In November 2017, Belfast Exposed hosted Let Us Eat Cake, an exhibition of portraits charting the lives of LGBTQ+ people living in Northern Ireland, in partnership with Queen’s University & Outburst Festival. It was the work of artist Anthony Luvera, whose photographs highlighted the both legal and social discrimination faced by members of the LGBTQIA+ community in NI.
At the time, same-sex marriage was still illegal in Northern Ireland, despite having been legalised in the UK and the Republic of Ireland in 2013 and 2015 respectively. Rates of hate crimes against queer people were on a decade-long upward trend and, legally, hate crimes perpetrated against transgender people weren’t required to even be recorded. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association rated Northern Ireland as the worst place in the United Kingdom for LGBTQIA+ people to live.
Against this backdrop, Luvera spent nine months collaborating with queer people from across Northern Ireland to produce a series of collaborative self-portraits, a publication and public engagement platform that allowed participants to highlight the discrimination they faced, and to do so on their own terms. Let Us Eat Cake was the outcome of this and the faces of all seven participants were on display when the exhibition launched on a Friday night in early November.
One of the faces on the wall of Gallery II that night was that of Sarah Wilson.
Over her time working with Anthony, Sarah had been exploring how to express her gender identity. As a transgender person who had come out relatively recently, Sarah’s journey to date had been littered with obstacles and frustration. The portrait she created with Anthony encapsulated Sarah’s feelings at the time, with the text ‘Who are you to judge me?’ scrawled across the bottom of the frame.
After Let Us Eat Cake’s time in the gallery, Anthony and Sarah continued to work together. For Sarah, was only the start of a process of documenting the changes in her life through photography. Together, they explored more of the themes behind Sarah’s portrait and documented the ongoing changes in her life. This evolved, over time, into a project that provided an insight into Sarah’s day-to-day life, how she wished to express herself and how she wished to be seen by the world around her. A collaboration between artist and subject that, supported by Belfast Exposed, would end up lasting a five-year period and produced a significant body of work.
The result of this collaboration is Luvera’s new exhibition, She / Her / Hers / Herself.
She / Her / Hers / Herself is a sensitive, deeply personal piece of work built on mutual trust and understanding between artist and subject. The work charts wide-ranging changes in Sarah’s life, as she establishes a career as a beautician, passes a series of personal milestones, and lives day-to-day while learning to express her true self.
It presents a single story of transition and identity, but cannot fail to be seen in the broader context of transgender rights in both Northern Ireland and the wider UK.
Waiting lists for trans healthcare are at an all-time high in NI and the legal status of transgender people across the UK has become the subject of contentious political debate. One which both minimises and ignores the lived experiences of transgender people. In 2021 Stop Hate UK reported that, while there had been a 16% rise in reported hate crimes, 88% of transgender people did not even report serious hate crimes they had experienced. Just as with Let Us Eat Cake, this work comes to Belfast Exposed amid a difficult and uncertain environment for LGBTQIA+ people.
However, both Anthony and Sarah are adamant that She / Her / Hers / Herself is not meant to represent all, or even most, experiences of transition. Every individual has a unique set of circumstances and experiences in this regard. Even if these experiences all take place within a shared context. Instead, Anthony envisages this work as an attempt to place Sarah’s story in an explicitly positive framing. As Anthony himself said at the exhibition’s announcement, ‘At the heart of She / Her / Hers / Herself is an ongoing conversation between Sarah and me about the importance of positive representations of trans people’. Sarah’s experiences and increased confidence in expressing her identity are documented on her own terms and the collaborative nature of the exhibition allows for this.
To tell this story, She / Her / Hers / Herself combines several different approaches. These combine to tell the story of Sarah’s journey so far and articulate her hopes for the future.
Sarah has built an extensive record of her daily life, documenting the mundane and the extraordinary. These vernacular images were shared with Luvera on a weekly basis during their collaboration, and together the pair have made a selection of these photographs for inclusion in She / Her / Hers / Herself. Meanwhile, throughout their collaboration, Anthony met with Sarah to create a series of portraits to document her life at a particular moment in time. Working in partnership, they collaborated to produce images that reflect back to the viewer both how she sees herself and how she wants to be seen by others.
In addition to these still images, a three screen audio-visual installation dominates one end of the gallery space. The footage is filmed front on, with Sarah facing the camera as she applies and removes her makeup, in a format which consciously mirrors the makeup tutorial videos that are a hugely popular resource on YouTube and other social media platforms. It was through these tutorials that Sarah herself first learnt to apply and refine her makeup at the beginning of her transition. This makes her one of millions globally who use these videos to learn to express themselves and better portray their own identity through makeup and other beauty products. The video work, therefore, reflects both Sarah’s personal use of tutorial videos as part of her journey, as well as how she is placed in a much wider community of users through them.
Inspired by both Sarah’s self-expression through makeup and beauty, and her new career as a beautician, She / Her / Hers / Herself also features a fully functioning nail bar that is both a piece of art in its own right and will also be used during the course of the exhibition to allow audience members to book a nail appointment with Sarah herself.
For Belfast Exposed, She / Her / Hers / Herself is vitally important. Having supported Anthony and Sarah throughout their work together, we are obviously immensely proud to be presenting this new work. The work is a moving, beautiful and thought-provoking collection of art. We are excited for audiences to experience it.
However, we are also well aware of the exhibition’s wider significance. Our focus is on supporting socially and politically engaged art, that is both bold and boundary pushing. Sarah’s story is a vital one. And the window on the experience of transgender individuals it provides is invaluable. It is just the kind of exhibition that is true to our values of changing lives through photography. We believe that as well as experiencing fine art, audiences will have their preconceptions challenged and their horizons broadened.
Deirdre Robb, Director, Belfast Exposed. February 2023.