Icelandic-U.S show about identity and place comes to Metro Gallery

Queer is Where the Heart Is

Opens at Metro Gallery Friday, July 27, on view through Sept. 1

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Jaimes Mayhew went to Iceland on a Fulbright scholarship last year to study artistic responses to energy production—what better place than the world capital of geothermal and hydroelectric power? But as a transgender man, he quickly found himself taken with the way queer identity is affected by place and how that dynamic was reflected in the work of Icelandic and American artists.

“I started looking for transgender artists—and having a hard time finding them—and thinking about how different their experiences would be,” says Mayhew, who received his MFA from UMBC. “There are only 300,000 people in Iceland, and only so many of those are going to be artists, and only so many of those are going to be practicing queer artists.”

He discussed the idea with his longtime friend and collaborator, Baltimore artist Kristen Anchor, and they decided to launch a transcontinental art show called “Queer is Where the Heart Is,” with an exhibit in Reykjavík this past January and another at Metro Gallery, opening this Friday. Mayhew selected the Icelandic artists for the shows; Anchor picked the American artists; and local musician Andrea Shearer curated a CD to accompany the show. They all collaborated on an accompanying zine.

“Queer as an identity is so fluid that to see if queer means the same thing in two different places was interesting,” Anchor, a veteran curator of local music and arts shows, says. “This thing that we take super-seriously about our identity, how culturally relative is it?”

They found that, as they discussed these ideas of queer identity and place, it launched an intellectual conversation about how things like culture, political climate, and even topography affect the way queer identity is understood.

“One thing that I drew from the Icelandic artists, especially Hafsteinn Hafsteinsson and Hrafnkell Sigurdsson—their work all involves landscapes,” Mayhew says, noting the dramatic, glacier-filled scenes that seem to exist beyond every window in the island nation that sits just outside the Arctic Circle. “In Iceland, you can’t really escape the landscape.”

In general, he found that queer identity played a much less prominent role in the work of queer Icelandic artists than it did in the work of queer American artists. Part of this, Mayhew says, is because gay and transgender people in Iceland are not seen as outsiders as often as they are in the U.S. “It’s not considered cool to be homophobic here,” Mayhew was told by one of the Icelandic artists in the show. In fact, when Mayhew contacted Icelanders about participating in the project, some were taken aback.

“People would get back to me and say, ‘Oh, I’ve never really thought of it that way,’” he says. “It’s a much more socially liberal place. A lot of people there never thought about having a show of just queer artists before.” When the show was mounted in Reykjavík in January, it attracted a lot of positive attention, and was attended by the U.S. ambassador to Iceland, Luis Arreaga.

And while the show presents a broad range of perspectives—it features the work of four Icelandic artists and eight American artists—the theme subtly shifted the context of the works in different ways. In the Icelandic artists’ work, it was generally already easy to see themes of place, while putting the pieces in the context of a queer show pushed those subtler themes to the fore. Mayhew says this is particularly true of Sigurdsson, a prominent artist who represented Iceland at the Venice Biennale.

“We had a long conversation in his studio, trying to figure out what to put in the show, and he talked about how he’s never thought about his identity as a gay man in his work, but you can see it,” says Mayhew. “His work is about different versions of masculinity. I think being in this show brings a different context to a lot of this work.”

Of course, not all the Icelandic work is so high-minded: It includes videos made by Mrs. Malfridur Markan, aka Hakon Hildibrand, who travels around Iceland in drag, chatting up locals. Nonetheless, the American artists tended to be clearer in declaring their queer identity.

“For the American artists, to say that it’s about place was the shift,” says Anchor. “They were more up-front about identity, but the new context was seeing that through the lens of location and place, seeing a landscape where there wasn’t one.”

Opening wine and cheese reception , 7-9 p.m., free; show 9 p.m., featuring Mrs. Malfridur Markan, Humble Tripe, Glitterlust, and The Degenerettes, emceed by DAZZLESTORM, $8. Screening and artist talk July 28, 3 p.m., free.

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