By Edgar Rodriguez-Dorans
It’s Edinburgh 2019. It’s the morning of the 5th June. It’s Pride Month. I’m in ‘whitespace’ gallery on East Crosscauseway – I think it’s a very accurate name; all the walls here are painted in white and it feels a very clear, open, white space. I’m standing in front of a painting. It’s a portrait I love. There are two men in the portrait, one of them is Arthur and the other one is his boyfriend, Michael. Arthur wears a green jacket with golden pattern – I would like to have that jacket in my wardrobe. Michael wears a cosy yellow jumper. The couple seem sunbathed by a morning light filtering through the window.
Arthur is one of the people I interviewed for my doctoral research on gay men’s identities. Well, the portrait is not exactly a portrait of my participant. It’s a representation of him. What I am watching is the portrait of a story.
Over the last five decades, gay men’s relationships have been debated, medicalised, criminalised, treated as profane, and defined in sexual terms. This sex-centred understanding of gayness has constrained gay men to live in oppressive social dynamics, environments, and discourses that have facilitated sexual encounters but have clipped their (our) wings to love. In trying to listen to what other gay men have to say about their own lives, I travelled cities and towns across the UK listening to their narratives.
Although I finished my PhD in December 2017 and it could’ve been the time to move on and engage in other projects, I felt that that something was incomplete. The thesis was missing something. That feeling of absence was probably the beginning of the idea of ‘imagined portraits’ and the project ‘we also asked for love’.
A work of narrative portraiture
The main creative idea underpinning ‘we also asked for love’ is the development of the concept of ‘narrative portraiture’.
‘We also asked for love’ uses narrative data from anonymous interviews with gay men to inspire a work of portraiture. Based on my research with ten gay men from different ages and backgrounds, artist Eleonora Scalise responded to the narratives by painting ten imaginary portraits. By painting portraits of people who have not been seen by the artist, the project aims to evoke an imaginary quality that invites the audience to reflect on the secrecy that often surrounds gay men’s lives and develop the concept of ‘narrative portraiture’, which engages with the visual through the affects contained in the narratives.
Narrative portraiture establishes a dialogue between visual arts and narrative research. It uses anonymised narrative data from research interviews to inspire portraits of people who have never been seen by the artist. Because of the sensitive topics discussed in research interviews, personal data are confidential and participants’ life stories become faceless stories in academic journals. The written word becomes privileged and the face, the body, and even the human qualities of the people who shared their stories often get lost in scientific reports. Because research findings cannot exist without the people who provided their narratives, this project aims to evoke the metaphorical aspects of the stories and create images of the people who told them.
The importance of this project lies on the need to remind the viewer that, although the sensitivity of people’s stories requires participants’ identities to remain anonymous, research findings emerge from full-fleshed people and the medium of narrative portraiture gives these narratives a face and body.
How did this exhibition come about?
After meeting my participants for our conversation, I transcribed the interviews verbatim, aiming for a full and faithful transcription. Then I read and re-read the transcripts several times looking at different aspects of the text each time.
Aided by the notes in my journal, I complemented the analysis of the transcripts with descriptive, emotional, and critical responses in an aim to engage reflexively with their stories. I looked at each one of their narratives individually, as I believe it is the best way to appreciate the complexities and nuances in meanings and understandings.
Eleonora Scalise – who is experienced in painting dramatic portraits and has conveyed complex themes such as multiculturalism, gender, and tragedy and despair through her artwork – read the anonymised narratives of the gay men who participated in the study. She perceived in them an ambivalent sense of hopelessness and resilience, love and resistance in the often-sexualised stories of these men. By imagining who are the men behind the stories, Eleonora painted ten portraits based on the real-life stories represented in the narrative data
The surface material chosen for the portraits was paper. This reflects the symbiosis of the two collaborators; the interviews transcribed to paper and the starting point for the portraits drawn from these narratives. Eleonora took inspiration from elements of their stories; from places, feelings, and their specific choice of words used to describe their lives, to the affects she experienced while reading them. Coupled with this was her use of materials, colours and experimental techniques that give light to the abundance of lived experiences and the spectrum of those personalities involved.
These portraits and the narratives that accompany them do not intend to present accurate realities, they are interpretations that aim to reflect people’s narrated experiences and both Eleonora and I strived to respect the participants’ voices. This work, therefore, is constituted by participants’ narratives but is also a combination of how they see themselves, how they told their stories, what they decided to share with me during the interview, and what the artist felt through their narratives.
Methodologies aside, through this exhibition, the audience could read that gay men have explored their (our) sexuality, for starters, but we have also been reminded of our capacity for developing a strong sense of belonging. Creating community. Even with the discrimination, with the violence, and with the law against us. Against all odds. We have dared to create our communities, to create our spaces… And when we were given sex, we also asked for love.
The portraits, along with the narratives that inspired them, were shown at a public exhibition in Edinburgh from 2nd – 27th June 2019 during Pride Month.
‘When we were given sex, we also asked for love: gay men’s narrative portraits of resilience and resistance’ was supported by The National Lottery through Creative Scotland and the Centre for Creative-Relational Inquiry.