(Un)Defining Queer is a new exhibition in Manchester which delves into The Whitworth’s collection to examine how a queer lens can be used to define what the term ‘queer’ means. Exhibition producer Dominic Bilton talks to Northern Soul.


Northern Soul: How did this exhibition come about?

Dominic Bilton: The (Un)Defining Queer exhibition developed out of a project called Queering the Whitworth, which primarily involved developing queer tours of the gallery’s collection, and by using our social media platforms to highlight key LGBTQIA+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex and asexual) celebrations and memorial days. Through a collaborative approach between staff across The Whitworth, we decided to see how this work could be turned into an exhibition. This emerged from the gallery’s ongoing research programme which looks at ways that it can work in close collaboration to better represent many voices and views within its collection. I was then paired with curator (historic fine art), Imogen Holmes-Roe, who had already developed an inter-departmental, participatory and award-winning exhibition, Still Parents.

Ajamu X, Bud Kim, 2018, Giclée print, Collection of the artist, Ajamu X

Ajamu X, Bud Kim, 2018, Giclée print, collection of the artist, Ajamu X.

NS: What can visitors expect?

DB: The (Un)Defining Queer exhibition has emerged over the last two years as a participatory exploration of the gallery’s collection, where we have been working with an intersectional group of people who self-identify as LGBTQIA+ to help The Whitworth develop a glossary of queer terms. As part of the exhibition, visitors can explore and enjoy artworks chosen by the group accompanied by extended text written by them. As well as the participants’ choices of artwork, there is an extensive survey of works that has been re-narrated through the project’s research. (Un)Defining Queer presents collection works alongside loans and new commissions from artists including Ajamu X, Niki de Saint Phalle, General Idea, David Hockney, Maggi Hambling, Pearl Alcock, Keith Vaughan, Matthew Bamber, Sarah-Joy Ford, Wolfgang Tillmans, Chester Tenneson and Jez Dolan. These artists, and many others, are helping us to challenge the heteronormative gaze and to redress historic omissions centred around key themes within the exhibition that include Queer Gaze, Gender Acts, Chosen Family, Mythology and Activism.

NS: Why is it important to have an exhibition like this?

DB: (Un)Defining Queer is an important exhibition because it offers the gallery the opportunity to continue building on the work that has already begun through the wider Queering the Whitworth programme. The show highlights how the representation of LGBTQIA+ people within history, culture and art is so important. By working alongside our project participants, we have discovered artworks that either haven’t been shown at The Whitworth or interpreted through a queer lens before. We also have the opportunity through this exhibition and its wider engagement programme to amplify the LGBTQIA+ communities voices and to support often-marginalised groups by giving them the opportunity to narrate how they want to be represented within The Whitworth’s collection.

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley,A Platonic Lament from A Portfolio of Aubrey Beardsley's drawings illustrating "Salome" by Oscar Wilde, John Lane, London, 1907, Line block print

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley,
A Platonic Lament
from A Portfolio of Aubrey Beardsley’s
drawings illustrating Salome by Oscar Wilde, John Lane, London, 1907.

NS: Do you think it’s true that museums and galleries don’t usually engage with LGBTQIA+ communities?

DB: Traditionally, it could be said that museums and galleries have not always actively engaged with the LGBTQIA+ communities. This could have stemmed from a lack of expertise on queer art history, a lack of capacity that restricts research of art collections outside of a curator’s expertise or a lack of confidence around engaging with the queer community themselves. That said, more art galleries and museums are doing great queer engagement. In the North of England alone, The People’s History Museum, the Walker Art Gallery, the Museum of Liverpool, Bolton Museum, Rochdale Touchstones, Manchester Art Gallery, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and Ferens Art Gallery in Hull are just a few examples of this.     

NS: What kind of responses to the exhibition are you expecting?

DB: Our hope is that our LGBTQIA+ visitors to the exhibition will feel seen and represented and for all of our visitors to feel inspired about queer art and art history. Our aim has been to create a space where everyone is welcome and will take away different things from the exhibition each time they come. We do understand that the inclusion of the word ‘queer’ within the exhibition’s title may be problematic, but we are using the word within its broadest sense to be as inclusive to all gender and sexual minorities, as well as it being a form of reclamation. As part of the exhibition, visitors are invited to contribute to the development of our ‘Queer Glossary’, which we are developing to explore how to define LGBTQIA+ representation and give greater visibility within the gallery.


Main image: Paul Cézanne, Les Baigneurs (Grande Planche).

(Un)Defining Queer is at The Whitworth until December 3 2023. For more information, click here.