Hairy calves standing boldly under a leather skirt; a flat chest under a fish-net vest; a woman dressed in a suit. Is this masculine enough? Too feminine? Heterosexual? Homosexual? Whether there are any such explanations which can actually answer such heavy questions, this is the work of Anna Sampson, photographer, whose photographs challenge the notions of gender identity.
Hidden away and almost out of sight near the bottom of Ridley Road Market – closest station, Dalston Kingsland – it’s all too easy to innocently walk past (much like I did) Doomed Gallery, where Sampson, London-based photographer, is showcasing her photographs.
Sampson graduated from Chelsea College of Arts in BA Fine Art, where her central work was on her series of portraits called ‘Gender Trouble’. Taken from the event page on ArtRabbit, the exhibition is described as: “Shot over the past two years, her images posit a suggestion that true feminism requires real equality – and that there should be no hierarchy between the sexes. By merging and blurring gender clichés and stereotypes, Anna seeks to free gender from its bipolar shackles, supporting Judith Butler’s argument by demonstrating that gender, like sexuality, is fluid and non-binary.”
Getting her friends to dress up in alternative clothing, such as men in fish-net stockings, and women in a full shirt and trousers, her work is supposedly meant to challenge the confines of gender. Clothes do not necessarily have to define an individual’s gender, surely? If a woman chooses to wear a pair of trousers, or a man wear a skirt, this doesn’t mean that she is any less feminine, nor is he any less masculine. This is a key message, which seeps through her photographs: gender is simply a social construct.
Coincided with this is a photograph of two men kissing, and the intimacy captured between a woman and another woman; Sampson’s photographs also challenge the dimensions of sexuality. Inspired by the work of Judith Butler, philosopher and gender-theorist, Sampson’s exhibition illustrates the theory that gender does not directly correlate with sexuality. By this, I am suggesting that a male, who has a more feminine demeanour does not necessarily have to be homosexual because he appears “less of man” to be heterosexual, in the same way that a more ‘masculine’ woman, who may be more “butch” and less interested in clothes shopping, or getting their nails done has to be deemed a lesbian. As aforementioned, these are simply socially constructed. As Judith Butler famously theorised, these dimensions are fluid.
The exhibition space is small and minimalist, yet intimate, which I felt was somewhat symbolic of the nature of the work. The enclosed environment makes the message all the more hard-hitting and inescapable, which I think is only necessary in this day and age, whereby individuals should have the freedom to express themselves in any way they feel fit, regardless of gender, sexuality, or any other socially-defining entity, which is why you should experience it for yourself.
“Shot over the past two years, her images posit a suggestion that true feminism requires real equality – and that there should be no hierarchy between the sexes. By merging and blurring gender clichés and stereotypes, Anna seeks to free gender from its bipolar shackles, supporting Judith Butler’s argument by demonstrating that gender, like sexuality, is fluid and non-binary.”
What makes this exhibition all the more enticing is the fact that it is only on for four days. I visited it last night, with its opening day on Thursday. Which means that tomorrow is the last day that you can attend, so do if you can!
Personally I find studying Gender to be incredibly interesting, in many contexts, particularly in Development. This summer, I have an internship with a new organisation called SecurityWomen, which advocates for a 50:50 gender balance in the security sector – that is, to have more women working in the armed forces, military, police and decision-making roles. And the research I am doing into this is simply eye-opening. For example, in conversations with the director of SecurityWomen, it became known to me that there is a correlation whereby countries which have women in these roles tend to have less conflict. Hence why, rather than advocating for more violence, this can contribute towards keeping peace and peace-building. While this is not the crux of this post, I will surely be talking about this in a later one!
To explore Sampson’s work in more depth, read this interview from online magazine Kaltblut, which explains her views on challenging gender stereotypes, and answers questions such as why she mostly shoots in black and white.
While only short and almost unassuming, the subject of the photographs is far from it, with a deeper meaning behind. In my view, it is not simply a cultural norm to be able to live the way you want to, or dress in the way you believe expresses you best, despite it flouting certain gender norms, but a personal freedom – a human right. So do try and attend the exhibition tomorrow if possible, since it’s the last showing. It’s important, it’s relevant, it’s true. And it’s far from being trouble-free.
The gallery is open from 12pm-8pm tomorrow, and is completely FREE to attend. Here is the link to the exhibition page to find out more: