Gender And The Art Of Cross-Dressing Explored In New Barbican Exhibition

Casa Susanna,Cross Dressing Archive

A new exhibition displaying a recently discovered archive of photographs of a famous cross-dressing retreat, in upper state New York, is the centrepiece of a programme celebrating gender and sexuality at the Barbican. Another Kind of Life follows the lives of individuals and communities operating on the fringes of society from America to India, Chile to Nigeria. The exhibition reflects a more diverse and complex view of the world, as captured and recorded by photographers working from the 1950s through to the present day. Driven by personal and political motivations, many of the photographers sought to provide an authentic representation of the disenfranchised communities with whom they spent months, years or even decades with, often conspiring with them to construct their own identity through the camera lens.

They needed to document the reality of their lived existence

Touching on themes of gender and sexuality, drugs and addiction, youth culture and minorities of all kinds, the show features the work of 20 photographers – from street photography to portraiture, vernacular albums to documentary reportage – including the Casa Susanna Collection, Paz Errazruiz, Pieter Hugo, Mark Ellen Mark and Dayanita Singh. 

Casa Susanna
Casa Susanna

Perhaps the crown jewel of the exhibit is a collection of photos from “Casa Susanna,” a secreted-away New York compound where men would come to cross-dress, to cavort, to photograph each other to give proof of an existence they knew was real but felt they had to suffocate in North American society. ‘They needed to document the reality of their lived existence in order for that experience to be complete.

The Casa Susanna snapshots included offers a compelling look at the lives of a group of cross-dressers at their weekend gathering place between the mid-1950s and early 1960s. The photographs, which were acquired into the Art Gallery of Ontario collection in 2015, have been widely hailed. AGO’s Associate Curator, Photography, says: “They are an amazing record of trans community in the becoming,” she says. “They are typical snapshots on the one hand — there they are on the front porch, there they are at a picnic, or at the diving board. But then you kind of realise how exceptional they are as well, just for the subject matter alone.”

Part of the 2018 Season, The Art of Change, explores how artists respond to, reflect and can potentially effect change in the social and political landscape.

Another Kind of Life Photography on the Margins 28 February 2018 – 27 May 2018 Barbican Art Gallery


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