4 min

What is kweer?

The art students' search for self

Credit: Jacques Gaudet

Drew Thompson thinks it’s time to redefine queer, and he is not alone. Thompson is one of three Emily Carr students curating Kweer, an upcoming art show that aims to question what “queer” really is.

“Re-definition is really good. Queer has become so stagnant it’s ridiculous,” Thompson says. “I mean, the dictionary definition is an effeminate male. That is not a proper definition of our community.”

So what does queer mean to these artists? It’s a little hard to say. Thompson and his co-curators are so adamant about not imposing any definitions on the word, that they’ve gone so far as to restrict any images from appearing on the show’s posters. This is to avoid one or two pieces of art defining the whole show, Thompson explains.

What is clear is that the art-approximately 22 pieces from 26 artists-will reflect individual ideas about what queer is, and will likely be as diverse, and possibly as controversial, as the people who create it.

The artists, aged 18 to 50, come from a range of backgrounds such as queer parents, queer activists, people who have lived in Vancouver their whole lives, people who have recently moved here and exchange students who bring their own experience of “queer Canada.” They are men, women and transgendered people who work with paint, photography, performance art, mixed media and/or sculptures. When the call for submissions went out it was purposefully vague-what is queer?-and a huge variety of submissions poured in.

Karianne Blank, a first-year student at Emily Carr, is one of the artists who answered the call. Blank approached the subject by looking at how her definition of queer is based on who and what she finds attractive-and on being outside the mass media.

“Much of my identity is wrapped up in my aesthetic and erotic preferences, what I define as beautiful,” Blank says. “My need is to push people’s boundaries,” she continues, noting that she also deals with gender-queer issues in her art.

Her art for this show is a series of 10 photographs-five depicting supermodel Kate Moss in poses for the Calvin Klein Obsession ad campaign, and five of queer women replicating those images but set in their own environment.

“I latched on to that image as what I wanted to critique. This is what we’re supposed to be attracted to, but I was kind of disgusted,” says Blank.

Thompson says his own belief is that “queer” is about being out of context or being out of place.

“I don’t think it’s exclusive to gay, to straight, to transgender, to bi. It’s about a state of being, about what you perceive.”

In his second year of the photography program, Thompson also decided to experiment with mixed media sculptures for this exhibit. His piece will involve artichokes as a metaphor for the layers every human has. He likens it to peeling back the leaves to get to the heart of himself.

Not unlike Thompson, fifth-year photography student Sara Kerr defines “queer” as an ambiguous state of being in society. Her work-two photographs exploring identity through self-portraiture-shows parts of her naked body and reveals two characters, she says.

“I’ve been doing a lot of painting with light-using a flashlight in the dark. I’m shining light on places I want the film to record,” she says. “The images themselves relate to my bisexuality and questioning that. They’re two images, both of me. They’re nude.”

Kerr, who is co-curating the show with Thompson, will also be doing a performance art piece at the gallery opening that looks at the struggle of identity and not fitting into the world. Specifically, the struggle to adopt the language of the art establishment.

Then there’s Jose Ramon, an artist soon to graduate from the school’s painting program. Ramon will be hanging his studio painting pants on the wall, Thompson says. It’s something about the smell of them, he tries to explain-“because they’ve never been washed, apparently, and the feel of the oil, the paint saturating the jeans…it is a definition of himself.”

While Thompson speaks highly of the non-traditional art that’s about to be displayed, he also says there will be a few more typical representations of what queer is, such as male nudes.

One concern Thompson has for this show is that it will be caught in a stigma of being a student show and will not be taken seriously. But the show should be taken seriously, he insists.

There isn’t much of a visible queer art scene in Vancouver, he says, and there is definitely a lot of room for growth.

“At our first meeting about the show, we went around the table and started asking people about artists that were queer. Almost all of them were male and almost all of them were typical representations of homo-eroticism,” says Thompson. “It was hard to think of a lesbian artist. It was even harder to think of a transgendered artist.”

He says it’s a downfall of queer art that it’s defined almost exclusively in terms of homo-eroticism, rather than that just being one facet of its expression.

This idea of multiple expressions is part of what inspired the show in the first place. It also came from a desire to have queer representation at Emily Carr. Queer students used to hold annual art shows at the school, Thompson says, but four years ago they just stopped. Whether it was because no students were interested or because there wasn’t strong support from the faculty is unclear.

But the result is “the entire image of the queer community at Emily Carr has disintegrated,” Thompson says. “There’s no representation.”

Enter Kweer, fast becoming as much about re-creating a queer community at the art school as about challenging public thought.

People will come with their own ideas and maybe leave with a whole bunch of different ideas, Thompson hopes.

“We’re stamping the show uncensored and some of that work is very controversial,” he notes, recalling a couple of submissions that initially took him by surprise. (Like the piece with the promiscuous nude males, and the one dealing with the Klu Klux Klan and hate crimes.)

“It made me question what is art,” Thompson says, “but that is as vast as what is queer.”


Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design.

Concourse Gallery, North Building.

Granville Island.

Nov 29-Dec 8.

Gallery opening Tue, Dec 2. 7pm.