The first thing to catch your eye upon arriving at the third floor of the NGV is a large, capitalised five-letter word emblazoned in black paint across a sheer white wall: QUEER. It marks the threshold of Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection, a landmark, Australian-first exhibition curated by an entirely queer curatorial team and spanning more than five gallery spaces, which explores more than 400 artworks through a queer lens.

Stepping in and heading straight will take you to the ‘queer activism’ section of the exhibition. Here, the pride flag hangs alongside arts of work by queer activists through the ages. Turning left will have you staring into the eyes of a self-portrait of Andy Warhol, his gaze following as you walk into a room containing some of the NGV's oldest works on display. Veering right will bring you face-to-face with a short film by Hannah Brontë and a room full of fashion, camp and kitsch. The choice is yours.

Emboldened by the discourse around the 2017 marriage equality debate, Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection began as a way for curators Dr Ted Gott, Dr Angela Hesson, Myles Russell-Cook, Meg Slater and Pip Wallis to provide the queer community with a space to celebrate queer people, queer art and queer culture. After surveying the NGV’s expansive collection, the interdepartmental team of curators realised there were enough artworks in the collection to dedicate the entire third floor of the NGV to an exploration of queer passion, power and politics.

“What we’ve done is, in some cases, find works of art that have never been ‘queered’ before,” says Dr Hesson. “Some of them may be works where the queer stories are very well known, and some may not be very well known at all. Sometimes we’re looking at a queer artist, [others] it’s a queer subject. Sometimes we're talking about something more elusive in terms of sensibility or aesthetic tendency.”

Most important is how the “queerness” of these artists and subjects are being displayed publicly for the first time in NGV’s history. “What we’re telling is the stories of their private lives,” Dr Gott says. “We’re telling you which of them were lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, asexual or transgender. Normally those are stories we don’t put on the labels.”

While the works included in Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection feature figures from queer history, not all are sympathetic figures. For example, while one room hosts portraits of modern queer icons like Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna, in another is a portrait of Henry VIII, the English patriarch who introduced the Buggery Act of 1533, which led to hundreds of years in which queer people were put to death based on their sexuality.

Fashion highlights include Leigh Bowery’s The Metropolitan, and Lizzie Garner’s American Express Gold Card dress; while tributes to queer spaces like St James Park in London, and the Island of Capri show the queer story through a geographical perspective. Of course, you can also expect the exhibition to be full of camp. “People are not going to know what the show is until they come into it,” says Dr Gott. “It's going to completely surprise and blow them away.”

The first of its kind in Australia, Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection is significant to both queer audiences and its own queer curatorial team. “We’ve all kind of curated this show with our younger, coming-out selves in mind,” says Dr Hesson. “We would have loved to have seen this exhibition when we were young. We’re hoping that this [might] help people because seeing your community reflected in art, from Ancient Egypt to now, is a really powerful and amazing thing.”

Dr Gott agrees. “Queer people have always been here, and queer people will always be here; despite those people who don’t want us to be here: past, present and future.”

Visitors to Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection are urged to make use of the complimentary audio guide care of principal partner American Express, featuring the voices of all five curators leading listeners through the space and bringing to life the queer stories behind the artworks (BYO smartphone and headphones).

Gallery – Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection Opening Night.

Queer: Stories from the NGV Collection is open now at NGV International until Wednesday August 21, 2022. Entry is free.

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