WHY is an arts project exploring the fate of gay men who were victims of the Nazi regime in Europe since 1930 and beyond 1945.
The work both memorialises these victims and also those who survived the Second World War. One of the paintings, ‘Some Liberation’ also expresses the fact that for many gay men who were liberated this was not the end of their suffering as they were often re-imprisoned in their native country. This was because homosexuality still remained illegal for more then two decades in various European countries, especially in Germany.
At the same time the works celebrate the sexual orientation of those characters pictured with expression and body images from earlier years which have never died. Inspiration for these works comes from the tiny amount of Gay Holocaust Memoirs that exist and from essays, books, studies and documentaries about this oft forgotten and/or hidden subject.
In Primo Levi’s 'If This is a Man', the narrator is accosted by a guard in a concentration camp whilst he is trying to break off an icicle, which is hanging from a gutter, just to get some clean drinkable water. The guard snatches the icicle and the narrator asks “Warum?” or “Why?”, to which the guard responds, “Es gibt kein 'Warum' hier..” or “There is no why here”. Note the lack of the question mark in the response of the guard: why is there no punctuation here? Because none is called for. For the guard and the inmate, this situation obviously just is. Both are bound by the complex systems which governed these camps. This is true even for us all now more than seven decades after the events. 'Why?' is simply not the answer, especially when one is routinely confronted by a hierarchy of oppression, a warped presentation of the facts by the ruling powers and indiscriminate homophobic violence.
In my work I seek always to avoid the question ‘why?’ My pragmatic and fatalist personality seeks to simply present alternative perspectives and possibilities, not to ask 'why?', because 'why?' for me, is not the issue and the ‘how’ is already manifestly obvious. The work also has a socio-political viewpoint but also gets to the heart of the human stories played out during major conflicts or world events.
The paintings for me work on so many levels: at once as a testament to the horrific lives of gay men during the Holocaust and a reminder of how wonderful their lives had been during the Weimar Republic for the decade and half before Hitler came to power in 1933; the hypocrisy of those men and women in charge of prisoners in the camps with their extreme sadism and uncaring nature and the social construct that is morality and political power which made the Holocaust possible. These are but a few of the ways in which these works operate.
I also believe that brutality is crucial in these works. People need I think to be confronted by the true horror of what occurred. This I feel encourages an emotional response and the possibility of debate and questioning.
WHY 1. 'THE HOOK' 19.5" x 58.5" Acrylic on canvas. 'WHY 1 - ‘The Hook’, This is the first of the series and exposes an individual gay prisoner, gaunt, with blue grey skin tone. In the background is the same man. (Source is an old photograph from the 1930s during The Weimar Republic dancing in a night club with another man).
WHY 2. 'I AM READY LORD'. 21" x 25.5" Acrylic on canvas. WHY 2 - ‘Lord I Am Ready’ is a depiction of a gay priest who was brought in to a camp and over the course of 24 hours, he was badly beaten, had his tonsure heavily ripped from his head, was verbally abused and sodomised with a blunt instrument. At roll - call the next day, and barely alive, as an SS Guard is about to beat him once again, a ray of sunlight bursts through the clouds and illuminates only his face and he whispers “Lord I Am Ready” and dies. Ironically this man had been an army chaplain for the German troops at the front in World War One. (Source is a memoir entitled ‘The Men with the Pink Triangle’, Heinz Heger, 1980)
WHY 3. 'CAMP HIERARCHY REJECTION'. 19.5" x 59" Acrylic on canvas. WHY 3 - ‘Camp Hierarchy Rejection’ There are no memories here; the central character has in fact always suffered verbal and physical abuse and family rejection. The other characters in the image, for other serious crimes, perceive themselves as real men and therefore take the moral high ground in the camps, subjecting gay inmates to verbal, physical, emotional and, somewhat cynically, sexual abuse. These abuses are also perpetrated by the SS and Camp guards against gay men, making life for them extremely difficult and life threatening. (Sources are various books, essays, studies and documentaries)
WHY 6. 'DIMINUTION AT THE CLAY PITS'. 15.75" x 47". Acrylic on canvas. WHY 6 - ‘Diminution at the Clay Pits’, is a comment on the death sub-camp at Neuengamme. Prisoners were forced to work grueling and long hours at the camp’s clay pits, bringing prisoners to a new low. With this work death did not take long to ensue. In stark contrast this man had been a drag queen in more liberal times. (Source is Neuengamme memorial and other concentration and work camp studies)
WHY 7. 'THE TORTURE OF SOUND'. 29.5" x 45.5". Acrylic on canvas. WHY 7 - ‘The Torture of Sound’. This was a common method of torture in the camps, whereby a bucket was placed on the prisoner’s head and guards would beat the man’s head, raising agonising sounds for him, making him totally lose his orientation and awareness. At some point the bucket would be removed and the man would be either set upon by dogs or pushed towards the electric fence. This man had been an exotic dancer in a gay club in Weimar Germany. (Source is a memoir entitled ‘The Men with the Pink Triangle’, Heinz Heger, 1980)
WHY 8. 'SCALDING AND FREEZING'. 29.5" x 45.5". Acrylic on canvas. WHY 8 - ‘Scalding and Freezing’ refers back to WHY 4 and focusses on a torture inflicted upon the man who is shortly raped with a broom handle. This torture brutally in turn scalds and freezes the man’s testicles causing agony to this most sensitive part of a man’s body. Once again it seems there is an air of sexual fetishism in these guards’ actions. (Source is a memoir entitled ‘The Men with the Pink Triangle’, Heinz Heger, 1980)
WHY 9 - ‘EXECUTING (ART)’ 31.5" x 23.5", acrylic on canvas. WHY 9 - 'Executing (Art) has a narrative that explains the victim’s former life as a decadent artist’s model, at such time when these things were permissible and celebrated, juxtaposed with his imminent execution after a severe beating. (Source ‘The Golden Twenties: Art and Literature in The Weimar Republic’, Jurgen Schebera and Barbel Schrader, 1990)
WHY 10 - 'THE TRUTH WILL OUT', 23.5" X 31.5", Acrylic on canvas. WHY 10 - ‘THE TRUTH WILL OUT’ is a comment on the sexual sadism often expressed by the Nazis in their treatment of gay inmates in the camps. The whipping is clearly brutal and savage, and it is possible to see that the Nazi officer is masturbating during this process. (Source is a memoir entitled ‘The Men with the Pink Triangle’, Heinz Heger, 1980)