Power of pride: artists champion LGBT causes at Art Basel

Transgender empowerment among causes tackled at this year's fair


Artists at Art Basel are championing gender-identity causes and transgender rights after thousands took to the streets to celebrate the LGBT community in cities such as Los Angeles, where an event last weekend turned into a protest against the policies of US President Donald Trump. “We need this discussion in the current climate,” says Kathleen Bühler, a curator at the Kunstmuseum Bern, who is moderating an Art Basel talk on Friday called Fluidity of Identity.

Across Basel, in the former home of the fashion designer Fred Spillmann—one of the city’s first openly gay figures—the transgender artist Wu Tsang has created a piece for the fair’s Parcours programme. The secret life of things is open (2014-17) was made in collaboration with the poet and theorist Fred Moten and culminates on Saturday in a performance with the trans artist boychild.

The curator of Parcours, Samuel Leuenberger, says that Tsang addresses issues “that are so important to us”, such as gender, class and race. “She has a wonderful way of engaging people through language and dance.”

Transgender empowerment is the subject of a stand-out work in the Unlimited sector by the artist Andrea Bowers. A Call to Arms: Building a Fem Army (2017) reimagines three political illustrations from the 1970s and 1980s. The symbol of the transgender movement is emblazoned on the central figure’s T-shirt. “Andrea expands her feministic call to arms to transgender people, which is an interesting facet of this fascinating work,” says Unlimited curator Gianni Jetzer.

In a show held last year at New York’s Andrew Kreps gallery, Bowers showed photographs of three US trans activists, including Cece McDonald. “Trans liberation is critical to building a culture free of sexism, misogyny and male-centredness,” Bowers says in a statement. Her piece at Unlimited, on offer for $175,000, is presented by Kreps, Kaufmann Repetto gallery and Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects.

Another LGBT activist, Zanele Muholi, is showing four works (priced from $6,000 to $10,000) from her self-portrait series Somnyama Ngonyama (2016) at Cape Town’s Stevenson gallery. Muholi is known for her series of portraits of black gay, lesbian and transgender people in South Africa that tackle discrimination against the LGBT community.

Others at Art Basel are paying homage to artists who blazed a trail on the gender front in the 1970s. The Fluidity of Identity talk focuses on the late Belgian film-maker Chantal Akerman. “On one hand, the issue of gender identity is vast, and it’s easy to fall into certain traps, focusing on personal histories, for instance,” Bühler says. “But Akerman found a way to address issues in an unspectacular way; she shows people without putting labels on them. I hope this debate will be like an Akerman film, and focus on methods and strategies first but then open up to the political climate and current context.”

As politicians worldwide ride a populist wave, the battle for equal rights has been reignited. “Certain voices need to be heard more now that right-wing radicalism is growing in the US and Europe, challenging many rights that we have fought so hard to liberalise,” Leuenberger says.