Among the memories of my childhood home is a plaque painted with blousy roses and the phrase ‘friends are a chosen family.’ At the time, the words seemed to subtly bemoan the arbitrary encumbrance of family. After speaking with UNSW Galleries deputy director Kelly Doley, I reconsidered the other virtue of those folksy italics: that of creating a safe, loving structure within which to support and connect to others.
With Friendship as a Way of Life, curators Doley and José da Silva present a celebratory testament to the way that LGBTQI+ artists and communities have imparted space, time and support to one another by building kinship structures, from clubs, communes and share-houses to scene parties, publications and symposia. The exhibition was inspired by an essay by French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), and the poem ‘Friendship as Romance’ by activist-poet ALOK, “which proposes we imagine a world in which friendship is equivalent to coupling-up or marriage,” says Doley. “These ideas challenge what we might call biological understandings of family, or heteronormative structures.”
The exhibition emphasises the continuity of queer kinship, through artworks by local and international artists, and archival material from the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA). “Whether for survival or pleasure, queer people have always created spaces for one another,” Doley explains. “The artists and creatives in this project are connected through time and history, through a queer ancestry.”
The work of making and protecting queer spaces often overlaps with artistic practice, comprising aesthetic, critical and political expressions developed for sharing. Take the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, “a collective of gay male nuns active in Sydney.” For decades, they have “dressed up, taken to the streets, promoted safe sex during the AIDS crisis, picketed politicians’ houses in full habit. They were doing the work of activism and self-organisation, but with a whole lot of fun and a great sense of humour,” says Doley.
More quotidian comings and goings are documented in a book about Farrant Street House, a lesbian share-house in 1980s Adelaide. This book includes “little notes, birthday celebrations, minding each other’s dogs and children, airport pick-ups,” Doley says. “As a queer person myself, it is inspiring to know that there are precedents to thinking and living differently.”
Also loaned from the ALGA archive is the full complement of Wicked Women (1988-1996), Australia’s first lesbian porn magazine. Wicked Women resounds through a commissioned work by designer Ella Sutherland, whose investigation into the “queer lineage of printed matter” is formulated into Glyph, a body, 2020, a print based on the spidery serifs of the magazine’s title ‘W.’
The grand ingress to Friendship as a Way of Life is Macon Reed’s Eulogy for the Dyke Bar, a full-scale, neon-lit installation which convincingly places visitors in late-night Sydney, roaring music curated by DJ Gemma. The immediacy of the work evokes the glitter of nights past and sadness over lost scene spaces. The bitter-sweetness of this loss is heightened by Covid-19, but there is a hearty online partner to the exhibition, titled Forms of Being Together, which includes art talks, readings, film and documentation updated weekly.
“We don’t know when we’ll be able to go to the club again, to interact, dance and be up against one another in that way,” says Doley, “but the online series has highlighted the connectivity that we can have through lockdown”