‘DRAG: Self-portraits and Body Politics’ at the Heni Project Space at the Hayward Gallery

Drag does not drag on the attention span of its spectators: on the contrary it is an exhilarating show, brimming with work which has both emotional impact and diverse political ramifications. The subject is really gender fluidity, although this was not a term (or notion) current in the late sixties and early seventies, when much of this work was made. It does however conjure up the sense of personal freedom and the marking out of virgin fields.

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Martha Wilson, the pioneering feminist performance artist is someone whom I have always admired. Her work is simple and strong. Here she shows herself with swept back hair and no make up in an unsuccessful attempt to pass herself off as a man. Quite a lot of women have done this and it usually doesn’t work. One woman who did bring it off was Katarzyna Kozyra (who is not in the show), who made a video Bathhouse, which I saw in Venice in 1992. She sported a preposterous black beard and silicone penis, before wandering around amongst all the naked men. She was completely ignored, although admittedly it was quite steamy.

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The photographs of the Surrealist Pierre Molinier are full of bare buttocks etc and they still exude a persuasive, if creepy, eroticism. He was tireless in his efforts to ‘epater les bourgeois’ and let it be known, for example that he mixed his pigments with his own sperm. But he had charm. At the age of 50 – in 1950 -he made his ‘premature tomb’ and the words on the cross concluded ‘useless to pray for him’.

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Something of the same attitude infuses the beautiful face of the young Robert Mapplethorpe, although our pleasure in looking at it is diluted by our knowledge of the self portrait of him grasping a death’s head cane, when he was dying of AIDS.

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The work of the Cameroonian born Nigerian photographer Samuel Fosso introduces a welcome element of postcolonial critique. He set up a photographic studio in Bangul in the Central African Republic and started making self portraits at night which commented on the history of Africa. In the image here though he casts himself, convincingly, as the American political activist Angela Davis.
The artists asked that no photography should be allowed in the show which has meant that I have had to look online for the images. The images that I have found are either exact, or very close indeed. This is a show which should be supported but it is also a treat. An added incentive is that it is free.
‘Drag: Self-portraits and Body politics’ is at The HENI Project Space at the Hayward Gallery until 14 October

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