Gender by Travis Alabanza is one of a series of books commissioned by Tate Publishing and Tate Britain ahead of the rehang of Tate Britain’s collection in 2023. The objective of the series is to invite “some of the most exciting contemporary voices writing today to explore the national collection of British art in their own way, and reconnect art to our lives today.”
Alabanza (British performance artist, writer and “theatre maker”) begins her book with a well-known quote from the American poststructuralist philosopher, Judith Butler, that “Gender is a performance.” What Butler said and meant has been much debated and disputed including by herself, but it is a good place to start in discussing visual representations of men and women.
Gender performance is the idea that gender is something inscribed in daily practices, learned and performed based on cultural norms of femininity and masculinity. The idea of gender as performance was popularized by American poststructuralist philosopher Judith Butler. Butler later considered that she had overstated the absence of a link between biological makeup and gender presentation but that need not concern us here.
Alabanza links Butler’s famous phrase to the exaggerated performance of “drag queens,” and says that the performative nature of gender means that “it can never seem effortless,” speculating that if a person were on their own they could relax and would not need to demonstrate their gender. Most gender experts would disagree with much of this in that it ignores the fact that gender behavior is hard-wired to the level of unconsciousness in most people from an early age, and continually reinforced by major societal institutions. This is not to say that performative requirements do not change—they change along with changes in the wider context—women riding bicycles and wearing trousers is one of the more obvious!
This criticism does not invalidate Alabanza’s approach though a less broad- brush title and brief might have served her better.
Explaining her approach to the works of art upon which she will comment Alabanza states:
“I see a piece of art as a still of a performance in motion, a moment of drama, a snapshot, a glimpse into a spectacle—it captures a breath to be immortalised. And, as I am given the task of observing gender in these pieces of art, it feels important to ask you to walk into the performance that surrounds it, and to ignore those trying to abide or resist or confuse or compel us within it.”
She considers that it is likely that “this gallery, being Tate Britain” might never had a gender lens turned on its works, and perhaps slightly contradicting her earlier views on gender as performance, states that “gender is like a fog that cannot lift, or a filter that cannot be removed” though works of art address this fog with varying degrees of frankness and frontal-ness. She attempts to identify the performance in chosen works of art by the way they make her feel “with the hope that I can find a home or some comfort in two things in which I often feel uncomfortable: the gallery and gender.”
Alabanez reviews a very disparate group of pictures in an amusing and often subversive way by imagining conversations on their gender performance between the groups and individuals depicted. She discusses stereotypical performance requirements of men (“THE MAN and a weapon are never far apart”). While women she notes are passive, usually holding something like a flower, and always pale.
In the closing sections Alabanza imagines dialogues between individuals who have stepped away from conforming with the stereotypical, heterosexual, and primarily white mode depicted. She finds particular relief in the apparent asexuality of Henry Moore’s famous recumbent figures who do not want to “partake in performance at all.”
Alabanza might with profit have elaborated more on the role of the primarily male artist in propping up establishment performances. It is not surprising that until recently most art galleries reflected dominant cultural stereotypes, and only recently has work by a more diverse range of artists expressing more diverse relationships and social structures made an appearance. It is hoped that the anticipated audience for the Tate’s rehang will be surprised and entertained by Alabanza’s observations.