The Ashmolean museum in Oxford is hosting an exhibition as part of a series of events around the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act. It is a display of items that are on loan from the British museum, but which are not usually on show. I went to visit this free display.
One thing that I found surprising was the amount of material that was faith related. There was a print of the Hindu goddess Bahucharaji. There are myths about her own gender fluidity and her ability to change the gender of mortals. These stories link her to the Hijra community. Hijras are officially recognised as third gender in some South Asian countries. They are considered neither completely male not completely female.
In many African cultures, gender and gender roles are culturally fixed and reproduced through rituals, including initiation ceremonies. On display was a mask from the N’domo ceremony, used by the Bamana people in Mali. The initiation ceremony uses masks and there are male, female and androgynous (ungendered) masks. The gender of the mask is represented by the number of horns. The mask on show at the Ashmolean shows a female mask, as it has six horns. The mask for androgyny has seven horns.
Among some tribes in North America ‘Winter Counts’ were kept as historical records. Each year had a memorable event represented by an image on these records. The exhibition had an example of a Sioux count from 1891 which includes an image representing the suicide of a winkte. In the Dakota language, winkte means ‘wants to be a woman’.
Among many Native American tribes, winkte individuals were considered to be endowed with special spiritual powers because they bridged gender differences. After the arrival of Anglo-Americans, this practice was suppressed.
The exhibit that I found most moving was the AIDS quilt.
This was a reproduction of a memorial quilt made for the Native American AIDS project in San Francisco. It was inspired by the traditional robed used to immortalise warriors’ actions, representing the bravery of those who succumbed to the disease. Applique beadwork creates a looped red ribbon, combined with a Native American medicine wheel, a protective symbol of the interconnectedness of creation.
An exhibition of LGBT+ themed artwork would not be complete without a depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian.
The British Museum publishes a book about its LGBTQ+ collection. This book is called A Little Gay History
Available to buy here amazon.co.uk
The exhibition runs until December 2nd. Further information can be found at ashmolean.org/event/no-offence
There are also a series of events, tours and talks being held in association with the exhibition. Further details can be found at ashmolean.org/event