What does queer mean in the creative industry?
Graphic designer Marwan Kaabour, photographer Isaac Flores and illustrator Floss Burns discuss identity, the ‘queer aesthetic’ and what it means to be a queer creative today.
The visuals for this article were made by three queer creatives responding to what ‘queer’ means to them.
Figuring out what it means to be a “queer creative” in today’s world can be challenging. Within an increasingly financialised economy, pressures of competition and an underlying drive to maintain profitability are restructuring capitalism. How does a queer artist recuperate their creativity and talent whilst fending off the pressures of a financialised industry working discreetly in-hand with wider societal discrimination? It’s a contradictory struggle for many, which has produced somewhat of an ouroboros-like effect on the discourse when it comes to utilising queer creativity in the industry.
Back in 2009, famed queer scholar and writer José Esteban Muñoz took to his book Cruising Utopia to declare that “queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing”. In this passage, Muñoz was touching on diverse sexual identities across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum as simply being more than ‘queer’ as a noun, and more so ‘queer’ as a verb. How can queer culture, art and ourselves escape an ideology which discriminates and domesticises us? Muñoz offered something of an answer, touching on how “we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic,” for the queer aesthetic “frequently contains blueprints” of what he calls a “forward-dawning” future. In other words, Muñoz believed that a queer aesthetic in art illuminated a way out of the profit-drive economy of the creative industry, and towards a utopian future of endless possibility.
Yet, locating a ‘queer aesthetic’ seems to be a hard-done task for those who don’t identify as LGBTQIA+ (and sometimes even for those who do). How can aesthetic worlds elaborate on the ‘forward-dawning’ future of queerness? On the surface, we can assume it’s relational to the queer identity itself, which is marginalised, suppressed and demeaned across mainstream society. Deep in the trenches of discrimination there often comes art as a means of strategic survival: a way out of the pain. Speaking to London-based graphic designer Marwan Kaabour, Barcelona-based photographer Isaac Flores and Manchester-based illustrator Floss Burns only confirms as much. As queer artists themselves, they infuse parts of their identity to generate authentically queer pieces. It seems, however, that a queer aesthetic is less-defined by pre-ordained visual conventions as it is by the process behind the creation of said aesthetic.
"I believe that the work I make it has inherent queerness, and can be read as queer even when it doesn’t directly depict such themes.”Floss Burns
“My life as a queer individual has shaped the way I view, experience and understand the world, and thus has shaped a very unique perspective towards life,” Marwan tells me in our conversation. “Being queer in the creative industry allows for that perspective to have space and to be heard.” The last time I spoke to Marwan, I covered their immensely impressive body of graphic design work that ranged from making political posters to book covers, to even setting up and promoting their own archival and cultural online space relating to queerness. “I feel like my queerness permeates all aspects of my personality, and that includes my taste, my sensibilities, my humour, my use of language and even the way I might approach certain issues or narratives,” they explain. “All of these elements make their way into my design language. It might not be visibly or explicitly ‘queer’, but the way the work came about is.” For Marwan, there isn’t such a thing as a distinct queer aesthetic to follow in graphic design (“I wouldn’t be in favour of one,” they say), but it’s possible for a piece to feel authentically queer. “Graphic designers deal with a wide range of subjects via our work, and we get to choose the visual signifiers to attach to each subject. The choices we make, whether it’s a typeface, colour palette, layout or imagery, is where I feel my queerness comes into play.” Floss agrees as such, referencing her array of illustrations that are instantly recognisable in their signature colourful portraiture. “My life experience is that of a queer person; it’s an integral part of who I am, and my work naturally reflects this perspective. Everything I create is done through a queer lens, and so I believe that the work I make has inherent queerness, and can be read as queer even when it doesn’t directly depict such themes,” she explains.
Still, Marwan is skeptical of attributing visual signifiers to queerness. “A ‘queer aesthetic’ implies homogeneity in the creative process, and I find homogeneity sits in stark contrast to queerness,” they tell me. Isaac reiterates the point about photography when discussing queer work as a queer photographer. He tells me that “it’s in our nature, it’s not an aesthetic question”. Both Marwan and Isaac seem to agree that their process is inherently more queer than their output. “What kind of typefaces are queer typographers producing? What sort of ‘queer code’ are developers coming up with? Who are the queer creatives I can collaborate with?” Marwan asks. “It is about using graphic design to explore queer issues, or even non-queer issues from a queer perspective.” Floss, on the other hand, finds that queer illustration gives way to more distinct aesthetic patterns in their work. “My works often have a theatrical nature, and aim to embrace overt displays of individuality, queer fantasy and self-expression – they’re camp,” she tells me. “I explore the power of imagery as a means to confront social and political issues with the intent to encourage engagement and progressive social change.”
“It is about using graphic design to explore queer issues, or even non-queer issues from a queer perspective.”Marwan Kaabour
Interestingly, whilst Isaac strays from attributing any queer aesthetic to his work, he affirms the notion that queerness gives him a clear aesthetic point of view. “Playing with aesthetics is the starting point for most people in our community,” he explains. “It helps you find your identity, then capitalism appropriates it, but it’s not our fault. It does it with everything.” The subject of the work can also lend itself to queer creatives. Whilst Marwan’s graphic design work leads him to an array of different clients, Isaac’s often photographing queer people (“I haven’t photographed someone straight in years,” he tells me), as seen in his new book Herencia or his beautiful work on drag queens in Spain. “Don't get me wrong, but to do what I do you have to be queer or a pervert. I can't think of two other options to invest so much effort, money and energy.” The same goes for Floss, who says “portraiture is also a significant element of [her] practice,” as it “empowers the LGBTQIA+ individuals they depict.”
Mostly, for all three, it seems the intersection of their queer identity and their creative talents runs much deeper to a personal core. “For me, being queer in the creative industry is liberating and is my method of self-exploration,” Floss admits. “It’s my means of finally validating myself and unpacking the biphobia I internalised. Illustration has become a tool which assists me in celebrating and claiming the massive part of myself that I spent many anxiety-riddled years refusing to acknowledge.” Isaac concurs, seeing his photography as a powerful connective tool. “I have always had a great sensitivity and a very large inner world,” he tells me. “I have never felt fully connected to reality, so maybe this has helped me develop my imagination, create other realities with queer artists and understand that there is a very diverse spectrum outside of the binary.” Marwan muses on the same topic, bringing it back to the importance of queer creatives being celebrated authentically. “Queer people have been at the heart of all creative industries since their inception, but have not been as visible as their het counterparts. Our queer identities are now taking centerstage, and with that comes power and responsibility,” they explain. “Queer people all over the world have an immense amount of stories to tell. They also still face an overwhelming amount of prejudices and challenges.” In Marwan’s work – as well as Floss and Isaac’s alike – they “can tell these stories, and bring attention to these plights”.
"Don't get me wrong, but to do what I do you have to be queer or a pervert."Isaac Flores
Whilst Marwan, Floss and Isaac ultimately see the queer creative as multi-faceted and multi-purposeful, there is still a dedicated belief to unearthing queerness in the realm of the aesthetic. As Muñoz said, it opens up space for possibility and future. “We get to have a say, and to shift narratives and to partake in decision-making that can benefit us all, queer and non-queer alike,” Marwan adds. We have to forgo the idea that a ‘queer aesthetic’ rests solely on visual cues, on certain themes, concepts and colours. Instead, we have to look at the aesthetic as a realm of utilising the most helpful aspects of queerness. “We progress culture,” says Marwan, “when we all thrive.”
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.