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Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Queerest of Them All?

  • Written byPost-Grad Community
  • Published date 08 June 2021
‘Fag Attacks the Country: XX’, acrylic on canvas, 120 x 150cm, 2021.

Written by Claudio Pestana, MA Fine Art Painting (2020 Alumni), Camberwell College of Arts

I am Queer. So, it would make sense for my work to be Queer. It is and it has been explicitly Queer since my early twenties when I started exploring my gender identity in a series of photographs and collages that I produced in my bedroom in Bethnal Green, London.

‘Self-portrait Eating Banana’, oil on canvas, 55 x 45cm, 2021.

‘White Paper Dress’, ‘Disable Me’ and ‘Dislocations’ were my attempts at the time to create for myself (as these were private gestures) a Queer alternative to the prevailing heteronormative narrative.

There is nothing “wrong” in itself in the existence of a heteronormative narrative – each to their own (and here I intentionally hijack the language that is often used to dismiss the Queer other; “each to their own, as long as they don’t bother me, what people do in their bedroom does not concern me, etc, etc, etc…”). However, there also needs to be space for a Queer narrative to co-exist and contribute to the body of human knowledge and activity.

From ‘White Paper Dress’ series, acrylic on photograph, each 15 x 11cm, 1998.
From ‘Disable Me’ series, photo collage, 15 x 11cm, 1998.
From ‘Dislocations’ series, photo collage, 15 x 11cm, 1999.

My current series ‘Fag Attacks the Country’ is a new attempt (albeit this time less private) to create a Queer space in my current environment in the English countryside. Like a fairy tale, it all started once upon a time – this time in 2020, with the birth of a new world order of geo-dystopia.

The woods were quiet, the cows grazed undisturbed, the genteel went about attending to their lawns and vegetable patches, the crows, always suspicious, scanned the rolling hills, when suddenly an evil foreign non-binary Queen arrived in the scene.

‘Fag Attacks the Country’ explores the intersection between (my) Queerness, the rural, and the tradition of portraiture and landscape painting.

— Claudio Pestana

The paintings started as a spontaneous act that arose after I suddenly became acutely aware of how my Queerness might be perceived in the rural community where I was living. I had not felt this uneasiness for a long time since arriving in the freeing and anonymous urban landscape of London in 1996. Even though I can see that this uneasiness resulted from self-inflicted paranoid persecution based on the years of homophobic abuse that I experienced growing up in Portugal, I channeled the subversive energy that arose in me to create an imaginary rural world where I arrived as a Fag (I consciously adopt this term as a way of hijacking the language of the abuser) – and affronted the status quo of those who commanded the social power.

The first gesture was one of awareness and critique of the perceived conservative social topography of my surroundings.

‘Fag Attacks the Country: XXI’, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 120cm, 2021

As I reflected further on my current series, I also started thinking about these paintings in relation to the historical context of, and intersection between, portraiture and landscape painting. In ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’ (1750), Thomas Gainsborough was not merely combining two distinctive painting genres, the artist created a painting, naturally of its time, that reflected how both portraits and landscape paintings were symbols of wealth and status, where the sitters displayed their best clothes and showed off the lands that they owned, whilst often excluding their workforce (or when the labour was represented, it was as a display of the sitters’ property).

‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’, oil on canvas, 69 x 119cm, 1750.

So my second gesture was to subvert the tradition of landscape and portraiture. In ‘Fag Attacks the Country’, the main protagonist is an outsider, a provocatively dressed gender bender antagonist who invades the rural landscape and affronts the “locals”.

In these paintings, I am Queering my ‘habitus’ and challenging the symbolic capital attached to landscape and portraiture genres.

‘Fag Attacks the Country: XIV’, acrylic on canvas, 150 x 120cm, 2021.

But as with any game or performance or stunt, it doesn't always go per plan. Sometimes the attacker gets attacked. It is an everlasting power struggle.

Related Links:

Follow Claudio Pestana on social media or learn more about their work.

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