'Deflecting Identities: Masks as Queer Iconography' by Maddie Botto

“Sous ce masque un visage. Je n'en finirai pas de soulever tous ces visages.”

“under this mask, another mask. I will never finish removing all of these faces.”

When gender non-conforming photographer Claude Cahun pointed to this lifelong relationship to the mask in their 1930 memoir, the self-reflective writing merged with the visual language of the artist’s intimate self-portraits, and the playful theatricality in the two came together as inextricably linked to a personal sense of conflicted identity. The shape-shifting in the artist’s self-representations, wherein masculinity and femininity are either exaggerated to the point of parody or erased altogether in favour of an androgynous queering of the body into the unrecognisable, took the deflection of the male gaze to a new level in order to exhibit an outright refusal of categorisation through a celebration of the strange and theatrical. Cahun most explicitly discussed their own gender identity in their writings; “Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neutre is the only gender that always suits me.”

Although the artistic reconceptualization of gender was increasingly embraced amongst female surrealists, in particular, the intimacy of these portraits resonates especially fervently with a modern audience, in particular one that can identify the intimate, unpublished photographs, taken in the artist’s own home in collaboration with their wife, as the touchingly personal search for queer identity in a neglectful society. Cahun’s work is most consistently cited as an influence for Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills of the 1970s, in reference to both artists’ glossy staging of femininity. However, the concept of gender as a performative act, often translated through the iconography of masks and extravagant costume as symbolic of outright refusal of gendered categorisation, is more relevant to today’s youth culture than ever before. The same early constructivist feminism Sherman was advocating for has been pushed beyond its presumed limit, wherein gender-bending self-representation has developed into the complete erasure of the figurative boundaries of the gendered body.

Often, this is executed by artists who work within the public sphere, as evidenced by the rise of increasingly Avant-Garde drag being circulated through online imagery and club performances. That which, for Cahun, was unpublished and unrecognised as queer is finding its way into recognition, both in the mainstream and subculturally. Humour, makeup, props, and costume are all utilised to construct a mask that distorts the feminine and allows for a playful approach to the relationship between gender identity and expression. Cahun’s constructed, parodic scenes allow the artist to ‘other’ themselves by becoming and subsequently distorting the art object, without taking itself too seriously. Cahun’s relationship with the mask was particular. It was metaphorical, and makeup, costume, and even the mirror could function symbolically as the masked identity, the masks themselves were also hand-made- a laboured expression of the artist’s love for theatre. Similar practices can be found amongst many contemporary queer artists. Shalva Nikvashvili is an LGBTQ artist who, like Cahun, often works in collaboration with his partner to photograph their hand-crafted masks, made of found objects, food, and garbage, to explore a rejection of identification through the resourcefulness of stemming from a poverty-stricken background. Furthermore, resorting to the forgotten object, as well as to express their lack of opportunity starting as an individual forced to hide their identity in a conservative Georgian household. For Nikvashili, the mask isn’t a symbol of artifice as much as an expression of emotion, often responding to contemporary social issues and using the mask as a tool to express a particular facet of the artist’s self as he reacts to his struggles and their global resonance.

For Latinx Trans artist Martine Gutierrez, the Sherman-esque glossy reconstruction of women’s magazines has also resulted in mask iconography, this time playing on notions of capitalism and beauty by distorting face mask advertisements. The masks here function as part of a wider project “dedicated to the celebration of Mayan Indian heritage, the navigation of contemporary indigeneity, and the ever-evolving self-image” (Gutierrez- Letter from the Editor). In a lovingly hand-crafted reconceptualization of the Eurocentric, cisnormative magazine, Gutierrez celebrates the fluidity of cultural and gendered roles through the placement of a trans, indigenous body within the framework of dominant beauty standards, oscillating between haute couture femininity and the parodic images of the masks, which distort the face beyond recognition.

Narcissister is a multi-media contemporary performance artist who maintains a hidden identity through the use of the mask, using the performative, eroticised femininity of her physical body in conjunction with the visual discomfort sparked by her use of a mask repurposed from a wig display form, which renders her gaze cold and empty and creates a somewhat menacing presence. The use of the mask in relation to her naked body recalls Cahun’s use of the nude, in that it draws in the male gaze and deflects it entirely by playing simultaneously on the attraction triggered by the feminine and the repulsion caused by the ‘other’. Rather than necessarily utilising the mask to play on androgyny, the artist adopts a farce that pushes idealised femininity into the monstrous and uses it to open up and invert stereotypes.

As stated on the artist’s website, the mask is essential to reflect the “double dynamic” created in her work- “falling within the narrow conception of femininity….the mask draws in the viewer; simultaneously, the mask – a tool for acquiring and establishing superiority and separation – pushes the viewer away.” This play on our perception of beauty and eroticised femininity through extreme self-love and distortion was pushed into a wider sphere of identity when the artist took on a project focused on utilising images of other individuals topless in the mask, roaming around New York City, to protest differing perceptions of male and female breasts in public. Here, the function of the mask becomes explicitly queer in its ability to blur the figurative boundaries of gendered categorisation we enforce upon the body by hiding and distorting personal identity.

Masquerade allows artists to use their own body both as subject and object to play on what these notions mean and why they’re gendered. However, it also allows them to collapse these boundaries into each other and turn themselves into a figurative ‘other’ that expresses a refusal to conform to particular categories. The building of the ‘mask’ of gender, or the mask that refuses gender, not so different to that employed by Cahun a century ago, is thus central to contemporary exploration of androgyny and extreme gender expression in a youth culture thriving on the rejection of binaries and the reclaiming of ‘othering’ labels and perceptions.