From the closet to the canvas: Acknowledging those living under oppressive sexuality laws

Crawford graduate Stephen Doyle visited Russia to create portraits of gay people living under that country’s oppressive sexuality laws, writes Ellie O’Byrne.

Ireland legalised same-sex marriage in 2015, and is on the verge of having its first gay Taoiseach; some of us have even come so far that we’re considering the possibility that Leo Varadkar’s policies might be more pertinent than the gender of his chosen partners.

It may feel like pats on the back all-round for Ireland when it comes to LGBT rights, but one young artist feels we’ve a way to go — and he’s got Stephen Fry’s backing.

Crawford College of Art and Design final year fine arts student Stephen Doyle, 22, travelled to Moscow to discover what it was like for members of the LGBT community in a country with oppressive laws surrounding homosexuality.

Although homosexuality itself is not a crime, a law enacted in 2013 makes it a criminal offence to advertise “non-traditional sexual relationships”.

Doyle stayed with, and painted, gay Russian men and women whose lifestyle is, as a result, cloistered and secretive. 

Portraits of his subjects form the core of his contribution to the Crawford degree show.


His canvasses, large and vividly coloured, depict his subjects in private moments: reading, working out after work, or sitting in contemplation.

“I wanted to use the frame in a way that gives a sense of isolation and enclosure,” Doyle says.

“Because each individual deals with the isolation in their own way. Some find it easier, while some struggle more. The three people that I met were very different; one guy was out to everybody and was willing to go to prison for his activism, while others didn’t want family or work colleagues to know, for fear of jeopardising their relationships."

"Everybody was very polite and helpful, yet I did have the feeling that I had to hide while I was there. I felt constrained, and it reminded me of years when I was still closeted," he says.

In exhibiting his work in Cork, his home town, Doyle is not only commenting on life for gay people in Russia, but also reflecting the state of play in Ireland, quite literally: His paintings are contained in a mirrored installation, the rest of which contrasts unsettlingly with the peaceful mood of the portraits.

Viewers entering the mirrored space see not only a reflection of themselves and Doyle’s subjects, but also abusive and threatening phrases which are graffitied on to the mirrors. 

“Once the viewer comes into the space, they become a part of the conversation,” he says.

“Regardless of your orientation, you have a dialogue and it’s your responsibility to be open with that; if it makes you feel uncomfortable then you must voice it. It’s an exchange, and an education I guess, to a degree.”

Doyle came out to his family at 20, two days before the referendum.

“I wondered if it would change my relationships with my family, especially my father,” he says.

“There’s always that relationship between a son and his father, and my father is very much the alpha-male packet of football, DIY and army all rolled into one. I thought that relationship would change, and I was really happy to be entirely wrong about that.”

The result was a liberation, and a turning point in his art; he felt constraints drop, as though he was finally free to address queer culture as a subject matter.

Doyle’s work has garnered the support of one patron that is particularly high-profile; he emailed examples of his work to Stephen Fry, who responded.

“Our community doesn’t live in a bubble, nothing human does, and I hope our straight friends can see that what happens to us is a warning to all. Stephen Doyle’s work here is part of a tragically necessary resistance movement and I am proud to support and endorse his vision.”

“For someone as well respected in the queer community to acknowledge somebody like me who’s only starting out is incredible,” Doyle says. “I’m just lost for words that he took the time to acknowledge me like that.”

Beyond Dialogue, CIT Crawford College of Art and Design 2017 degree show, opens today at Sharman Crawford St, Cork, and runs until June 16.


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