Jakob RowlinsonIn Conversation
Jakob Rowlinson: I was working at the weekend, and I must have been one of the only queers who didn’t go to Mighty Hoopla. Did you go?
Ashley Joiner: I did go. I was going to say I’m newly sober but it’s been a year. It was my first big event being sober.
JR: Congratulations, a year is a big milestone.
AJ: Yeah, thanks. It was interesting to see sober, because usually I’m not. It was great just to people-watch, and Sonique was amazing.
JR: Yes, yes yes. I saw everyone posting about her.
AJ: I would say that was my favourite part. Also, Gabrielle was amazing, because we’re all there thinking we’re super cool and then Gabrielle comes on and we’re singing along like we’re nine years old and in our Mum’s car. It was very that vibe. SO yeah, congrats on the show. How are you feeling?
JR: Really good now. I guess the show has been a long time in the planning. Quench is run by Guy Oliver and Lindsey Mendick, and they have got this amazing space in Margate that they launched at the beginning go the year. Because of Covid and the obvious delays my solo show was pushed back till this August, and so I’ve been sitting on this exhibition for a really long time now. As it was my lockdown project, I guess there were a lot of mixed emotions for me during the opening. Of course I’ve also put a lot of expectations on myself about how the show will be received, but I’m now at a place where I'm really happy with it. It’s also great to be working in Margate because there’s such a vibrant queer community here which adds an extra sense of importance to the work.
AJ: How does it feel to have finally birthed it?
JR: I'm quite good at letting go once it’s all done. I like to install and get out. I just posted today an article in iD by Will Ballantyne-Reid. He had written it a couple of weeks prior and it's a beautiful text based on my work for the show, but after reading it I just felt this elation from all these different things coming together. I feel good. I know that's a weird thing to say but I feel really proud of myself.
AJ: Absolutely, you totally should! Revel in it!
JR: For sure.
AJ: For anyone to achieve anything during lockdown is a major achievement. We had so much else to contend with. To have a full body of work at the end of it is amazing.
JR: And I guess whenever anyone shares their work it’s quite a vulnerable moment and it takes practice to be so vulnerable. Not that my work is particularly autobiographical but it does have some elements that are quite sensitive to me.
AJ: Is the queerness in your work relatively new or has it always been present?
JR: I would say that it's only in the last two or three years that I have started to bring this into my practice. My work has often been about playing with archives and blending fact and fiction. But around three years ago I began actively trying to queer the archive. Really trying to play with the past as a medium became very interesting, and super important because so much of our history has been erased. There is a lot of great work being done by archivists, researchers and historians, but often there's only so far people working with evidence and facts can go. So as an artist I can push it further, I can use speculative fiction, which isn’t the same as just making things up, but rather I can suggest things to fill in the blanks. And I guess my current show is doing these things, but it's also about queer ecology and building on the idea of nature as being inherently queer.
AJ: Tell me more about Hildegard von Bingen.
JR: Hildegard Von Bingen was an incredible woman. She's like Mother Teresa, Beyonce and Ursula von der Leyen rolled into one! She was a mystic, an extraordinary composer, and a sort of political operator, who was arguing with the top brass in the church and local government to get what she felt was important. And there's lots of scholarship done on her, but often aspects of her personal life are glossed over. It's so obvious that she was in love with another woman, and not necessarily in a sexual relationship but definitely having a romantic one, yet very few people in academia want to acknowledge it. In many ways she was also a product of her time and incredibly conservative, but she has a kind of cult following now and is regarded as influencing alternative medicine therapies. She wrote a lot about midwifery and was really interested in studying the body, the impact of different herbs and medicines, and expanding knowledge in a less philosophical and more practical way.
AJ: What was “homosexuality” like in the medieval period?
JR: It’s a good question. We don’t really know. Obviously “homosexual” is modern word from the Victorian period, but we of course know that people like you and me existed. Of course we’ve always been here! In the exhibition at Quench gallery, I’ve created a wallpaper. It’s all beautiful garden motifs and big floral swirls, and then in certain places I’ve scrawled some graffiti over the top which reads "Queer Woz Ere’”. This is a riff of the “We’re here. We’re Queer!” slogan and the “I Woz ‘Ere” graffiti you see written randomly on walls. The point of it is to recognise that we as queer people, are, and always have been, here.
So what would homosexuality have looked like in the medieval period? Probably not too dissimilar to now. There were many prejudices of course, but people definitely existed. One of my favourite films is Derek Jarman’s ‘Edward II’ and he paints a very homoerotic picture of the period. And whilst there are other sources that refer to powerful people being LGBTQIA+, we don't know much about the ordinary folk and their queer lives. There’s lots we have to speculate on. So yes. My work is very research based, but I hope it also explores these ideas in other ways. I love adornment, I love embellishment, which is very anti-modernism I guess and very in a way, medieval. It’s pageantry, it’s camp!
AJ: I was going to speak about the camp aesthetic of your work. Is that part of the reimagining? Some might suggest we adopt this camp persona as a defence mechanism and then you’re presenting that here with the use of shields.
JR: I’ve never thought of it in that way actually. I think that camp is also a learned archive. I did a talk once and every photograph from that event captured me with really camp hands. I think my hand gestures are a learned thing that has been passed down again and again. But that doesn’t answer your question...I’m more interested in pageantry and a lot of the symbols I use in the shields are from the medieval period. It’s wrong to assume it was just full of macho men, as decoration and presentation could also be quite delicate and gentle as well. And a lot of the heraldry that surrounds us today in buildings and businesses, is exceptionally camp.
I was thinking recently about footballers being the modern day knights. In many ways they’re similar. Players will wear a team badge that is very similar to heraldry, and it builds a sense of national or local identity, as well as family ties between clubs. I think I might explore this more in the future.
AJ: Instead of a family coat of arms that's passed down the family lineage, these learned expressions - that I now realise I'm doing myself - are some kind of a queer version which is passed down via a queer lineage.
JR: Yeah absolutely and it's that aspect I'm very interested in. So heraldry is awful. It’s beautiful but it's misogynistic, it’s classist, and it’s arguably homophobic, and it’s weirdly obsessed with lineage and blood. Queerness is often anti all of these things. So there’s signs within the language of heraldry which are very useful for exploring that. Marks of dis-honour if you like. So I often try to use those kinds of marks as a way of poking fun at the standardised rules.
AJ: And it remains heavily coded.
JR: Yeah, it's heavily coded. Perhaps sometimes too coded, but I think that's what I’m interested in exploring at the moment.
AJ: When we’re archiving, language is so difficult, because terms change over time so how do we go about archiving the LGBTQ+/homosexual/queer experience?
JR: With great difficulty because archives are a very privileged site, and I feel that’s why it’s important to mix it up and keep it moving. I use fiction so as not to feel pressured into writing a new canon but of different sorts. Because rewriting the archive is only ever going to end up as exclusionary activity. To disrupt or queer things is in some ways, also be about displacing knowledge from its very linear and inherited origins. So by blending references to different eras, and mixing contemporary slogans and jargon into the academia along with semi-fictional narratives, is my way of addressing that. Also, queer history has so often been one of persecution, and I feel it’s important to also explore more joyful celebratory experiences.
AJ: It’s great to see the introduction of these natural, ecological motifs. Combined with the eyes peeping through, it feels like they’re at once concealing and revealing.
JR: I'm fascinated with queer ecology and a sort of voyeurism that often occurs in natural spaces. I read this text called 'Biological Exuberance' by Bruce Bagemill, and he basically outlines, from a scientific point of view, how animals and plants should be considered in a queer light. And it’s quite interesting to provide an artistic alternative to this biological study, demonstrating how visual motifs from different strands of culture can further a shift in what is considered nature and natural. In the medieval period, people would use animals to talk about gender and sexuality. They would hold up certain animals as being deviant or examples of how not to behave, and we strangely continue this tradition today, especially in things like animation and children's stories. I recently made a tapestry which featured various animals from Disney animations, including the fox character from Robin Hood. This story was actually based on a medieval folktale about a fox who would pester the local townspeople and became something of a morality tale called “Reynard the Fox”. Disney wanted to adapt this story for their own ends, but the plans ended up being a bit much for them, so instead they changed the narrative to Robin Hood as it’s a more obvious ‘good guy’ story. In my tapestry though I keen to explore the medieval roots of these animal characters and how they can be perceived as a kind of unravelling of these gender norms and behavioural expectations.
AJ: Maybe you can talk more about materiality. A lot of the works you make feature felt?
JR: I love using felt because it's such an interesting and enjoyable material to manipulate. In large thicknesses, if you pierce a small hole in it, it can actually heal itself or knit the fibres back together. To me this is so incredible and also rather symbolic of how I use imagery from the past to flesh out gaps in our past. I also work with a range of different textiles and embroidery, as I like this clash between using soft and nurturing fabrics to address something kind of painful or violent.
AJ: You said earlier that the work isn’t entirely autobiographical - are you able to share more about your own queer experience.?
JR: Sure. You were right to point out that I haven’t always been explicitly dealing with queer subject matters. I think that’s because I was still trying to work out quite a lot about myself. I think recent conversations have helped me realise that I’m still harbouring some queer shame. Not a lot obviously, but I’m often using my artwork to address this. Heraldry for instance is about honour, and I’m working through this in my personal life. How to balance discussing sex, sexuality and love, and how to make queer art rather than homoerotic art, because it can quite easily become quite tropey. All of these things still need more exploration for me, but in my work I am finally finding a way through.
Jakob Rowlinson is an artist who uses textiles, embroidery and sculpture to weave alternative histories, mixing camp humour with heraldry and hagiography. In a body of work that is constantly shifting, symbols combine and align, to give a contemporary voice to historical imagery.
Past solo exhibitions include: ‘VISIONS OF A WHISPERED PAST’ (2021) at Quench Gallery, Margate; 'MADE IN SWEDEN' (2019) at the Tändsticksmuseet, Sweden; and 'Dissecting the Archive' (2017) at Clearview, London.