#Art + Culture

Gender Fluidity In Contemporary Art: Challenging The Binaries Of Our Society

paint, Gender Fluidity In Contemporary Art
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo, in her 1926 painting titled Self-Portrait In A Velvet Dress, crosses her arms, forming a barrier to others. Clutching her wine-red velvet dress, she conveyed a false smile, as though to avoid conversations – wanting to be alone. Breaking through the norms of traditional art forms and letting people rethink their notions about gender, Frida’s paintings had strong autobiographical elements.

By the 1990s, she became an icon for the feminist movement, Chicanos, as she embraced both her “masculine” and “feminine” side to break down barriers surrounding gender stereotypes. Her artistic leaps of exaggerating the unibrow and moustache lend an androgynous outlook to her self-portraits – her way of recording the masculine energy she harboured inside her. 

The late artist’s estate is going to produce a television series based on her life and body of work. The goal is “to present a unique perspective based on what her family knows about her and show how she really lived her life,” as per the painter’s grandniece, Mara Romeo Kahlo.

Gender Fluidity In Contemporary Art

When you think of gender fluidity, or even just the idea of modern art being able to bring up so much about race, politics, sex and queerness, there’s a lot of conjecture about their coming together as personalities, says Akshita M Bhanj Deo, Odisha-based director of the 18th-century boutique heritage homestay, Belgadia Palace. One of the rare specimens of Victorian architecture in Mayurbhanj, Odisha, Belgadia Palace is replete with understated elegance. 

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The folk and contemporary art-enthusiast’s living museum features art which has been inherited from the Bengal Renaissance period. “It also has more Victorian pieces of art because of the British and some of the personalities who came and stayed during that time,” she says. For Deo, art in relation to gender fluidity or even just exploring the spectrum of sexuality is perceived to be a contemporary notion which may be inherently Western however looking back at indigenous craft and art, South Asia has inherently been a region where there has been art patronised, practiced and promoted which showcased the spectrum of identity beyond gender.

“But that is a very narrow way of looking at it. Because, when you think of gender fluidity or even just the idea of modern art being able to bring up so much about race, politics, sex and queerness, you think of Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat,” she says. 

Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American artist who rose to success during the 1980s as part of the Neo-expressionist movement. At 22, he was one of the youngest artists to exhibit his contemporary art at the Whitney Biennial in New York. Likewise, Andy Warhol was an American artist, film director, producer and a leading figure in the visual art movement known as pop art. 

Art prospers when an artist is able to test more without thinking that they are under the eye of someone who is watching them and asking – what is the value of art or the external validation one gets from it?

Then there are artists who are not willing to experiment more, confining free-flowing expressions into gender binaries. Srabasti Bhattacharya, a student of history and literature is curious about every art form she comes across in Kolkata. However, she says that in paintings of the city which include graffiti, often the shopkeeper is a man and the one who makes tea is a woman. Opining that artists still give into gender stereotypes, Srabasti says, “It can of course be modified and the only way to modify it would be through raising more awareness.”

Believing in taking small steps every day, some artists help children unlearn the gender stereotypes, like by telling boys that they can wear pink and floral prints and that these aren’t just meant for girls. Odissi dancer, Manjima Sarkar, also pursuing PhD in English Literature at Bankura University, says that she has learned a lot about non-binary people over a couple of years from books and genderqueer and “drag” artists. Founded by transgender activists in 2003, Washington DC-based the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), states that being in “drag” is not an integral part of the artist’s identity as is gender. As an art form, “drag” typically achieves two major things – visual illusions which subvert societal notions of a gender binary and escapism hinging around cross-dressing. 

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What is happening in the world is a reflection of what is happening in society and vice-versa. Deo talks about how things are changing in current times, specially as art finds more space in mainstream media. “I think the whole purpose of art is to make you feel something. And I feel like when people see any artwork through any media, especially now you’re seeing a lot more gender fluidity in mainstream media and pop culture,” she adds. 

Gender fluidity in art can heal a torn society, that has been affected by toxic masculinity and patriarchy, impacting men as well. As a society, through art which bends gender, we would be able to see things with a more multifaceted view and be able to heal a lot of pain and trauma that has happened because of a certain idea of gender that has been fed to us for generations. “I think a locality can influence gender-bending – it depends entirely on how far we can accept experimenting with gender expressions,” concludes Sarkar. 

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