Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Out in Oxford: handling collection

Helena Fox volunteered at the Pitt Rivers Museum assisting with preparations for activities during LGBT+ History Month in 2017.  We asked Helena to explore our Object Handling collection.  Here are her experiences: 

From 28th November to 2nd December I had the opportunity to undertake work experience at Pitt Rivers Museum.  One of the tasks I had was to search the Museum’s Object Handling Database to find items which could be used as part of the Pitt RiversOut in Oxford LGBT+ History Month in February 2017. Here, I want to highlight two objects which I feel have a particularly pertinent part to play in contemporary discussions around LGBTQ+ issues.

Mask © Pitt Rivers Museum

The first object I have picked is the collection’s carved wooden face mask, called a Mwana Pwo mask, of the Chokwe people of Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These masks, depicting the ideals of female beauty, are used in initiation ceremonies to promote fertility and honour the women of the communities in which they are used. However, Mwana Pwo masks are always worn by men who dress as women and skilfully mimic female movements during performances. For me, the mask evokes conversations I have had about the huge scope of different gender identity expression, such as is seen in the hugely popular TV show, RuPaul’sDrag RaceThe Mwana Pwo masks are objects of great importance and respect; they are so revered that it is said they are buried with the masqueraders. In my opinion, these masks speak of widespread respect for the fluidity of gender expression and the many different forms which this can take, and this is highly relevant to LGBTQ+ discourse today.

Kohl flask and applicator and © Pitt Rivers Museum

The second item which struck me as especially interesting is the collection of kohl flasks. I was grasped by two things: first, that kohl is associated with both practical and aesthetic uses, and secondly that, in Ancient Egypt, it was worn by men, women and children. Kohl’s practical applications included belief in the protection it provided against harsh sunlight, ailments and being cursed by the Evil Eye. Kohl is now known to have qualities which boost the immune system and help ward off potentially dangerous bacteria. This universal wearing of eyeliner, be it for practical, cultural or aesthetic reasons, made me think about our perception of makeup as an inherently female, or at least feminine, item. Consequently, we tend to associate men wearing makeup with a certain level of femininity and therefore an assumption of them being gay, as fits into the ‘gay best friend’ model of a camp man providing fashion and makeup advice. To qualify our unease with men wearing makeup, especially men we see as far too masculine to be gay (which is, in itself, an odd conclusion, as levels of ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ behaviour cannot denote sexuality), we use terms like ‘male grooming’ and ‘guy liner’. Reading about male and female usage of kohl (made iconic in the images of Tutankhamun and Cleopatra so synonymous with our perception of Ancient Egypt) made me consider how strange our gendering of makeup is, and how we use this to presume people’s sexualities when we really have no basis to go on. 

Kohl flask and applicator and © Pitt Rivers Museum

I will leave you with this: next time you go to talk about someone wearing ‘guyliner’, why not try simply ‘eyeliner’? Is there really any difference?

Helena Fox

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