Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival 2023: Showcasing Transdisciplinary Art Past, Present, and Future

This year’s Queer Arts Festival runs from June 17 to 28, taking place at multiple venues across the city. The festival celebrates the innovative and diverse work of 2SLGBTQIA+ artists across a wide variety of disciplines, including visual arts, literature, burlesque, and song.

The Queer Arts Festival (QAF) has its roots in an earlier grassroots visual arts event called the Pride in Art Community Show, which began in 1988. “A group of queer artists got together and realized that there wasn’t a lot of visibility for artists who wanted to create queer art so they put together a community show at the Roundhouse Community Centre,” says Mark Takeshi McGregor, QAF’s Artistic Director. This group of visual artists, which included Robbie Hong and Jeffery Gibson, then founded Pride in Art (PiA), which incorporated as a non-profit society in 2006.

The community show became incredibly successful, leading to the launch in 2008 of QAF, led by artists SD Holman and Rachel Kiyo Iwaasa. QAF expanded beyond visual arts to encompass transdisciplinary art, as well as transformed into a multi-day festival. “It has musical events, it has theatre, it has dance, it has drag. It has all sorts of different disciplines and how they intersect,” says McGregor.

The transdisciplinary nature of Vancouver’s QAF makes it special. In fact, McGregor says that it’s one of only a few transdisciplinary queer arts festivals around the world since most festivals concentrate on one discipline (e.g., theatre). And while the works celebrated in the festival are created by 2SLGBTQIA+ artists, McGregor emphasizes that QAF is distinct from a pride festival. “What we do is focused on artistic practices. It makes us very unique as far as a national profile goes,” McGregor says.

QAF brings together local and international artists who are producing ground-breaking work that sparks thought and conversation. The theme for QAF 2023 is “Queers in Space.” McGregor says he wanted a theme that was cheeky and campy but also one that would be creatively and critically productive. “Space” is associated with genres such as fantasy and science fiction, which queer artists gravitate toward because they allow for imagining different possibilities. As a result, “space” is oriented to the future, which McGregor says “is full of what can be.” “It’s a way you can realize yourself in an unfettered sort of way, and also, for a lot of queer people, it’s a sanctuary from a reality that doesn’t necessarily include them,” he says.

This year’s QAF invokes the future as well as supports young emerging artists, but also is very much about honouring its queer elders: “We are united by our queerness, and I think creating programming that looks both ways is not just important but really interesting as well.”

In coming up with this year’s programming, QAF prioritized the different ways in which queerness is artistically expressed since, historically, the art world has tended to focus on the work of gay cis White artists. In contrast, QAF 2023 is about recognizing their rich legacy while also making room for a more diverse, inclusive community of queer artists. “One of the sub-themes that came out of this festival was this idea of creating space: how do queer people and queer artists create space, make space, and share space?” McGregor says.

The festival’s centrepiece is a free visual arts exhibition at the Roundhouse entitled Bumfuzzled Monachopsis: Innerspace Out, which runs throughout QAF. The exhibition, curated by Zandi Dandizette, a non-binary interdisciplinary arts and cultural worker, examines “monachopsis,” the state of feeling out of place, through the work of visual artists such as Odera Igbokwe, Raven John, Judah Kong, and Pastiche Lumumba. Local artists are featured, in addition to ones from around the world, such as the United States, Turkey, and the Philippines. Dandizette centres transgender artists as a resistance against the anti-trans movement that is gaining ground. And while the exhibition asks important questions, it does so in a colourful and playful way. “What I love about Zandi’s curation is that there’s a real vibrancy to the artists and the art that they’ve selected,” McGregor says.

Photo: Zandi Dandizette

The festival line-up also includes a free Pride in Art Community Exhibition (June 19 to July 8 at the James Black Gallery); a free concert by Witch Prophet, also known as Toronto singer songwriter Etmet Musa/Ayo Leilani (June 25 at 5:30pm at the VAG North Plaza); and a ticketed show Hymnen an die Nacht (June 27 at 7pm at the Roundhouse Performance Centre), honouring Canadian composter Claude Vivier with performances by artists such as soprano Sarah Jo Kirsch and Standing Wave Ensemble.

McGregor is excited about a solo free exhibition New Yams Festival that presents the work of local illustrator and painter Odero Igbokwe (June 22 to July 28 at the SUM Gallery). Igbokwe’s practice combines queer Afrofuturism with ancestral traditions, such as the New Yam Festival of the Igbo people. McGregor sees Igbokwe as a rising star who intersects African diasporic and queer experiences into compelling visual form.

Photo: Odera Igbokwe

McGregor also draws attention to a ticketed performance Breathe in the Fragrance (June 23 at 7pm at Roundhouse Performance Centre) by Sujit Vaidya, a Vancouver-based dance artist trained in Bharatanatyam, a classical Indian dance form. “[Breathe in the Fragrance] combines traditional Indian dance with more modern choreography, all viewed through a homo erotic lens,” says McGregor.

QAF has partnered with Talking Stick Festival for a day of programming that puts Two-Spirit and Indiqueer artists in the spotlight. The first event will be Love After the End (June 18 at 3pm at Roundhouse Exhibition Hall), a literary celebration with Joshua Whitehead and friends. Whitehead, who is a Two-Spirit, Oji-nêhiyaw member of Peguis First Nation (Treaty 1) and a renowned writer and academic, edited an anthology entitled Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction. At this event, he will be joined by Nazbah Tom, Nathan Adler, and jaye simpson, who contributed to the volume.

Joshua Whitehead; Photo by sweetmoon photography, Tenille Campbell

And then in the evening (June 18 at 7pm at Roundhouse Performance Centre, ticketed), Virago Nation, a femme Indiqueer burlesque collective, will give a show exploring the many qualities and energies of Indigenous sexuality. “It’s going to be really fun and cheeky,” says McGregor.

QAF also presents Cosmic Connections: Queer Indigenous Astronomy (A View from Above and Below), which runs over the course of the festival at the Roundhouse Exhibition Hall. Preston Buffalo, a Two-Spirit, Cree AR artist, represents a Cree creation story as well as Indigiqueer futurism through images that visitors can view by scanning a QR code.

Preston Buffalo; Photo by Perrin Grauer, Emily Carr University

Overall, this year’s QAF promises to be exciting, diverse, and optimistic. McGregor explains that, especially given the rising hate against 2SLGBTQIA+ communities, a festival such as QAF, which holds space for a broad range of queer creative expression, is more crucial than ever. McGregor, who is cis male and half White, is continually humbled by what he learns about being an artist and being queer from his work with QAF.

McGregor says: “It’s made me realize how rich and complex that experience can be. And that’s what I want people to come away from. I would love people to be filled with wonder at how nuanced, complex, and rich the queer experience can be.” He invites everyone to attend this year’s exciting QAF—and hopes they find it just as rewarding and illuminating as he does.

The Queer Arts Festival runs June 17 to 28, taking place at the Roundhouse Community Centre, SUM Gallery, James Black Gallery, and VAG North Plaza. Further information about all the events (including the opening and closing receptions) and tickets can be found on the QAF website.

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