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Issue 210

‘Join Lesbians United’: How Artists Shaped London’s Gay Culture

A new exhibition looks back at the artists who resisted poisonous cultural narratives of the ’80s and ’90s with care, humour and style

BY Rosanna McLaughlin in Reviews , UK Reviews | 03 MAR 20

In a photograph on the wall at Auto Italia, as part of the group show ‘Hot Moment’, two dykes are making out on Westminster Bridge in London. Think leatherwear, cropped hair and al fresco nipple-sucking set against the backdrop of the Houses of Parliament. Now take a moment to consider the context in which the image was made. The year is 1987. In the midst of the HIV/AIDS crisis, Margaret Thatcher’s UK government is preparing to introduce Section 28 – legislation aimed at erasing discourse around queerness from classrooms, libraries and other council-run spaces. The photograph belongs to Jill Posener’s series ‘Dirty Girls Guide to London’ (1987). The following year, Posener will become photo editor at the women’s erotica magazine On Our Backs and, like many of her images, this one is hot. But shooting lesbian erotica directly in front of the cornerstone of an establishment trying to force you into the closet? Fire.

Jill Posener, ‘Dirty Girls Guide To London’, first published in On Our Backs, 1987, black and white silver gelatin prints, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Auto Italia, London; photograph: Lucy Parakhina

Curated by the collective Radclyffe Hall, ‘Hot Moment’ brings together the work of three artists – Tessa Boffin, Ingrid Pollard and Posener – who helped document and shape dyke culture in London in the 1980s and ’90s. Pollard was the in-house photographer for Club Sauda, a venue run by and for black women; she also photographed political marches and visits from international cultural figures. On show is a video compilation of performances at Club Sauda’s monthly cabaret nights in the early 1990s, as well as shots of Maya Angelou being interviewed for the magazine Spare Rib and Audre Lorde at a feminist book fair. My favourite is Deborah/Skin (1991), a beautiful black and white image of Deborah Anne Dyer (known by her stage name Skin) walking down the street looking slick in a 1920s-style suit, three years before she became the lead singer of the rock band Skunk Anansie.

Ingrid Pollard, Performance Outside The Fridge, Brixton, c.1990, black and white R-type print. Courtesy: the artist and Auto Italia, London

The work of Tessa Boffin, who died in 1993, is indicative of the role lesbians played in responding to HIV/AIDS. Her campy, gender-queer photo comic-strip The Wayward Sailor and The Whore (1993) tells the story of a sailor named Sam and a showgirl named Shi-Shi who hook up outside a Soho club. ‘I’ve heard you can keep it up longer with one of them,’ Sam replies when Shi-Shi suggests using a condom. During a time when queer sexual practices were often viewed as obscene and dangerous – Thatcher initially opposed any mention of anal sex in public health advice, noting in a 1986 government memo that it would do ‘immense harm if young teenagers were to read it’ – Boffin’s work spread a message of sex-positivity. The Wayward Sailor and The Whore was one of a number of pieces she contributed to the Terrence Higgins Trust: a charity established in the wake of the crisis.

Tessa Boffin, Angelic Rebels: Lesbians and Safer Sex, 1989/2020, black and white digital silver prints from various sources. Courtesy: the artist and Auto Italia, London

Lesbian visibility is a complicated issue. The two-pronged attack of homophobia and misogyny – three for women of colour – has meant that, all too often, the figure of the lesbian is sexualized for the profit and pleasure of straight audiences, or else she is not visible at all. Recent, well-meaning attempts to canonize queer history still disproportionately focus on gay men and a handful of wealthy modernists. ‘Hot Moment’ offers glimpses into a significant recent past that has been woefully accounted for and wilfully erased, attending to artists who pushed back against poisonous cultural narratives with care, humour and style. During the 1970s, Posener began documenting feminist, lesbian and anti-capitalist graffiti – small acts of semiotic warfare played out in the streets. One of these photographs, taken in Dalston in 1981, has been blown up and installed outside the gallery. ‘We can improve your nightlife’, promises a sleazy billboard advertisement for a bedding company, along with a picture of a naked woman wrapped in sheets. ‘Join Lesbians United’, someone has sprayed in reply. Sign me up.

Main image: Jill Posener, Dalston, London, 1981, billboard poster. Courtesy: the artist and Auto Italia, London

Rosanna McLaughlin is a writer and editor. Her novel Sinkhole: Three Crimes is out with Montez Press.