Back dirt is the dirt that is put to one side in the process of an archeological dig. It might be refiltered later for material fragments, or just returned to fill up the hole. Another reading could relate to the human body and the residues that it accumulates: gunge, gunk, dreg. The exhibition title draws on both these sets of associations, proposing a space for queerness that is in-process, multiple, and resists commodification. Works by Daniel John Corbett Sanders and Priscilla Rose Howe register joy, discomfort, appetite, anger. Collectively, they suggest that in the backdirt—that which is often put aside, repressed, or sanitised as a form of pink-washing—lies a depth of queer narrative.
A monumental pile of plasterboard shards with watercolour paintings on them, Sanders’ works document personal history, family anecdotes, dreams and memories, often recorded in downtime on late shifts. The narrative is fragmented and often the scenes are grisly. Human figures appear ghoulish, or ghouls appear human; across these works horror and the mundane are sometimes inseparable. Sanders’ process is cumulative, and this series is built up over an extended period of systemic drawing and painting sessions. It exists as an archive within which queer experiences of trauma, injustice, and disorientation have a place.
Howe’s large wall drawing emanates an atmosphere of greasy euphoria. In it life is good, and gross. Rather than stemming from a documentary impulse like Sanders’ work, this is gut-led imagination. The figures sit in a sauna, shared with creatures including live fish, dead oysters and prawns. Queer filmmaker John Waters’ influence is evident in the heavily-made up, elastic-seeming faces. There is also a nod to bathhouses in queer history, such as the Continental Baths in The Ansonia Hotel basement, Manhattan, operating at a time when it was still illegal to be gay in the US. In our context, in Aotearoa, the question arises of what is now seen as palatable in public expressions of queerness, what has been historically repressed, and what continues to be considered transgressive. Queer pleasure is always political.
These works by Sanders and Howe both lean in to personal experiences, perspectives, and aesthetics. At the same time, there is a broad underlying critique of the ways that contemporary queer identities may be co-opted by neoliberal interests: to sell products and as 'proof' of progressive thinking. That is, a narrow and often white-biassed definition of gay rights may be used to cover other types of discrimination.
In opposition to this, and other reductive forms of violence, Howe and Sanders’ imagery emphasises multiplicity, proliferation, and humour as means of expanding the space of a public queer imaginary. They resist the idea that identities are singular. Rather, the works in Backdirt inhabit a queer world that is abundant, untameable, and infinitely various.
Priscilla Rose Howe is an artist based in Ōtautahi. Predominantly using drawing materials, Howe explores ideas around queerness, phenomenology and the supernatural within domestic and public settings. Her works suggest a space that is at once magical and worldly, grotesque, and desire-filled. Recent exhibitions include Banquet, The Art Paper, 31 Lorne St, Tāmaki Makaurau, (2023); Green Lipped; Jhana Millers Gallery, Te Whanganui-a-Tara (2022); The Person (with Alex Laurie and Tom Tuke), Coastal Signs, Tāmaki Makaurau (2022); Cruel Optimism: New artists show, Artspace Aotearoa, Tāmaki Makaurau (2021); and In a pool of mud, the night was hot, Sanc Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau (2021).
Daniel John Corbett Sanders is a Pākehā artist and curator based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara. He is interested in critical geographies and social power structures, especially the relationship between LGBTQIA+ people and political economies. His work is fantastical, and often references film techniques by playing with storyboarding, vignettes, and narrative. Recent exhibitions include Becoming Animals, Play_Station, Te Whanganui-a-Tara (2022); Broken Sovereignty, Lightship, Tāmaki Makaurau (2022); Wild Once More, Te Tuhi, Tāmaki Makaurau (2022); and Urban Nothing, RM Gallery and Project Space, Tāmaki Makaurau (2021).