10 February 2021
10 February 2021 - Written by Lucia De Stefani
Through practice-led ethnography which uses photography and performance as the predominant methods of research and representation, Charmaine Poh examines the way in which queer Singaporean romantic partners express desire.
The future is in a world that is not so binary.
A world that we explore in Charmaine Poh’s work, How They Love — an intimate journey among the identities and sexual orientations that comprise the queer femme experience.
How They Love is not a question but an opening: “It’s like a door,” Poh explains, where viewers “observe all these gestures, these performances, these nuances, and then decide for themselves,” as sexuality becomes increasingly fluid and the notion of gender dissolves.
Over the span of two years, Poh photographed approximately 30 people, 15 queer femme couples, first in crowded places — clubs, private parties, streets — then in the privacy of her studio, where the added protection from prying gazes could invite both authenticity and performance.
Various marital props — costumes, flowers, veils — were offered to participants, symbols of traditional gender roles and the binary categories of bride and groom.
To reinforce that notion, wedding portraits of the participants’ parents were projected on the wall, a memento of the history that preceded the young couples, and a reminder of the pressures that arise from family — a group whose acceptance is often hard to win and whose condemnation is often hard to escape.
Here there is no assumption or judgment, but the photographs become a terrain of contradictions, as binary gender roles are upended by the expressiveness of queerness, a reclaiming of freedom that rebukes heteronormativity and social rules. Labels lose their descriptive function, as the couples perform the identities they embrace before the camera. It is through such immersion that Poh challenges his participants.
“I was curious about what their decision would be in terms of what kind of props they would pick up, or how they would represent themselves, or how they conformed or did not conform to a certain gender code [imposed] by society,” Poh says.
Because there is no blueprint for those who break from heteronormativity, queer people enact their own identity performances, Poh explains. These manifest in the aesthetic choices they make, their manner of carrying themselves, the social codes from which they draw, and the degree to which those codes conflict with each other. “Using your imagination, you sort of create your own ideal that doesn't fit into the binary. I think queer people engage in this performance every day, that's part of a queer life.”
Still, society hesitates to embrace these forms of expression. Section 377A of the Singaporean penal code — a law criminalising consensual intercourse between male adults — bans such acts.
“That law justifies many other ways that affect queer people’s lives,” Poh says. “It justifies the limits around queer representation in the media, so that a positive depiction of queer people is actually discouraged because it's seen not as an authentic lifestyle. It makes queer people constantly live unaccepted lives.”
Essential rights are disregarded, basic needs beyond reach: same-sex partners are marginalised in applications for public housing, or in hospital visits, as a result of not being legally recognised as partners — a homeland scattered with ordeals. But small signs of progress leave Poh hopeful as the conversation around queerness evolves.
“The future is in a world that doesn't impose straight social codes on people because of their gender and their sexuality,” Poh says. “We don’t get to succeed or fail based on how well we fit into a particular gender code. There's not success or failure as a man or a woman; everything is open and if that's the future, then that is the way to go.”
Charmaine Poh works across photography, film, and performance to create spaces for narratives that often lie in the margins. Central to her practice is considering the performativity of the everyday, and the ways tenderness can be a form of resistance and rebuilding of worlds. Her practice often employs ethnographic methods in working with communities to establish processes of co-authorship and sharing.
This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.
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