Contribution by Poppy Hawkes.
With the closing of Rebel Dykes Art & Archive Show, gallery invigilator and CSM Fashion Journalism student Poppy Jasmine Hawkes, reflects on the importance of lesbian inclusivity.
I’ve been over the moon introducing myself as a ‘professional lesbian’, meaning that I was one of the invigilators for Rebel Dykes Art and Archive Show. Rebel Dykes is a collective that has been archiving lesbian history and culture, and earlier this year the treasure trove of anecdotes was released as a feature-length film. I admittedly missed the BFI Flare screening, but this resulted in me religiously checking their Instagram for updates. Alas, no film screenings near me- but an opportunity to work for the accompanying art exhibition.
Hosted at the Space Station Sixty Five gallery, beyond large silver gates awaits a plethora of archive photography of lesbian bars, erotica, hangouts, colliding with artwork from upcoming Queer artists of today. Among the industrial greys and beige of residential Kennington, inside of the gallery, a shocking pink introductory wall boldly confirms that you are at the right place. Half of this wall is home to the painting Venus Envy, by Sadie Lee. A woman presenting her fist through the fly of her pinstripe suit, her other arm outstretched wearing a pinky ring against crimson curtains that match the shade of her lipstick. Beyond this wall, you are assured that the dykes you will see are equally proud and unashamed with themselves.
Co-curating with Rebel Dyke, Atalanta Kendrick, Kat Hudson ensured that the exhibit was an authentic exploration into Dyke culture and history. “It’s rare that we get to see ourselves in this context, in our own context, without being diluted by wider Queer culture and/or wider society!” Kat explained to me. The truth is that the reason why this exhibition has been so impactful, especially as a recently realised lesbian myself, is that an honest celebration of our identity is scarce within the media and the arts today.
Seeing genuine images of lesbians from the 1980s, paired with the exciting work of lesbian creatives today, is reassurance and resistance that we Dykes are here. Emphasising the importance of making connections to our history, Kat stated, “So many pieces of archive material sparked discoveries for me into just how much our cultural roots have inspired and flowed through so much of the more contemporary work our community creates today.” From 80s footage of Chain Reaction nightclub to recent performances by Mystical Femmes, “it goes to show how rich, diverse, and exciting dyke culture truly is and how we need to continue to fight to create spaces where we can exist and celebrate ourselves, our history, and our futures in this uniting and intergenerational way.”
Working at the gallery was the first time I had ever interacted with lesbians outside of my age range. Founder of Rebel Dykes History Project and producer of the Rebel Dykes film, Siobhan Fahey, recognised how younger lesbians would find themselves within the photographs taken forty years ago. For Siobhan, showcasing lesbians’ stories was a way to raise the profile of our experiences after feeling there was a lack of representation of lesbian history, “It’s almost like my life as a younger gay didn’t exist.” After starting the project in 2015, now the Rebel Dykes film has debuted around the world, with a UK cinema run starting on the 27th November at BFI Southbank, “I always say that one of my jobs is to help make lesbians cool again, you know? We want to be mentors and role models and talk to young Queers to help!”
A pivotal moment in my time working at the lesbian watering hole was the special evening event. Seeing the people within the paintings and photographs, who were displayed on the walls of the gallery come to life before my eyes were almost surreal. I met my first Drag King: the one and only Fisch. Strutting in with a spring in her step, decked out in a sharp suit, attentively asking and remembering my name. She is the definition of charm, let me tell you. Darting in behind her was an elegantly dashing three-piece ensemble, jumping into Fisch for an embrace.
This was Cherry Auhoni, the marvellous Queer life photographer. The last act of the evening, following the powerful performances, was acclaimed poet, Joelle Taylor. She walked to the mic, a humble mohawk and tweed jacket, then the reading of the poem, Cunto began. I never truly understood the phrase, ‘I was on the edge of my seat, until that night; with every word, I was hooked. She captured the brutality and brilliance of lesbian dress. This was what I have been longing for during my studies as a Fashion Journalist: a shared authentic lesbian connection to clothing. Years of feeling alone and outcasted subsided within a twenty-minute poetry reading.
The Art Show is the first event Space Station Sixty Five has hosted in four years, so the need to build connections within the community was especially relevant. The gallery co-owner and activist Jo David reflected on the opening of Rebel Dykes and reuniting with friends, revelling in seeing ‘real-life Queers’ again after the pandemic. “Everybody has now experienced isolation. I’ve had lots of conversations with people about coming out and growing up in your bedroom and things like that because isolation has made a lot of us think about our teenage bedroom.”
Ten years ago, after working in the London contemporary art and Queer scene, Jo and the artist Rachael House, began the creation of the inclusive gallery space, comparable to the kitchen at a house party, “we started looking for more things which were part of our own identities, or identities adjacent to our identities, which we thought needed more elevation, celebration, and exhibition.”
The Rebel Dykes project has provided lesbians with a nostalgic venture into their radical pasts while opening the minds of a new generation of Dykes. The exhibition became a place of refuge for the community, separate from the last lesbian bar left in London, She Soho. The opportunity for lesbians of all ages (and their allies) to congregate together has meant that the defiant spirit of the Rebels will be sure to continue, as long as we have the spaces to be visible.