Currently showing in London’s Space Station Sixty-Five, the We/Us exhibition is a stunning intergenerational celebration of female masculinity. With photographs from Roman Manfredi and co-curated by Ingrid Pollard, it will go down in history as the UK’s first visual art project showcasing butches and studs from working-class backgrounds within the British landscape.
Complete with 41 framed portraits and an audio installation using recordings from participant interviews, We/Us has been nothing short of a triumph, with its impact felt far and wide. The first major photography exhibition from the artist, Manfredi created it with the goal of providing much-needed positive visibility for the dyke community.
“People from working-class backgrounds, including studs, are the least represented or the least recognised as they’re the least marketable,” Roman told GCN, noting that whatever portrayals do exist are oftentimes sexualised or influenced by negative stereotypes and unconscious bias.
“We are either photographed in our boxers, or we’re at a club, or we’re standing in front of graffiti…It’s also how we represent ourselves on social media. In the selfies, we’re looking a certain way, we’re posing a certain way.
“I wanted to strip it all back and just have us in our environment where we work, where we live, where we grew up. I wanted to place us in the British landscape, and the architecture in the photographs is really important because it is a signifier of place, and it’s also a signifier that the people don’t look othered in that environment.”
In the images, with the models’ gazes directed down the lens of the camera, Manfredi manages to capture in equal measure both the power of individuality and the vulnerability of being seen for the first time. With a self-portrait in the exhibition, the photographer described the challenge of achieving this balance as a participant.
“The photograph is me on the estate that I grew up on, and [growing up there] did require a really tough f*ck off look, and really tough exterior…I’ve acquired this armour…So I had to be quite conscious of trying to be soft in the photo.”
Roman added that being an older subject in the project was also difficult at times.
“We spent a lot of our past avoiding looking at ourselves in the mirror, and so that challenge of actually seeing ourselves, and seeing ourselves now, just even on a vanity level, as ageing butches, it was difficult for many of the older butches.”
This project was, in fact, influenced heavily by the process of ageing, with Manfredi feeling “a responsibility to provide some kind of historical context for the younger generation”.
“I feel that there were some younger generation people who were kind of rewriting butch-femme history and not really acknowledging us and our contribution and our past. We were already invisible in mainstream culture…but then this started to happen with queer culture as well.”
On a personal level, the artist also felt “less and less in touch with what was going on for young people,” adding: “I think there’s a tendency for us older people to just kind of slip back, slip away.”
Roman had a burning desire to find new ways to connect with the community, and We/Us was the answer, a hugely successful one at that.
“I’m actually bowled over by the breadth of people that it has impacted,” the photographer said. “People have been impacted by the work, they’ve been uplifted by the work, no matter whether they’re butches or not, no matter the age and no matter the identity, the gender, the background – everybody has responded to it as photography and as art.”
Manfredi continued: “I feel that this is my life’s work. I feel like I’ve reached what I should be doing, very late in life really…I’m just honoured to have this opportunity to hold the space I’m holding right now.”
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Having opened on March 9, 2023, We/Us in Space Station Sixty-Five closes on Saturday, June 3. However, the lifecycle of the exhibition is far from over, with the artist hinting at a tour and a book, and even at expanding the project across the pond to Ireland. To be kept up to date with Roman Manfredi’s work, follow @butchfemmelove on Instagram.
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