Critique | ‘Queer Mind, Body and Soul’

National Gallery of Ireland, 30 July – 17 October 2021

Beth Stallard, Us, photography and recorded reflections, 2019; image © the artist, courtesy of the artist and the National Gallery of Ireland. Beth Stallard, Us, photography and recorded reflections, 2019; image © the artist, courtesy of the artist and the National Gallery of Ireland.

For anyone who’s been tuned into Ireland’s cultural landscape lately, it’s been hard to miss the volume of queer-themed exhibitions in circulation. Whatever has inspired this cultural awakening, it’s refreshing to see that this has not been confined to urban centres, with a range of thought-provoking group exhibitions being presented across the country, including Ballina Art Centre’s ‘I Am What I Am’, curated by Sinéad Keogh, and Luan Gallery’s ‘Queer As You Are’. However, it’s not only public galleries; other institutions and museums are also responding to this cultural zeitgeist. Notable recent examples include ‘Living with Pride’, an exhibition of photographs from the Christopher Robson collection at the National Photographic Archive; Cork City Library’s ‘Cork Queeros: Portraits of a Community’ from the Cork LGBT Archive; while IMMA has turned a queer lens upon their permanent collection with the current exhibition, ‘The Narrow Gate of the Here-and-Now: Queer Embodiment’.

If one had predicted queer-themed shows being so commonplace, one surely could not have envisaged the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI) becoming the site of an ambitious and explorative inquiry into contemporary queer culture and representation. However, this year’s offering from the gallery’s Apollo Project, ‘Queer Mind, Body and Soul’ in the Millenium Wing Studio, is a radical departure from NGI’s traditionally conservative programming.  

The presented body of work – which incorporates sculpture, spoken word, dance, painting, collage, drawing, photography, amination and embroidery – has been developed by 16 young people as part of the Gaisce ‘LikeMinded’ initiative. This initiative brings together LGBTQIA+, gender non-conforming people and their allies, to provide a peer support network, enabling them to work collaboratively to realise their full potential in participating in the President’s Award. 

The show bucks the trends of many other galleries by resisting a retrospective approach; instead, it is guided by the participants to produce progressive, contemporary reflections on society. The group of 16 to 20-year-olds worked with artist Shireen Shortt to develop work that they felt would reflect their own identity and experiences as LGBTQIA+ people. In developing the project, the group also undertook to create work that would challenge as well as inform wider society about the struggles still faced by the community. Whilst most of the work was made in isolation during lockdown, the individual pieces meld together seamlessly to create a strong and articulate discourse on the need for visibility and representation, as well as the oppression still faced by LGBTQIA+ youth. 

Beth Stallard’s project, ‘Us’, succinctly encapsulates these concerns. A beautifully adorned mannequin displays troubling statistics on homophobia, coupled with personal accounts of abuse, hung from rainbow threads. However, the arresting effect of this work is offset by a companion wall-mounted piece, displaying positive aspirations and expressions of solidarity, gained through peer support. 

Other presented works serve to convey positive messaging, coupled with the more hard-hitting truths of queer life. An evocative series of portraits, ‘Acceptance’ by Béibhinn Collins, depicts the journey from confusion (in realising their queer identity) to the clarity that comes from accepting their true being. Similarly, Enzie’s film, Empathy, pairs dance with animation to create an intimate portrayal of how the struggle for acceptance can impact mental health.  

Some of the young artists choose not to hold their punches in confronting difficult issues. In their poetry, Elijah Thakore writes unapologetically about sexual abuse and the complexities of same-sex intimacies, while Roibeárd Ó Braonáin’s installation, Blood, takes on the more politicised topic of blood donation. Highlighting the restrictions imposed upon men who have sex with men, the display consists of four blood bags alongside an oversized calendar, demonstrating the quantity of blood these men can donate during the arbitrary one-year abstinence period. In contrast, Proud Minds by A, demonstrates the visual diversity of queer people, while displaying metaphoric unity through a rainbow-coloured brain.

Although some of the work occasionally comes across as oversimplified, the overall project is a resounding success. The work addresses all of the issues laid out in the group’s mission statement, conveying the experiences of the young LGBTQIA+ people with depth and sincerity. Its delivery translates intergenerationally in an accessible and engaging manner, so as to educate the broader public. Hopefully, this show will herald similar ventures by the National Gallery, as it is a very welcomed departure from the ‘norm’.

Hannah Tiernan is the Editorial Assistant with GCN Magazine and Queer 

Programme Manager with the Museum of Everyone.