March 2, 2016, by Michael Jennings
The power of art – giving a voice to the oppressed
Guest post by Ibitsam Ahmed, PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations.
A recurring theme throughout the events marking LGBT History Month at The University of Nottingham was how arts and culture have been some of the most powerful avenues of queer expression and solidarity. I was fortunate enough to present at two very different events on this topic.
The first was part of the Popular Culture Lecture Series, where I spoke on queer voices in the Young Avengers comic books. Focusing on the intersections of queerness with mental health, ethnic diversity, bi- and pan-erasure, feminism, and the immigrant experience, the talk was based on unpicking the exploration and representation of a community that has gone from being actively suppressed in the 1980’s to being a highly visible part of Western popular culture. Channelling narratives through young protagonists in a market which is extremely receptive towards superheroes allows messages of equality and representation to reach a young demographic in a non-academic and non-activist route.
On the flipside, my second talk, which was part of the LGBT Rights are Human Rights event, focused on the activist potential of the arts in sharing queer stories. In particular, the discussion for that segment was based on how films, theatre, television, and comic books are used in India, Bangladesh and Pakistan to exploit a legal loophole regarding sexuality – namely, that non-heterosexual interaction is a criminal offence, but depicting it is not. In a region that is socially and religiously conservative, and is becoming increasingly politically conservative, the use of cultural artefacts to provide a platform for these discussions is not only useful but vital.
The two instances are very different. In the former, queerness and its representations are already part of the mainstream. Rather than being a politically subversive act, the depictions in Young Avengers are aimed at delving deeper into an already-discussed theme using everyday rhetoric and language. By contrast, the use of art to explore sexuality (particularly in its recent depictions of female sexuality – a double taboo) in South Asia is an intrinsically defiant act with strong elements of social justice.
Reflecting on these two uses of the arts is, in many ways, akin to reflecting on the wider queer rights movement and community. It is extremely diverse, with multiple intersections and numerous concerns that do not get an equal amount of attention. The hope of LGBT History Month, including the events that the university organised to commemorate it, is to acknowledge and celebrate this diversity while giving due respect to the seriousness of the cause as a whole.
Image credit: Aud Koch