Essays

How Tessa Boffin, One of the Leading Lesbian Artists of the AIDS Crisis, Vanished From History

Boffin explained in a 1991 radio interview that she was trying to put lesbians back on the political agenda, but her risqué performances frequently drew criticism from inside the LGBTQ community.

Tessa Boffin, from the series The Knight’s Move (1990), reproduced in Tessa Boffin and Jean Fraser’s , Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs, Pandora (1991) (© the estate of Tessa Boffin/Gupta+Singh Archive, London 2019)

Tessa Boffin was one of the leading lesbian artists in Great Britain during the AIDS Crisis, but you’ve likely never heard of her. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, she became an avid advocate for sex-positive lesbian imagery and BDSM culture, as heated debates on pornography caused harsh clashes within the lesbian-feminist movement. Most importantly, Boffin addressed the exclusion of lesbians from safe sex campaigns through her work and dismantled the misguided notion that lesbians were immune to HIV/AID. Blurring the boundaries between reality and sexual fantasy, Boffin’s work hinges on the surrealist tradition of photographers, such as Claude Cahun, and shows intriguing parallels with contemporaries like Catherine Opie.

Queer history is by no means free of its own demons. While there is a tendency to exclusively portray the noble aspects of queer collectivity, pride is more truthfully tinged with shame, exclusion, and erasure. Everybody didn’t always get along or do the right thing. Yet, as the scholar Heather Love has argued, much of the early work in queer studies purposefully focused on celebrating the happy and courageous moments, ignoring the darker aspects of the queer past. However, we must embrace our messy histories as well as the noble ones. We have to admit that queer discourse is not as inclusive as we might want, and that some who have made meaningful contributions to queer history are not mentioned in our stories. 

Tessa Boffin, from the series Angelic Rebels: Lesbians and Safer Sex (1989), reproduced in Boffin,Tessa and Sunil Gupta, Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology, Rivers Oram Press (1990) (© the estate of Tessa Boffin/Gupta+Singh Archive, London 2019)

Looking at Boffin’s images, one might read them as overtly staged and sober. This is largely because Boffin was dedicated to studio photography at a time when most photographers took their cameras into the streets, including queer contemporaries like Duane Michals and Jill Posener. For Boffin, however, the creative process was inherently time-consuming. Unconvinced of the “decisive moment” preached by Henri Cartier-Bresson, she always worked in sequences and carefully staged fictive scenes that evince their own constructed nature.

In a radio interview from 1991 covering artistic efforts in response to the AIDS Crisis, Boffin explained that she was trying to put lesbians back on the political agenda. This is particularly apparent in her photography series Angelic Rebels (1989), where she addresses the lack of lesbian safe sex campaigns by depicting two angels engaging in lesbian intercourse while armed with latex gloves and dental dams. Her photographs often include this deadpan humor, while also containing serious art historical and literary references. The setting for Angelis Rebels is based on Albrecht Dürer’s famous engraving Melancolia, in which an angel personifies melancholy. Boffin describes her angel’s somber mood as caused by the gloomy media coverage of the AIDS Crisis until she stumbles upon information circulated by the gay and lesbian press, providing more enlightening imagery.

Nowhere is Boffin’s commitment to lesbian genealogies more palpable than in her series The Knight’s Move (1990), which she created for Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs (1991), a book and exhibition project with Jean Fraser that serves as an invaluable but tragically overlooked contribution to lesbian visual history and the history of photography at large.  In the essay that prefaces the photographs, Boffin expresses frustration around the constant prioritization of reality above fantasy. She voices her belief that the lesbian community needs to create its own role models, even if they are only imaginary. “The burdens imposed by this scarcity of representation,” Boffin writes, “can be overcome if we go beyond our impoverished archives to create new icons.” She included this poem-like text with the photograph series:

WHERE IS MY KNIGHT

MY KNAVE

MY ANGEL

MY CASANOVA

MY LADY-IN-WAITING?

I COULD HARDLY FIND YOU

IN MY HISTORY BOOKS

BUT NOW IN THIS SCENE

YOU ALL COME TOGETHER 

As the figures in The Knight’s Move exemplify, Boffin loved the idea of dressing up and exploring the theatricality of identity. The Northern Irish poet Cherry Smyth remembers Boffin as a “walking, talking crisis of category … fascinating to witness.” Indeed, Boffin was an intimate member of the leather and BDSM community in London, which is highlighted in her artistic practice.

Tessa Boffin, from the series Angelic Rebels: Lesbians and Safer Sex (1989), reproduced in Boffin,Tessa and Sunil Gupta, Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology, Rivers Oram Press (1990) (© the estate of Tessa Boffin/Gupta+Singh Archive, London 2019)

In 1992, Boffin and her then-lover Nerina Ferguson developed a performance, titled “Crucifixion Cabaret,” which they performed at the gay nightclub Purgatory in London. The performance included bondage and fisting on stage without a latex glove — a surprising decision for those who knew how proscriptive Boffin was about how lesbians should have sex during the AIDS Crisis. Toward the end, Boffin’s hand was smeared with Ferguson’s menstrual blood. Members of the queer community who attended the performance, such as Cherry Smyth, recall that it was beautifully staged and executed, with the bodies of the performers glistening in the candlelight. When the newspaper Capital Gay featured an article on the event, however, its editors received an angry letter from someone named Jo Anne Dyke who was deeply disturbed that real blood was spilled at the gay venue during the height of the AIDS crisis. “I sincerely doubt whether a performance of this nature involving blood and fisting would be considered appropriate for any gay men’s venue,” they wrote, “and for Capital Gay to promote this kind of irresponsible behavior in the name of a twisted kind of lesbian radicalism is certainly misguided.”

It did not take long for Boffin to discover that “Jo Anne Dyke” was a pseudonym for the artist Della Grace (now known as Del LaGrace Volcano). Boffin was also able to trace the letter back to Volcano, as both artists used the faxing machines at the London Polytechnic. Responding to Volcano’s letter in Capital Gay, Ferguson writes: “Nobody who spoke to us afterwards was concerned with the ‘unsafe’ content, nobody that is except the photographer Della Grace, who awoke us the next morning screaming righteously down the phone in a tone very similar to Jo Anne Dyke’s.” Volcano disputes this account, saying that they had called Boffin and Ferguson not screaming but rather complimenting “Crucifixion Cabaret” while also questioning why the artist licked blood off her first in the midst of the AIDS Crisis. Their disagreement about the performance led to a schism between the former friends who had diverging opinions on how to show solidarity with people suffering from the autoimmune disease.

Indeed, the use of queer blood onstage during the AIDS Crisis was a contentious topic. One might recall Ron Athey’s 1994 performance at the Walker Art Center in Minnesota. There, Athey presented Four Scenes in a Harsh Life, which included him making light incisions into his co-performer Divinity Fudge’s back, then placing paper towels on the cuts to absorb the blood-drawing, and hoisting them into the air. As with Boffin’s “Crucifixion Cabaret,” Athey’s performance was appreciated by his audience, and the curator John Killacky has recalled that people even stayed afterwards to ask very thoughtful questions about the work. Yet a local reporter for the Star Tribune, who had not witnessed the performance from start to finish, wrote an article stating that the audience members of the performance were exposed to HIV-infected blood (a false allegation because Divinity Fudge was HIV-negative). The article circulated widely and contributed to the ongoing government censorship and pressure on the National Endowment for the Arts while costing Athey his reputation. Only recently has Athey’s reputation recuperated after severely delayed recognition while Boffin is still awaiting her moment.

Surely, Boffin and Athey’s use of blood on stage was a controversial approach for some — even within the queer community. Being part of the queer community and having made a significant contribution to sex-positive queer imagery themselves, Volcano had their own methods, questioning gender norms and sexual taboos in their photography series Love Bites (1991), which was itself the subject of considerable censorship and controversy inside and outside of the queer community. Stores in Canada eliminated some of the raciest photos from the series before selling it while some of England’s LGBTQ bookshops refused to sell it even if their mainstream counterparts would.

Tessa Boffin, from the series Angelic Rebels: Lesbians and Safer Sex (1989), reproduced in Boffin,Tessa and Sunil Gupta, Ecstatic Antibodies: Resisting the AIDS Mythology, Rivers Oram Press (1990) (© the estate of Tessa Boffin/Gupta+Singh Archive, London 2019)

I couldn’t stop thinking about Boffin when I attended a panel discussion at Spring Place two weeks ago between Joan E. Biren (JEB), Lola Flash, and Tiona Nekkia McClodden: three artists committed to giving visibility to lesbian communities. The speakers, as well as members of the audience, agreed that there is a desire for more lesbian imagery. And indeed, while we can find some satisfaction from the increase of lesbian visibility within popular culture (Gentleman Jack, Killing Eve, and the announced reboot of The L Word), there is still a breadth of historical lesbian imagery that needs to be uncovered, and various figures who paved the way that must be acknowledged. The talk brought me back to last summer when I was researching Boffin’s archives as part of my larger investigation of the artist’s life and work. Within them, I found the following quote by the writer Kathy Acker in the artist’s personal notes:

The world is memory. I don’t remember anymore because I refuse  to  remember  anymore  because  all  my  memories  hurt. — Kathy Acker, Don Quixote

If the world is memory, then refusing to remember implies refusing to be in the world. After “Crucifixion Cabaret,” things were only going downhill for Boffin. She struggled to find a job. She was questioning her gender identity but was not able to find support. She and Ferguson were even beaten up in a queer club for dressing in drag. Towards the end of her life, it might have felt to Boffin that even the queer community was not so accepting of her. Nevertheless, she refused to compromise for the comfort of others, and took matters into her own hands.

In her obituary, Simon Watney, an esteemed queer scholar and Boffin’s mentor, wrote that “in many ways Tessa’s work involved a dark vision of the world, in which we have to struggle to make sense of ourselves and our often conflicting, painful desires.” In a time when we are finally starting to carve out space for the darker corners of queer history, it seems crucial to bring Tessa Boffin back into the conversation; for a refusal to remember does not equal a desire to be forgotten.

Tessa Boffin, from the series The Knight’s Move (1990), reproduced in Tessa Boffin and Jean Fraser’s , Stolen Glances: Lesbians Take Photographs, Pandora (1991) (© the estate of Tessa Boffin/Gupta+Singh Archive, London 2019)

This article is part of our 2019 Pride in Art series supported by Swann Auction Galleries.

Swann’s first ever “Pride Sale,” a curated auction of material related to the LGBTQ+ experience and the gay rights movement, takes place on June 20, 2019. A corresponding exhibition of works on offer will run from June 15 through the sale.

[06/26/19 Update: This article has been updated to reflect Del La Grace Volcano’s account of the exchange that occurred after their letter was published in Capital Gay.]

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