There’s a limited number of artworks produced by openly queer Australians over the first 200 years of colonisation. While some artists were known for painting intimate portraits of their lovers, it wasn’t until the 1970s that we began to see explicitly queer artworks by Australians.

“There are colonial photographs where it’s obvious that the subject is gay – photographs where you can tell the photographer knew, and that the subject knew,” says Dr Ted Gott, senior curator of international art at the NGV. “But in terms of artists being openly gay, [the first is] really David McDiarmid who, in 1976, produced Secret Love, the first openly homosexual art show in Australia.”

Around that same time, Ponch Hawkes was creating art that would tell the story of gay liberation in Australia. “We’ve got two great photographs by Ponch Hawkes,” says Dr Gott. “One of which is a photo of two women who are hugging and one of the women has a button on her chest that reads, ‘Glad to be gay’. The other photo is of four women – Jane McConachie, Sue Jackson, Jenny Pausacker and Chris Sitka – holding hands in front of a piece of graffiti in Fitzroy which says, ‘Lesbians are lovely’.”

Both of those photographs by Hawkes feature in a section of the exhibition, Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection, dedicated to queer activism through the ages. Hawkes’s artworks, however, aren’t the only pieces by queer Melburnians in that room. Dr Gott points to half a dozen works by McDiarmid, including “a Mardi Gras poster and works looking at the impact of HIV/AIDS.” There are also two paintings by Brent Harris that “are very powerful and emotional works that look at the impact of HIV/AIDS on our communities in the 1980s through to the mid-1990s, when finally there were retroviral medications that stopped the appalling death rate”.

Other iconic queer Melbourne artists represented in the exhibition include Leigh Bowery, Susan Cohn, Sidney Nolan and Joy Hester.

Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection doesn’t just feature established queer artists. Contemporary works sit alongside pieces from artists such as Hawkes, McDiarmid and Harris. These include costume designer Lizzy Gardiner’s iconic The American Express Gold Card dress, which she wore to the Academy Awards in 1995 to collect her Oscar for The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Marrithiyel designer Paul McCann’s Gumnut ball gown, worn by Felicia Foxx at Australian Fashion Week in 2021.

The curators have also embraced emerging queer artists, such as Hong Kong-born, Melbourne-based mixed media artist Scotty So, and Yuwi, Torres Strait Islander and South Sea Islander artist Dylan Mooney, both of whom are still in their twenties. Regardless of when they were created, Dr Gott reinforces that every single queer artwork shares one common theme: “love”.

As for what the future of queer art might bring, Dr Gott believes that “queer art will go where it has always gone, which is in all directions at once. There is no definition of queer art – it’s as varied as we are ourselves as individuals, and as imaginative and creative. There’s no stopping it”.

Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection is on from Thursday March 10 to Wednesday August 21, 2022 at NGV International. Entry is free.

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