We Don’t Have to Be the Building

Courtenay Place Light Boxes Sian Torrington We don’t have to be the buildingThe idea for a project that engaged with my own queer and trans* communities, trying to find ways to creatively tell my own and our stories, started rolling around in my head a number of years ago. I felt inadequately skilled to try then; in my practice of drawing and making, but also in whether I thought I had the right to tell other peoples’ stories in any way. What became apparent over the last few years is that I needed to keep trying, and to find ways to use my art making skills in new ways; useful ways. I believe that being an artist is a job, and I wanted to make sure I was doing mine; as a curious, open, brave and skillful storyteller.

What made it all feel possible was when I began to think of it as searching for my own whakapapa through queer activism. I felt like it was ok for me to ask, as long as it was always ok for people to say yes, or no. I had a need to position myself, connect myself, ask for help, listen to stories and hear and see myself through the past and in the future. So I started asking.

Sian Torrington artwork scans

2016 is the 30 year anniversary of Homosexual Law Reform; a time when groups came together to protest and work together for human rights. I was particularly interested in the lesbian, bi-sexual, trans*, female identified, mana wahine and takataapui stories around this time; people who the law did not affect directly, but who saw it as a human rights issue. I learnt a lot from the archives about solidarity, and divisions within our communities. There was soul searching on all sides; how to listen to each other, how to help, why we should help. I read gay men writing about their own sexism and wanting to fix it. I read lesbians writing about their concerns that we should be careful of the female socialised belief that we should always be helping others, and that we need to retain energy for ourselves. I read about gate keeping to lesbian and women’s spaces; that bi-sexual women in particular suffered a great deal of judgement, derision and exclusion.

This research helped me to build a kaupapa of inclusion and openness. I learned from my responses to our histories that the hard way must be taken; the way of acknowledging difference, division, pain, multiplicity and need. Need for each other, and need for expression of all things.


The first panel in the light boxes says “My whakapapa is full of queers and artists. Some of whom survived, and some who didn’t.” In many cases, their survival seems to have depended on their ability to express themselves in various ways. It feels like what has been handed down to me is this taonga of expression; to find a way.

Many times during this project I felt like I didn’t know the way. I did what I’ve called ’embodied research’, which I invited people to come and be drawn for two hours each in fully consensual life drawing, or tell me stories in a temporary glittery shelter in exchange for a drawing. I ran two sessions called let’s Talk About Sex, where we sat together and responded to questions like ‘What do you want?’ and ‘What stops you from getting what you want?’I worried that I am not a sex therapist, counsellor, or journalist. But I am an artist, and I’ve worked in community arts for many years, and I know how to build things, and I know that art making has some kind of connective, opening power with people, so I thought I’d try.

There are lots of words in the final work. I wrote the whole time, and one of the threads is my writing about my stories; my rage. The project was about female experiences of silencing, oppression and body hatred that stop us from experiencing our sexuality and bodies freely. It’s not a law, but as it states in one of the panels across a self-portrait, “The laws are everywhere.”

There are lots of other peoples’ words too. From the archives, and from now, in handwriting, and type written text, and photocopied community newspapers. People told me their stories; ones they’d kept tightly held for a long time. Ones that just came out when they sat down with me in a gold head wrap and coloured pastels to draw what they said. Wishes that they wrote and put in a box for our queer and trans* future. I put it all on the street. With everyone’s permission. I kept asking and asking, and people kept saying yes. I’m so grateful.

The work is 16 panels of art and writing. It is layered, in meaning, in paper, in media. there are drawings, sculptures, text; layers and layers. Whakapapa. To me, this is how history looks; how family looks; how stories look. All true at once, alive, shifting, energetic and asking us to be more, to keep trying, to find a way.

Thank-you so much to everyone who helped me. So many people. Thank-you; I am your humble vessel.

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