Guy James Whitworth is a man of many talents. Amnesty Portrait Award-winning artist, socio-political author and environmental activist are just a few notches on his belt, writes Mike Hitch.
Since moving to Sydney 20 years ago, Guy James Whitworth has walked an experimental line between art, activism and conscience – all of which are ever-present in his work.
There’s much behind the artist’s vivid, uniformed and chromatic paintings. Share bikes resting in sunlight express existential dread; portraits of queer figures and people of colour are bathed in a semi-religious glow.
Speaking to the Sydney Sentinel, Whitworth opened up about his current exhibition, Enough Of Your Nonsense at Surry Hills’ M2 Gallery, which runs until Sunday, 20 September.
“All art is a form of activism, and all art is an expression of self,” he notes, as we sit across a glass table Whitworth hates (they get too messy too quickly).
“But I have spent my entire artistic career trying to ignore the pretensions of art because I feel like it’s a pointless wank and I don’t want to buy into that,” he says.
“The people who are around me are political. And I consider myself to be a politically-minded person.
“It’s that sort of that old cliché – if you’re not concerned, you’re not paying attention.”
Despite art critics placing Whitworth within the crude container of ‘queer art’, his work represents something left-field and visceral of wider value.
Since the international screenings of his documentary A Queer Aesthetic in 2013, Whitworth is adamant that the label of ‘queer artist’ is a lazy term synonymous with “lesser”.
“In some utopian land, queer identity should not be a political thing,” he says, pointing to a large portrait of a figure rising above the masses, with trans and pride flag tapestries flying across their naked body.
“This isn’t paranoia. This isn’t me beating myself up. But there are straight white male artists who are in far better collections than I am because they are not considered queer artists.
“And, while I tick most of the boxes of the white male privilege, we still live in a world where being queer is being seen as lesser on so many different aspects and so many different ways,” he maintains.
“So, a lot of people sort of say, ‘Well it’s lovely work, but it’s a little bit too ‘raw’ and a little bit too out there for us’.”
Whitworth is insular. He works alone in his studio with his dog while listening to podcasts or audiobooks, and doesn’t enjoy opening his gallery doors to the public.
His paintings of bicycles, in particular, are a sore point. While Whitworth uses bikes as an expression of his mentality, some people just don’t get it.
“The general public walk in saying, ‘Why do you do bikes then?’ I mean really, do I have to do this?” he says, rolling his eyes.
“Covid hasn’t really affected me creatively, but what has affected me is the bike paintings – they’ve always been about freedom and about the ability to understand,” he continues.
“We have freedoms available to us, and then the bikes are always unlocked in the paintings. They’re always just waiting to be taken on a ride somewhere.
“The bike paintings that I’ve done this exhibition have all been done within the past year. That’s really affected those paintings, and you can see it, but my mentality is that you have to you look at them as a collection. This past year dealt with bushfires and then with the effects of Covid on my friends and my social group.”
In his book Signs of a Struggle, released last year, Whitworth delves further into his political insights by sharing his history.
While the book is an in-depth memoir from his working-class background in North East England to the queer art-scene in Sydney, Whitworth confesses that he’s “vulnerable” when putting his name to his writing.
“I’ve always painted, and I’ve always written. But up until recently, I just never felt competent enough to put the writing out into the world,” Whitworth tells the Sentinel, while crossing his arms and legs.
“And that’s that. I feel a lot more vulnerable about the book. And if people read it, they will understand why.
“I talk about a lot of really quite raw, difficult personal subjects. The thing is, with an artwork, I get to paint something and put it up on a wall in a gallery. I get to pretend I’m busy when people come in and they look at it.
“So, art isn’t as directly vulnerable for me. But [in a book] I get to tell my story, compare it to other people and say why I connect to the politics around me and how I get to process the shit show of the world.”
As a political artist, Whitworth champions myriad causes, and for many reasons. A recent passion project, which gained serious traction during lockdown, is ‘No Meat May‘, which invites people across the globe to give up meat or animal products for the whole month of May.
“Last year, in 2019, we had 10,000 sign-ups, and we thought that was really good. This year we thought Covid would knock numbers, but instead we had 34,000 people join in!” Whitworth beams, before analysing how our attitude to food mirrors our approach to politics.
“It’s encouraging people for the month of May to turn their brains on and consider their actions. That’s why we made it a month-long experience for people. After a month of having soy milk in your cup of coffee, you get used to it.
“But it means that you’re not funding the dairy industry, which is an industry based upon acceptable hidden misogyny.”
These comparisons may raise the eyebrows of even some open-minded left-leaners (this writer included).
“The dairy industry exploits of the female reproductive system,” Whitworth continues, as I quickly un-furrow my brow.
“Cows are inseminated with sperm to have calves which are then taken away from them. The mother is given no right and no ability to see her child. And then the milk is taken away and used for food production. Yes, to me, that is the absolute essence of exploitation.”
Whitworth believes his political adamancy reflects a greater movement for change, and given the current state of the world, one can’t say he’s wrong.
“My art and my activism are part of a much bigger worldwide phenomenon, and we’re seeing people awaken to this. I hate to use the word ‘woke’. It’s a little bit like using the word ‘journey’ on reality TV shows.
“But, yeah, there is a global awakening!”
Enough of Your Nonsense runs until Sunday, 20 September at The M2 Gallery, 4/450 Elizabeth Street, Surry Hills. The remaining viewing times are:
– 5.30pm–7.30pm Friday, 18 September
– 10am–6pm Saturday, 19 September
– 10am-6pm Sunday, 20 September
– Or by appointment via email: email@example.com.
Whitworth’s book Signs of a Struggle is available from The Bookshop Darlinghurst, 207 Oxford St, Darlinghurst or online at www.thebookshop.com.au/new-releases/signs-of-a-struggle/.
For more information about Whitworth’s upcoming projects, visit www.guyjameswhitworth.com.
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