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Artist Ela Xora speaking out with exhibition Signs of Intersex People

The University of Cambridge recently hosted the finale to a fascinating series of exhibitions held there this year by artist Ela Xora called “Signs of Intersex People”. Xora’s muses for this final exhibition included none other than Stephen Fry, best selling “She’s a boy” author Joe Holliday from IntersexUK and ex Cambridge intersex graduate Dr Jay Hayes Light director of UKIA. Both Joe and Jay gave talks to the audience about their historic involvement in campaigning for equal human rights in the UK for intersex people, also giving the audience emotional details about their own intersex life experiences. Both gave harrowing accounts of being genitally mutilated, bullied horrifically and forced to live in secret about being born intersex, with most other intersex children in the UK being routinely masked in secrecy and shame Xora revealed, in this trail blazing academic treasure of an exhibition.

An exquisite collection of Xora’s Greco Roman 999 hallmarked silver masks, called “shocking” by the BBC, were premiered at the Museum of classical archaeology in Cambridge the year before and were on show on stage, behind a photographic backdrop of famous intersex athletes including Caster Semenya, provided by Dr Jay Hayes Light, who was a successful national level fencing athlete himself and was also banned from competing in sport in the UK because of being intersex. Indeed the intensity of Caster Semenya’s gold medal win and the media spectacle around the Olympics in Rio this year prompted Cambridge’s medical student union Medsoc, to initiate and host an intersex event together with the CUSU LGBT+ committee at St Catharine’s College in the McGrath Auditorium on 29th October, 2016.

Xora, known for always wearing a trademark silver mask, premiered a video art piece to open the exhibition, created with Stephen Fry and Anna Mac and a new video by Intersex UK also starring Stephen, to mark the exhibition being held on Intersex Awareness Day. Both videos were slickly put together odes to intersex people’s invisibility in Western culture and their ongoing institutionalised abuse, which was captivatingly weaved together here in this exhibition by Xora, spotlighting never heard before commentary from Stephen Fry, delivering historical knowledge and quotes championing visibility of equal intersex human rights, for the first time on camera. Stephen Fry also publicly applauded this “Signs of Intersex People” exhibition and Xora’s next Museum exhibition at the University of Oxford on social media recently, tweeting “Great Oxbridge projects launched here @ElaXora”.

“Signs of Intersex People” is transferring to the Limewharf Gallery in Vyner Street, East London from Cambridge in 2017. But first the collection of hallmarked 999 silver masks from this exhibition will be shown at the University of Oxford during a pioneering exhibition event called “Out in Oxford” helmed by Beth Asbury and Professor Richard Parkinson taking place in February 2017, incorporating a tour around some of Oxford’s most prestigious museums, including the Ashmolean Museum. Xora has been asked to pen a piece, which is being published by Oxford as part of the prestigious academic event. Stephen Fry has authored an opening for the forthcoming Oxford Museums exhibition, World Arts can exclusively reveal, surely laying the foundations for one of the must see exhibitions in the world of academia and art in 2017.

“Signs of Intersex People” concludes a year long series of exhibitions by visual artist Xora, incorporating mask art, sign art featuring a collaboration with Gilbert and George, aural art narrated by film actresses and Game of Thrones stars Lena Headey and Natalia Tena, paintings and an intersex sculpture from acclaimed sculptress Frances Segelman, who recently sculpted Joanna Lumley at the Tower of London during her retrospective.

This Cambridge exhibition unfolded into a boundary pushing journey towards intersex visibility in history and the modern era, with Xora’s silver masks shining light in particular on the well documented existence of human intersex figures in ancient art and the existence of intersex human beings documented in medical records since the beginning of recorded history, chronologically all the way through to the present day. Xora’s luminous exhibition here heralds not a neo intersex phenomena, but in fact an intersex awakening, now stirring in our culture, in part woken by the likes of Semenya and Xora. Yet like the Borghese Hermaphroditus, another of Xora’s major muses for this exhibition, the institutionalised hibernation of intersex in art and law, still unfortunately forces dormancy of the subject in the mass public consciousness, the artist says. Xora’s art here truly exposes the astonishing connectivity of intersex erasure through institutionalised masking, from ancient intersex art and history in Museums, to modern intersex biology and bodies on the operating tables of hospitals around the UK.

Xora is right. Apart from seeing an infrequent Sleeping Hermaphroditus sculpture in UK museums like the one shown at the world’s first University museum, the Ashmolean Musem in Oxford, intersex figures such as Hermaphroditus, Aphroditus, Agdistis and Phanes plus other transgender figures in Greco Roman mythology are abundant but rarely feature in collections of art offered by Museums in the UK despite their curious place in our early Western European culture, as documented in ancient art. The most noteworthy part of Xora’s exhibition here though, is the artists ability to lift the lid on the curation of history by certain academic institutions like Cambridge, exposing not a new intersex gender craze as many in the press profess, but a fast emerging intersex renaissance in our culture, alongside a potentially historic political movement towards recognising the existence of biologically intersex people and giving them equal legal rights in the UK, with Intersex UK and UKIA being particularly visible and platformed in this show.

Like the sculptural reenactment of the Sleeping Hermaphroditus by Frances Segelman and Xora several years ago in the pairs eye opening exhibition “The Captured Hermaphroditus” featured by WorldArts, the existence of intersex biology in our society is stirring, the invisible intersex body which does exist in our species, which is born as commonly as those with red hair or green eyes but that is hidden by black and white gender categories in law, is coruscated here by Xora’s striking silver masks. Caster Semenya’s Olympic saga this year, has certainly given intersex the greatest worldwide focus in history so far, and this exhibition by Xora is perfectly timed, placed and put on.

Xora began her Cambridge series last year at the Museum of classical archaeology with an exhibition called “Unmasking ancient deities and intersex identities”, which saw this ground breaking collection of 999 hallmarked pure silver masks depicting intersex Greco Roman deities being premiered at the prestigious Museum. The exhibition broke new ground in the art world because it marked the first time that art referencing intersex figures from early Western European mythology like Hermaphroditus, have been allowed to be shown at the museum since ancient “intersex art”, including a Sleeping Hermaphroditus sculpture, have been banned from being exhibited there since 1850 as intersex bodies “were not fit for public viewing” the Museums curator Dr Susanne Turner has revealed sheepishly. Greco Roman intersex sculptures are still unfortunately missing from the Museum of classical archaeology’s collection in Cambridge who cite no budget, no space and the attendance of religious children as factors for not being able to show the public or its students these increasingly controversial intersex art works that appear in history. But ultimately all eyes are on the University of Oxford and its forthcoming “Out in Oxford” museum tour in February 2017 championed by Stephen Fry which celebrates ancient intersex art already on show in Oxford museums, rather embarrassingly for Cambridge.

Posted in: News on December 29, 2016 by...