Queer Nature at Kew Gardens: Like the Ecosystems, We Will Always Be Here

By Jude Jones

Queer people, it seems, have always had a certain affinity with nature.

As early as 600BC, the lesbian lyricist Sappho was dreaming of her Aphrodite draped in “many crowns of violets, roses and crocuses […] many scented wreaths made from blossoms around your soft throat.” In the Victorian period was Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which yearned for intimate touch with “comrades” on “paths untrodden” and among “body-leaves”, or Oscar Wilde’s famous language of green carnations and pansies. Then in the twentieth century rank the likes of Derek Jarman, who famously retreated to rural Kent to cultivate a garden before his untimely death from AIDS in the 1990s, queer landscape photographer Ingrid Pollard, or the surrealist icon Claude Cahun.

American artist Jeffrey Gibson’s installation ‘House of Spirits’ in Kew Gardens’s Temperate House, for the ‘Queer Nature’ exhibition.

Go to Kew Gardens’s ‘Queer Nature’ festival and you will find these names incanted on plaques and posters nestled among the very plants that each figure cherished, with which they so closely identified. Because, as installation contributor Jeffrey Gibson reminds us, “there’s comfort for queer people in nature because it does embrace us. It allows us to project everything from beauty to sexuality,” he continues, “even feelings of rejection and depression and death.” Gibson’s commission is the largest contribution to this thoughtfully curated botanical exhibition, which seeks to excavate the inherent queerness of the plant world both by invoking human relationships with nature, but also nature’s relationships with other natural forms. Plants such as the formidable Ruizia Mauritania – a tree that bears heart-shaped leaves once thought to be extinct – are, for example, “bisexual”, containing both male and female reproductive structures and therefore testifying to the fact that the natural, like the human world, does not exist within neat gender or sex categories. “My perception is that, in nature, things feel much more free,” Gibson further comments, “[plants] don’t seem to be constructed in the ways that we are in society.”

House of Spirits’ by Jeffrey Gibson, for ‘Queer Nature’ at Kew Gardens.

Gibson’s installation, ‘House of Spirits’, floats freely in the stratospheres of Kew Gardens’s Temperate House and works with these themes of freedom and nature. It consists of a series of 19-metre-tall translucent fabric banners inspired by Gibson’s Choctaw-Cherokee heritage, each overlayed with botanical patterning and fragmentary text which speaks to the revitalising potential of the world around us, of being with, rather than against, nature.

Follow the paths onwards and you will encounter an original spoken-word piece by LiLi K. Bright and Ama Josephine Budge Johnstone, entitled Reverberations. The two, as their voices resonate softly through the glasshouse’s intimate micro-reality, discuss what queer nature means to them as queer scholars, queer artists, queer activists, and queer people. During this time of gentle reflection, we are invited to reflect on the ecosystem surrounding us a little more, to ponder the plaques explicating precisely what makes the plant world itself so queer and how this may open new modes of being to us as well.

Adam Nathaniel Furman’s “church to queerness” at ‘Queer Nature’, Kew Gardens.

Then another encounter: a “church to queerness” built of eight softly flowing silk hangings. This is Adam Nathaniel Furman’s Queer Voices, providing the backdrop for a succession of short films that speak further to queer experiences of nature, assembling in an aural kaleidoscope words by drag performers, botanists, writers, and members of the Kew Gardens team. The iconography on the silk hangings – the church’s metaphorical stained glass – show the “saints” of queer ecology: Sappho’s violet, Wilde’s carnations and pansies, the lavender synonymous with the McCarthyist “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, when the U.S. government ejected scores of queer men and women from its ranks for their perceived sexual perversion. Radical queer organisations subsequently reclaimed the lavender image, most notably the Lavender Menace, a lesbian offshoot of the Second Congress to Unite Women who demanded greater visibility for lesbians within the American feminist movement.

A pansy planted as part of the Pansy Project in Bristol, UK.

There are subtler, but just as poignant, elements to the exhibition, too. Garden designer Patrick Featherstone, for example, has collaborated with the Kew Gardens team to cultivate a garden of plants in their “chosen families”, genetically unrelated plants that have nonetheless evolved alongside each other and come to mutually support one another. Another powerful moment comes in a small bed of purple pansies that would normally be easy to miss. This, though, is the work of Paul Harfleet of the Pansy Project, which began when Harfleet planted a single pansy on a Manchester street corner where he and his boyfriend had experienced passing homophobic abuse. Over three hundred pansies have since been planted at sites of similar incidents, the flower’s ability to grow in harsh urban climates transmuting into a fitting metaphor on the enduring resilience of our community. Because, like the natural world, queer people have always been here and, despite the hardships we may sometimes face, we will never go away, either.


Jude Jones is a staff writer at GAY45. He is also an undergraduate student at the University of Cambridge primarily researching the literary, visual, and academic cultures of HIV/AIDS in Britain, France, and the USA. 

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