News | 12 July 2016

Queer activism 30 years on in Courtenay Place

Artist Sian Torrington‘s latest project "We don’t have to be the Building" features in the Courtenay Place light boxes from August until December. The assemblage pieces photographed for the lightboxes are the result of an extensive, interactive, community-based project that explores queer activism around homosexual law reform 30 years ago, and asks what queer activism is today.

Lesbian/Gay Rights March Friday 13th.
Light box detail, Sian Torrington

With a programme that involved interviews, drawing sessions, consciousness-raising groups, and creative queer expression workshops, We don’t have to be the Building was on a much larger scale than anything the experienced community arts practitioner had attempted in the past and was, she says, something she could no longer put off.

“I don’t want my art to only live on the walls of galleries that only certain people go into or have money to buy from,” she says.

“Art helps us to find ways to tell our stories. I'm looking at the coming out process – telling our personal stories as a form of activism. That includes stories about our sexuality. I am searching for my own and our community whakapapa of sexuality and protest. I'm focusing on lesbian, bi-sexual, queer female-bodied, trans*, mana wahine, takataapui and female-identified activists.”

Once Sian had created a safe space, and offered people the opportunity to talk, the stories came thick and fast.

“I asked people to tell me a story – any queer or trans* story, about surviving, sex, joy, pain. Most people said ‘I don’t know what to say’, or ‘I don’t have a story’. I said just tell me the first thing that comes into your head. And as soon as they sat down, out it came. I drew what they told me. I put it on the page, and gave it to them afterwards – because it belongs to them.”

While some people took the drawings away to photocopy and share, some to frame and hang on the wall and some gift to others, a number of the people involved encouraged Sian to use their portraits in the light boxes.

As well as the embodied face-to-face research, the artist spent many hours in the archives in the Lesbian and Gay Archives of New Zealand researching and interviewing activists who were prominent during the fight for homosexual law reform.

We don’t have to be the Building is supported by the Wellington City Council Public Art Fund and partially funded by a successful Boosted campaign.