‘We Get To Choose Our Families’ at Whitechapel Gallery: a plea for open minds and hearts
Organised by trans and non-binary curators, ‘We Get To Choose Our Families’ at Whitechapel Gallery in London reflects on the idea of queer kinship and family
‘We Get To Choose Our Families’, an exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery, brings together archive material from the Museum of Transology, art from the Christen Sveaas Art Foundation, and contributions from a diverse range of independent artists and makers. We explore the London art exhibition and chat with E-J Scott, founder of the Museum of Transology, and Rachael House, participating artist, on the importance of ‘chosen families’ and how objects and art can overcome prejudice.
‘This is my first good bag, it went with me every night for over two years. It did not hear the abuse in the streets; it did not see the attack. It just felt my joy as I danced and lived for the first time.’ So reads a brown swing tag attached to a leather clutch with lace appliqué.
The handbag sits within a glass cabinet filled with objects taken from the Museum of Transology’s vast collection of donated artefacts and personal effects. A train ticket, a lipstick, boxer shorts, ballet shoes, each with a handwritten tag explaining its significance to the owner, cleverly anchor real voices to ordinary objects. The display gives a profoundly touching insight into the everyday lives of trans, non-binary, and intersex people.
‘Something very special happens when you put ordinary objects into sacred spaces like museums,’ says Scott. ‘Looking through the glass, your own reflection superimposed onto the object, for a split second, you cannot help to instinctively go: “I know what that is, my sister’s got a lipstick kicking around in the bottom of her handbag that’s scratched up like that too!” Trans people are ordinary people with everyday lives. The ordinariness of the objects, linked with these extraordinary stories, evokes the most remarkable levels of empathy, culminating into a truly moving experience that challenges discrimination.’
Many LGBTQAI+ folk – particularly those who are trans and non-binary, and even more so those who are BIPOC and trans – still have their daily lives affected by fear of othering, violence, transphobia and racism. The show offers an opportunity to soothe this pain and welcomes visitors to sit, reflect and engage with artist-led activities such as workshops and storytelling sessions.
Centred around a fireplace and bookshelves filled with resources for all ages, the space feels welcoming yet intimate and plays with the idea of feeling ‘at home’. Matthew Barney’s Her Giant, consisting of a still from his iconic film Cremaster 5 and Bernice Mulenga’s Of The Night are striking additions to the room. House’s tile-tableaux You Are Safe Here and her collection of zines and pamphlets emphasise the exhibition’s aim to be a safe environment for intergenerational connection and dialogue.
‘This idea of welcoming people, not just into one’s life but also space, who aren’t always made to feel welcome, is a theme I’ve been working with for a little while now,’ explains House.
‘During lockdown, “family” was spoken about on the news so much but in a very heteronormative way, not in a way that includes those queer kinships and friendships that are so vital to sustain us. I want people who feel isolated and discriminated against to feel seen and supported. I’m singing to my own choir of course, but we’re singing together and that’s quite a good thing to be able to do sometimes.’
‘We Get To Choose Our Families’ holds the tension between joy and pain beautifully while celebrating love and friendship between people in whatever form it may take. With the increasingly toxic discourse in politics and media aimed at trans and non-binary communities, this show is a powerful reminder for us all to keep open minds and hearts. §
‘We Get To Choose Our Families’ runs until 7 August 2022 at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and was curated in collaboration with Pacheanne Anderson, Helen Davison, E-J Scott, and Ansh Meeta. With thanks to the Museum of Transology, Bishopsgate Institute, Christen Sveaas Art Foundation, Cassils, Tolu Elusadé’, Rachael House, Bernice Mulenga, Cosmic Constructions and Portugal Prints. The exhibition is accompanied by a programme of events for families and audiences of all ages, including workshops, a Thursday evening queer takeover, and storytelling sessions