Kwena - oil on canvas

Love Over Fear: Kate Arthur Paints Tributes To Queer Bodies

Kate Arthur’s paintings are an act of love for an underrepresented community, and the love is being reciprocated. She recently won both first and second prize at the 2017 Sanlam Portrait Award for her works ‘Genna & Felix’ and ‘Kwena’. In her work we’re confronted with fellow human beings who stand in their underwear quietly challenging the viewer to accept them as they come. Details like scars, hair and tattoos act as markers of who they are. These paintings belong to a collection Kate calls Body Portraits: oil paintings or water colours of people who identify as queer. So often sites for shame, ridicule or even violence, queer bodies (and the people they belong to) are honoured and celebrated in Kate’s brushwork. Each painting begins with a conversation between subject and artist on what it means to identify as queer. They’re completed with the hope that further conversations will be started.

As much as this work relies on careful observations of others, Kate’s artistic growth has been a personal journey too, involving the acknowledgment of herself as a queer-identifying person. Self acceptance can be radical. Overcoming past shame and fears has lead Kate to the purpose behind her art: to aid queer visibility with the tools and talents she possesses. In doing so she prompts us to think about the artist’s role as activist.


What does the role of art and artist mean to you?  

I think the role of art is, essentially, to illuminate.  Whether the work is observational or imaginative, realistic or abstract, whimsical or serious, personal or political, what an artist is doing is bringing something into focus. What I’m really talking about is light – from its most literal to its most metaphorical sense.

How does portraiture allow you to fulfil this? 

Portraiture involves a process of looking that allows me to focus on the physical details of a person’s face and body and to consider how those details might bring to light aspects of who they are.  I am interested in the questions and conversations that portraiture can open up about the narratives of both individual and collective identity. 

What are you hoping to capture in each portrait you paint? 

The subjects of my body portraits all identify as queer – an identity which encompasses elements of sexuality and gender, but also holds a politics, and this is important.  I know gay men who are sexist, lesbians who are transphobic, trans people who are racist, people of colour who are ableist, etc.  I find that people who claim “queer” as their identity are more likely to be aware of intersectional overlaps.  In painting them I hope to capture their queerness and their uniqueness, their vulnerability and their strength.

What are the conversations like between you and your subjects before each painting? 

The conversations between me and my subjects are really wonderful and rich, and I consider them to be an integral part of making their portraits.  Before and during shoots we discuss what “queer” means to us, and my models often share personal experiences, discoveries and feelings about their bodies.  We talk about the importance of queer visibility, as well as the risks of putting one’s image out into a world that’s not always accepting.  I make it clear to my models that at any stage of the process they are allowed to withdraw from the project.

What goes into the decision to become an artist and what was your journey like to this point? 

I’ve been making art my whole life, so doing art at school and going on to study it at university made sense to me, but actually committing to being an artist was (and still is) daunting.  It’s not the kind of career where you’re employed and guaranteed a salary; that end-of-month scramble is real.  It has meant doing a number of other things at the same time to supplement my income – taking on commissions, illustrating, painting murals, teaching, working in galleries and studios, assisting other artists – which have all been very beneficial to my own practice, but it does get exhausting.  It feels very rewarding, however, when your productivity and recognition start to gain momentum, and you finally get a sense of some forward-movement, and you know the hard work is paying off, even if it’s gradual.

You’d said that your work hasn’t always been personal. How has your work progressed over the years and what has influenced this growth? 

For a long time I struggled to truly look at myself and never wanted to reveal anything about who I was through my work (except perhaps using obscure metaphors), particularly not about my sexuality or gender, which for so long were a source of embarrassment and pain.  I believed people could appreciate and respect my art even if they couldn’t appreciate and respect me.  I thought I could be an artist despite being queer, that my identity as an artist would override my identity as a queer person, but now I see how valuable and important and necessary it is to claim both, together.  Only in the last three years have I consciously embraced my own identity and addressed LGBTQ politics in my work.  I suppose the growth in my work coincided with the growth in my life, in my self.

In observing others are there things you’ve learnt about yourself? 

Absolutely. The people I paint are some of the most courageous, beautiful and resilient humans I know.  They are a constant source of wonder to me and observing them through painting is an experience full of lessons and revelations.

What reactions do you hope your work will inspire?

I hope my work presents a challenge; that it gets people to question what they think they might know about bodies and the people to whom they belong, and that it presents an opportunity for conversations.  If my work makes people uncomfortable, I hope that they ask themselves why instead of just getting angry about it.  The most important thing for me, though, is the visibility of queer people.  I want my work to say: “Irrespective of your reactions to us and our bodies, we are here.”


More at and follow @katearthurartist on Instagram.

Interview by Alix-Rose Cowie.

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