Five photographers who carry Robert Mapplethorpe’s subversive legacy
The piercing impact of queer aritsts in the 1980s in its moment was rarely given the recognition it deserved. Working under the oppresive force of both a deeply homophobic society and art world, queer artists of this era were often dismissed, silenced, and their work considered too taboo for acceptance. It has only been with the progession of queer rights at the hands of queer liberation movements globally that these artists are finally getting the recognition and power they rightfully merit.
We can see this vividly through the lens of Robert Mapplethorpe: a photographer so unorthodox for his time that his photos were the subject of national censorship debates in the late 1980s-early 1990s. Mapplethorpe’s Man in a Polyester Suit (1980), a close-cropped photograph of a black man’s penis hanging exposed from his open fly, caused such a ruckus in Cincinnati that it was cancelled by congress.
From photographing New Yorks 1980s S&M scene to self-portraits in drag, Mapplethorpe’s photos were queer protests that bought visibility to underrepresented communities. But despite the ways in which he subverted iconography by dousing it in homo-erotic tones and overthrowing visual conceptions of gender, his work was once disbarred from high art. The thirty years since his death and the art world’s slow progression, however, have largely changed this.
This year, Mapplethorpe is the subject of a year long retrospective at New York’s esteemed Guggenheim Museum. Split in two parts, Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now observes the revolutionary tendencies of Mapplethorpe's work through showcasing his polaroids, floral still lifes, portraits, and classic nudes in part one. Part two of the show, launching on 24 July, traces Mapplethorpe’s legacy through artists who carry its subversiveness today — harnessing, reshaping, and progressing it into contemporaneity.
To prepare you for the show, read about five of the artists and how their work carries on the subversive essence of Mapplethorpe below.
Skin engraving, breast-feeding, and skin pinning make photographer Catherine Opie’s self-portraits some of the most extreme artworks ever made — and some of the most politically charged. Take her 1994 “Self Portrait / Pervert” as key example, where the artist stuck 46 pins down each of her arms and engraved her skin with the word pervert while wearing a gimp mask. The work explored the divide between the lesbian S&M and the wider queer S&M scene.
Opie began her career with her noteable series Being and Having that photographed members of Los Angeles 1990s butch scene by placing them infront of yellow backdrops and allowing them to experiment with the represenation of their gender through fake facial hair. In 1999, Opie recreated Mapplethorpe’s infamous X Portfolio (1978) which featured New York’s 1970s bondage scene. She reclaimed the series by replacing Mapplethorpe’s queer men with lesbians from San Francisco's leather dyke community where Opie was a member of a group called The Outcasts. Overall, Opie’s work has reshaped photography as a form of personal protest that can be used by all.
LYLE ASHTON HARRIS
Lyle Ashton Harris is a mixed media artist whose work probes the intersection between the personal and the political, proving their inextricable relationship. His most well known works are his performative self-portraits that see the artist assume the roles of pop culture icons, like Billie Holiday and Yoko Ono, in a bid to displace and subvert ingrained cultural symbols that signify gender and race. Many of his self-portraits are in sepia, a technique he uses to play with the viewer’s perception of race. Use of colour, whether through photographic technique or props like clothing, has remained an important tool for Harris to subvert his images.
Visual activist Zanele Muholi’s photos increase visibility of LGBTQ+ and intersex communities in South Africa. They strike a balance between celebrating her subjects and their identities, and illuminating the darkness of their experiences including stigmatisation, violence, and loss. In her most well known works, Muholi uses her body as a canvas through which to explore these themes. Her 2014-current series Somnayama Ngonyama (Hail the Dark Lioness), features 60 self-portraits taken across America, Europe, and Africa where Muholi metaphorically inflicts the pain of the politics of race and representation on herself.