Butch Hagiography

ELISHA LIM & THEIR ILLUSTRATED GENTLEMEN
Elisa Lim
Feminist Art Gallery

Elisa Lim & their Illustrated Gentlemen

Tucked away behind the home of Toronto-based artists Allyson Mitchell and Deirdre Logue is the brand new Feminist Art Gallery (FAG). Not quite able to believe that such a magical place could actually exist, I went on a fact-finding mission this spring. Entering through the sunny garden, I found myself in a combination art studio/queer refuge, complete with a chipper volunteer sipping tea in front of plastic bins full of practical items such as macramé, vintage Playboys, ribbons, plastic doll heads, and sets of fangs.

The gallery’s inaugural show was Elisha Lim & the Illustrated Gentlemen, the centerpiece of which was one whole wall, floor to ceiling, covered with panels from Elisha Lim’s series of narrative comics 100 Butches, soon to be published in book form. Some pages were colorful and complete; some were mere sketches on delicate tracing paper; all included handwritten blocks of text to accent Lim’s signature shaky line drawings. On a facing wall, the butches exploded off the page into a mural, gazing down on gallery visitors.

Taken together, the show was a love letter to the butch—to masculine women, transmen, gender queers, drag kings, and everyone in between. Each frame told the story of a different butch, with a carefully recorded first-person narrative accompanied by a portrait. The illustrated gentlemen were an international bunch, telling stories of queer lives lived in places ranging from Berlin to London, Singapore, Israel, Palestine, Malaysia, New York, and Toronto. The stories were as varied as the locales, bringing together charming tales of first crushes and coming out with painful accounts of homophobia, racism and violence.

In my favorite page, an older woman describes the early lesbian scene in Toronto, where the only women’s space was Saturdays at the Cameo Club, a bar plagued by fistfights and police raids. Having moved to Toronto in 2006 to find a city so full of queer life that in five years I still haven’t been to every gay bar, I find it hard to imagine a time when it was necessary to crawl out the back window of one to avoid being arrested.

Collecting these stories is Lim’s greatest strength as an artist. In works like The Illustrated Gentlemen and polyamo rage, their ability to coax personal histories from their subjects results in a real sense of intimacy between the artist, the subject, and the viewer. polyamo rage, a small zine, collects stories from people who have experimented with polyamory. On one page, a photograph of Lim looking equal parts introspective and sad is paired with the text “I have to respect the rules if I don’t want to lose you. I’m going to try to make my partner happy.” Other pages detail the guilt, jealousy and rage that can often accompany polyamorous relationships. The back cover reaches out to the viewer asking, “What do you want? Do you think you can get it from poly?”

Signed “Elisha Lim and many,” polyamo rage, like 100 Butches, is a collective work, giving voice to often invisible ways of being. In North America, where the dominant queer voice is predominantly white, conservative, monogamous, and male, the diversity encompassed by Lim’s “many” is stunning.

100 Butches will be released as a book by Magnus Books in December 2011.

Originally published in Shameless Magazine, 2011.

Butch Hagiography [pdf]