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Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers

The current exhibition (May 2018) showing at The Photographers Gallery, in Soho, entitled, Under Cover: A Secret History of Cross-Dressers, proved highly relevant to my studio practice. The photographs were mostly borrowed from the personal archives of Sebastien Lifshitz, a filmmaker and photograph collector, and the images explore the notion of gender non-conformity and cross-dressing from 1880 to the present day. Unfortunately, the majority of individuals pictured remain unnamed and therefore the viewer is left wondering whether the figures were in fact defying gender conventions or simply dressing-up for the purpose of humour, or for paid work from a photographer. The authenticity of the scenes also receives another blow, as we are unaware of the provenance of the photographs, as many of the images were found in local car-boot sales and online websites, such as EBay. Creating staged scenarios for the sake of making interesting images is something which is commonplace in the art world and it has always been a struggle to determine fact from fiction. However, many would argue that this adds another layer to the work, as it forces the viewer to engage with the subjects in the photographs and decide for themselves whether images are, in fact, staged.

On the other hand, we are also provided with well-known (and documented) historical characters, such as Marie-Pierre Pruvot (Bambi), an Algerian-French transsexual woman. With a context to support the photographs, the viewer comes to form a clearer understanding of the individual in the image, which, for some, will help to connect with the characters on an emotional level. Further, the exhibition features people of different genders, nationalities and age groups and encompasses (as much as is possible) the notion of equality. 

Under Cover …  demands that the viewer consider the power of clothes and how our choice of clothing defines the role we are expected to play in society; in this way, the action is performative. We are left considering the transformative nature of fabric and how this medium could play a role in how we view the trans community. ‘The brilliance of the exhibition is it shows the great variety of ways people have used ‘male’ or ‘female’ clothes to construct identity’ (TimeOut: 2018). The viewer is asked to re-think societal norms towards cross-dressing and the trans community and to consider the prospect of a future where gender is an unknown and uncelebrated concept. The discussion of these critically important and current topics was encouraged and facilitated by a comments board which asked people to comment on their views in response to the question, ‘How much of our gender is a performance?’ Responses varied slightly, but coherently followed the theme that gender was an outdated concept and is wholly performative, with one, unidentified participant commenting, ‘All of my gender is a performance - for a social construct perpetuated by the patriarchy and heteronormality’.

The ambiguity surrounding gender extended to the gallery’s bathroom facilities, where toilets catered for those who identify as transgender or gender neutral. This initially indicated to the participant that the gallery supported the trans community, though one was left wondering whether the toilet signs had been altered specifically for the show in order to support the current exhibition. Either way, the sign itself was an interesting extension of the exhibition and would not have been out of place in the show itself. If anything, it acted as a contrast to the mostly old images where transgender acts were viewed as taboo and were an unbreachable subject for both academic and secular discussion. Undoubtedly, the choice of the diagonal lines on the toilet sign was deliberately chosen in order to contrast with its linear neighbours, who represent the rigidity of stereotypical heterosexual norms. 

Walking away from the show, I felt exhausted by the intellectual battle that my own thoughts had subjected me to, and I was left with the desire to seek out more of these images so that I could further my investigations. The social stigma which still surrounds the trans community is something which my current studio practice addresses directly, and Under Cover … has undoubtedly aided my studies. 

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