Queer Iconography

Master’s in Illustration: Authorial Practice

Queer Iconography

I thought I’d share the first project I worked on for my master’s. It’s completely different from anything I’ve ever done before.

What I’ve done is create three 60-ish second looped animated gifs of icon-like works of art becoming and undoing. The subject of each work is a queer person. This is what I wrote about the first one, of Divine, in my research journal:

Every frame of each GIF is a stage in the process of making and unmaking an image of Divine from the publicity still of his breakthrough film Pink Flamingos. The image is never complete – I use different media, stick paper and images to it, paint over, pull the paper off, scrape paint off – and all the while the image jerks and warps because I took each photo from slightly different angles. I wasn’t attached to perfection and decided to be playful. There are some frames that show a quick flash of a religious icon of the Madonna and Child – a smiling reference to subliminal imagery, and to reinforce the fact that this work in continual progress is a religious icon itself.



Reading J Halberstam and Judith Butler, I have shown how queer lives can be seen as continually constructed and reconstructed, asserted and reasserted, in response to the monolithic societal norms. So I showed Divine in process, never whole, never finished.

Why Divine?

In Pink Flamingos Divine is “the filthiest person alive” and the whole film, billed as “an exercise in bad taste” attempts to be as abhorrent and offensive as possible. Divine is in competition to be the filthiest person with another couple, and naturally wins. The movie still is iconic – Divine is powerful, monstrous, beautiful in some weird way. My proposal aimed to focus on bringing the deviant into sacred space and Divine here is the epitome of deviance. Divine himself was someone who endured a huge amount of stigma because of his sexuality and I felt this powerful and tragic figure was irresistible for this project.

Why religious icons?

Because I love them. I love the low gold glowing from them as they flicker in the candlelight of Russian Orthodox churches. I am not Christian and was not raised that way but there is something numinous about them. More importantly, for this project, they represent something to aspire to – the lives of the saints are there to give moral instruction and support. Using Divine in this context is not ironic (although yes, I’ll grant you, it appears this way!) which leads me to…

Billy Tipton

What is this illustrating?

This project is my response to Mark Aguhar’s poem “Litanies to my Heavenly Brown Body”. The litanies express what is sacred – those things that are regarded often as profane – the queer, the fat, the people of colour, the unknowns. The litanies are assertions and reassertions of the inherent value, the inherent humanness (cf. Judith Butler) of the liminal people. I wanted to create a sacred space for queer liminal types, a space where they would be honoured and valued and yet still representative of the notion that queer lives must be continually made and remade in the face of heteronormativity.

Marsha P Johnson

How would this be displayed?

Ideally I would have four minute-long animations, that is, four animations that are 60 seconds long each, one queer saint for each. I submitted three in total – Divine, Billy Tipton (a jazz band leader who achieved some fame, married several women and only after death was discovered to have been assigned female at birth), and Marsha P Johnson (a black queer femme who is alleged to have started the Stonewall Riot). I imagine they would be back-projected through something like Polydraw, about a metre high, on the four walls of a small dark square room. There would be candles and incense. I imagine the space being a cube of two metres at every edge (though, it occurs to me, it would need a door).

I’ll finish this post with a quote from Judith Butler, from Undoing Gender:

“[Queer persons] make us not only question what is real, and what “must” be, but they also show us how the norms that govern contemporary notions of reality can be questioned and how new modes of reality can become instituted. These practices of instituting new modes of reality take place in part through the scene of embodiment, where the body is not understood as a static and accomplished fact, but as an ageing process, a mode of becoming that, in becoming otherwise, exceeds the norm, reworks the norm, and makes us see how realities to which we thought we were confined are not written in stone. Some people have asked me what is the use of increasing possibilities for gender. I tend to answer: Possibility is not a luxury, it is as crucial as bread. I think we should not underestimate what the thought of the possible does for those for whom the very issue of survival is more urgent. If the answer to the question, is life possible, is yes, that is surely something significant.”


Consensus, or, how we get things done

Another of my posts about living in Beech Hill Community Co-operative

No-one knows how many badly-photoshopped roadsigns there are on the internet

Consensus means that we all agree on what we do. There are many different ways of achieving it, and the way at Beech Hill is this:

  1. there is a weekly meeting on Thursday nights
  2. you write the thing you want to do on the agenda for the meeting. If it is a quick subject – likely not to take up too much time to talk about, or it is urgent, you write the letters Q and/or U next to the subject. You don’t need to write an explanation. Agenda items have been one word: “Rats!” and sarcastic “Let’s set all of our chopping boards on fire!” (yes that was an actual agenda item)
  3. You talk about your thing at the meeting. If what you want to do is Big or Different or Possibly Controversial, it’s a good idea to run it past a few people a few days before the meeting to give them time to think about it.
  4. People discuss your thing. Ask questions. Put forward alternative proposals. It might be carried forward to the next meeting if members need time to digest it.
  5. People will agree to your thing or not agree. Everyone has to agree (that is consensus) or at least, not disagree. Once or twice I have noticed that a member has said, “go ahead with x, but I don’t agree with it and I want that noted in the minutes of the meeting.” Even though they are not agreeing they are consenting to it happening anyway.

Why consensus?

Why not voting? Well, I think we can look at exhibit A, labelled “Brexit”, and exhibit B, labelled “Trump”. What consensus does, or should do, is get past binaries of yes or no, with us or against us. We are open and honest about any given subject and listen to all sides of an argument carefully (cf: Brexit; Trump) and try to work together to find a solution that works for everyone. It’s not about what – or whose – side you’re on, but how we can find a way forward together.

I decided to write this post, partly because when I asked people what they wanted to hear about on my facebook page that was one of the requests, and partly because I was thinking about something that came to the meeting recently. One of our members had suggested a change which she was really excited about but which, if left unchecked, could seriously affect the quality of my life at Beech Hill. Here was the difficulty: I totally understood her position and what she was excited about and I felt that I would be a miserable nazgûl bastard telling her DO NOT WANT.

A miserable nazgûl bastard

She had done the thing of telling me in advance of the meeting so I could think about it, and thus, having lain awake thinking about it, I tentatively approached one of the longest-serving co-op members and asked her opinion on the matter. She showed me hers and I showed her mine and we talked about it. She thanked me for my honesty and I thanked her for her advice and she then told me I should share my feelings about the plan in the meeting. Before the meeting I talked to two more community members about the plan – one had come up with a “solution” that would have been even worse for me (argh) and the other shared my concerns and had more of her own.

At the meeting we were all open and honest about how we felt about the proposition and we agreed that it could go ahead but with certain caveats – that my concerns and the concerns of others were prioritised.


What is important about this system is the numbers required to make it work. In my tenancy we’ve had between 9 and 13 members (I think) and 13 is about capacity given our current accommodation. If we had 20 members the current system might become unwieldy, and we might look at other ways of achieving consensus.

Who’s in charge?

People always ask this and come closer, dear reader, and I will speak truth to thee: the One In Charge is… everyone. Really. There’s no boss, no leader, no one person (or group or clique) that Decides. I was actually astounded by this when I joined. My ideas, even before I became a co-op member (there is a trial six months of living and working with Beech Hill full time before you can join) were taken as seriously as anyone else’s, as were my opinions and objections. Everyone’s thoughts are valued. If there is someone who has some expertise in a subject then their opinion is given a bit more weight on that particular subject – if we need to fix the roof we pay attention to what the co-op member who is a builder says. That’s just common sense.

No decrees are issued – everything is debated. It takes more time and can be frustrating but it means that everyone knows the reasons for any particular decision and everyone consents to it.

It doesn’t always work

Probably the thing that goes wrong the most is when we all come to a decision about something and then a few months down the line the decision is forgotten and needs to be remade. And that’s a waste of time. You might get bored with emptying mouldy half-cans of baked beans from the fridge and get agreement from everyone that things in the fridge are put in tupperwares and labeled with the date, because, you know, food hygiene is a lovely thing. And yet, six months down the line, what is this festering at the back of the fridge? Why! It is half a can of baked beans.

The other thing that goes wrong is that sometimes people take it upon themselves to do something that they really should ask the meeting about, and they don’t. You don’t have to achieve consensus for every little thing – I got given a bird box and put it up on the grounds without asking a single other soul. But that’s a little thing. After living here for nearly a year and a half I have a good idea of what requires agreement and what doesn’t…

Graffiti stencil of a tabby cat in a communist uniform - Chairman Meow

Chairman Meow (courtesy of Newtown Graffiti on Flickr)

Benevolent dictatorship,
or, how not to do it

This is how I will run the world once I am swept to power but it is not appreciated at a community co-operative.

One time I made the mistake of accidentally redecorating a corridor without running the colours etc past the main meeting. Oops!

What had happened was that I had booked some time off paid work before Christmas, months in advance, to do this work. And then one of our co-op members suddenly died at the end of October so we spent the time after that organising the funeral, grieving, working out who was going to take over the really important jobs he did, and generally only dealing with the really urgent important stuff. And so the week of decoration loomed up on me and, though I’d shown the colour palette past a few people, and was naturally confident that it would look amazing because colour is my hecking job, I didn’t actually announce to everyone when & how I was going to do it. So I’m there, up a step ladder, brush in hand, cutting in a lovely dusky pink over the old acid green, and other co-op members are, oh, you’re painting the corridor? I didn’t know that was happening!

I was clearly headed for trouble. At the next co-op meeting my guerrilla decorating was raised and I threw my hands up in surrender and admitted I was in the wrong and pleaded extenuating circumstances and promised never to do it again.

It’s all okay, though – everyone agrees that the corridor looks lush.