that range from sculpture, visuals, audio and installations to come up with immersive and educational performances that draw on the two contrasting cultures of the Egyptian capital and the Scottish city. His performance piece And the Flowers Have Time for Me is a memorial to Sarah Hegazi, who had to bear the brunt of the Egyptian authorities’ intolerance through imprisonment and torture for flying an LGBTIQ+ flag during a concert of a queer Lebanese band.
Famous Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-Wai’s poetic loneliness and the nebulous identity of his film’s characters are evoked by Chinese photographer Lin Zhipeng, who also goes by the moniker No. 223, adopted after watching the Wong Kar-Wai masterpiece Chungking Express. No. 223 is the police character in the film, nameless and thus deprived of an identity normally bestowed through a proper name and surname. Lin Zhipeng exploits social media; he has a blog which he updates daily with pictures and text, gaining millions of views every day. Innocence, emotional ambiguity and various dualities are explored in compositions of flowers and bodies, all hinting at some optimism that popular opinions and perspectives will in due time change.
Multimedia and performance artist Roxmann Gatt has recently been working with themes of interaction with consumer objects, thus “making the inanimate iconic and fetishised”. A cupboard or a locker becomes a still life where the constituting elements are captured as a biography of an individual’s life. One discovers a fetishist, voyeurist pull that draws one into a narrative that is personal but very ‘exhibitionist’ and uninhibited at that same time.
Empathy and understanding
One recalls Cindy Sherman’s words: “I want there to be hints of narrative everywhere in the image so that people can make up their own stories about them. But I don’t want to have my own narrative and force it on to them.”
It is with this attitude that one has to tackle themes that are at times still controversial in the 21st century. According to the exhibition’s mission statement: “Refraction echoes a sense of strength, resilience and power; sometimes from the most unexpected places.” It is an exhibition in which the public is invited to observe, evaluate and empathise, hopefully acknowledging that, ultimately, love transcends all, including the discrimination endured through gender, stereotypes and categorisation.
Refraction, curated by Bobb Attard, is hosted by Spaces, St James Cavalier, Castille Place, Valletta. It runs until October 24. Visit the venue’s Facebook page for more information. COVID-19 mitigation procedures are strictly adhered to.