DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics

Hayward Gallery’s ‘DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics’ is a culmination of works that expose drag culture. Through this exploration the exhibition questions ideas of gender, identity, political norms and drag as an art form. Housing 30 artists including photography by Eleanor Atkins, Rose English and sculpture by Oreet Ashery, their diverse choice of mediums act as a lens used to subvert typical representation.

Hunter Reynolds, Shhh (from Patina du Prey Drag Pose Series), 1990/2012

Hunter Reynolds print ‘Shhh’ (from Patina du Prey Drag Pose Series), 1990/2012 immediately stood out upon entering the gallery space. A simple image portraying Reynolds’ alter ego, Putina du Prey, before a black backdrop hangs on a white wall. With minimal makeup and no wig, the figure sits in a black silk dress and black gloves that meld with the background with pearls hanging from her neck. Her finger covers her lips in what’s read as a universal sign for silence. One notes a tension between the masculine and feminine; chest hair is exposed beneath delicate silk which challenges the viewer and their perception of the gender binary. A sense of resistance comes through in the photograph above. Through his work, Reynolds distorts and overtly invites a questioning of gender and identity as a fixed, unmovable thing. The bare shoulders and unfinished makeup look portray the figure as somewhat exposed, yet their direct eye contact with the lens has an air of power.

Robert Mapplethorpe, ‘Self Portrait’ (1980)

Other pieces including Robert Mapplethorpe’s ‘Self Portrait’ (1980) also play with traditional ideas of gender and the sexes. The first photo in this work shows Mapplethorpe in a more masculine light with a bare chest and minimal makeup. However, in the piece below he’s been primed and preened.   His face is now the full focus, more delicately framed by the fur that now sits around his shoulders. Little about the figure has changed physically, and yet he is portrayed in a whole new light. By having these images alongside one another Mapplethorpe skews presentations of the masculine and feminine.   It suggests that the lines distinguishing them aren’t as clear cut as some may like to believe.

Attending this exhibition with close friend 22-year-old Brian De Carvalho – a fine art student specialising in fashion at Westminster University – provided insight from someone personally connected to the art.  I felt it necessary to question De Carvalho, someone who has openly and passionately participated in drag, as he can speak from a place of experience.  Not only to gain his opinion, but to understand the art of drag and it’s importance through the eyes of someone actually living it; here drag is more than just art.

Brian De Carvalho for IMIRAGE Magazine #196

What does drag mean to you?

Well, drag by definition means ‘Dress As Girl’ but, with time as different creatives and artists have explored the form, it has become so much broader. Personally, I believe that it’s about self-representation and the way you wish to be seen by others and yourself, regardless of it fitting gender norms. It’s about self-expression and exploration.

Do you have a drag icon? If so, who and why?

As for having a drag icon, I don’t think I’ve done enough research on some of my favourite queens to know who I admire most. Of course, there are those who I follow and admire purely for aesthetic purposes like Violet Chachki and Aquaria (they are the type of queens I fool myself into believing I resemble).  As for a queen that I idolise, I’m not entirely sure.

I absolutely love artists such as Michael Alig (former American club promoter, musician and writer) and Leigh Bowery (1961-1994), but they fall more to the Club Kid end of Drag. I love them because they were of nature and for their endless creativity. A lot of the time it wasn’t about being a beautiful woman or even being comfortable. It was always about pushing boundaries or an idea further and further. They’re truly iconic characters.

Do you agree with the idea that drag can be used to explore or challenge gender and identity?

Drag definitely challenges the gender constructs we’ve been taught and raised with; it definitely makes us question gender expression.  It can make someone more masculine, feminine or even blur these lines to the point where they may be non-binary. A lot of members of the drag community end up using it as a journey of self-discovery and as a way to let themselves be free, truly comfortable and accepted.

Why is the exposure of drag and acts that challenge preconceived ideas of gender and identity necessary?

Representation is extremely important in all forms. Of course, at the moment drag has been trending thanks to makeup trends and ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’, but drag is so much more than that and has such a strong political history. Even though it may seem like drag is being well received and accepted in mainstream media, we have to be realistic and understand that it still isn’t.

There are far too many members of the LGBTQ+ community who don’t feel safe enough to express their sexuality and gender freely. Every time they see a drag queen on Instagram or a gender queer person on TV, it might give them a little bit of hope or the push they need to free themselves, to understand they aren’t alone.

What impact do you think exhibitions like DRAG have on our understanding of art and expression?

Although the exhibition is quite short, the fact that it is free is huge. It makes it accessible to most, if not everyone, who would want to see this type of work. Seeing work like this proves that drag is something that has been around since before some of us were even born.

I believe that it’s important for us, the younger members of the LGBTQ+ community, to understand at least part of our history and the key members who paved the way for us. We need to remember not to credit everything to people such as RuPaul simply because they are trending. Even though people like RuPaul are important, she too had to learn from the original members of the drag community. Drag culture is queer culture.


‘DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics’ as an exhibition responds to stereotyped perceptions of gender and identity that seem to restrict. Through challenging and striking pieces each artist creates a voice that rejects the former and instead frees us, for a moment, from the boundaries society has put in place when it comes to self-identification and expression.

If you’d like to find out more about the exhibition have a look on the Southbank Centre website here. Running from the 22nd August 2018 to 14th October 2018, there’s still plenty of time to visit yourself- so don’t miss out!

Interested in Brian De Carvalho? Find him on Instagram @errantwiltedrose


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