HAM Helsinki Art Museum participates in recent debates about gender and its discontents with the exhibition Genderfuck 1900. The exhibition opens astonishing perspectives on the issue by turning attention to forgotten history. Showcased are roughly 300 postcards, studio photos and snapshots that date back more than a hundred years.

The people represented in the photos and postcards cross-dress and play with gender and sexual roles, challenging assumptions about masculinity and femininity. The conventional norms of the early 20th century are called into question. Imagine that: queer was already very much alive over a hundred years ago!

The exhibition inspires us to consider what forms of self-expression, performative pleasure and identity politics were associated with the popular pictorial media of the early 20th century. At the same time, the richness of the imagery challenges the chauvinistic idea that current gender concerns are merely “minority issues” of today.

The exhibition is curated by Adjunct Professor Harri Kalha, who has been compiling the materials used in the exhibition and the non-fiction book that the exhibition is based on for 10 years. Mental bridges to the present are built by works from different decades, chosen from HAM’s collections.

Private studio photo, Italy, ca. 1920 / © Private Collection

Message from curator:

Modern individuals have the right to spend a moment dreaming about a history that, strictly speaking, may not have existed. Or did it?

At the beginning of the 20th century, the gender binary was a solid axiom and the sexual norms were rigid. They were upheld with criminal laws as well as taboos not written into law. Non-binary genders were a conceptual impossibility, while homosexuality was a crime or a disease.

The brand new media of the turn of the 20th century – postcards and photographs – examined the boundaries of decency. Joyful curiosities bloomed within the confines of a bellowing photographic industry.

The images should be examined with piety. Sometimes the messages travel so slowly that they first take shape in the mind of today’s viewer. The age-old images are enhanced by modern concepts reflected back into history. We inevitably look at these photos differently from how their contemporaries did.

Back in the day, postcards were not produced for the needs of minorities. In fact, ‘minorities’ were not even an issue a hundred years ago, for they were a part of the population that did not officially exist.

The sheer volume of the imagery is a physical and political fact, but it is also an illusion. For each norm-breaking image, there were a thousand if not ten thousand images that propped up the norm. This time, the latter have been left in the closet.

Mind you, the ethos of the exhibition is not to politely promote ‘tolerance’. Instead, let this imagery serve as a constant source of bafflement and entertainment while also providing an alternative introduction to gender – gender theory 1.01. – suitable for people of all ages!

We literate adults should, amidst our giggles, humbly honour that which was once called the margin of society. That narrow and distressing space may also be a cradle of creativity and counterpower.

It is good for the centre of society, if there still exists one today, to be reminded of what it once tried – in vain – to sweep under the carpet.

-Harri Kalha