Minnie Macgregor’s deadpan portrait, taken circa 1899, hangs on the sitting room wall of Meroogal, a timber house with gothic trimming her relatives owned at Nowra on the New South Wales south coast. Her “insanely massive” hair in the photograph drew queer artist Gerwyn Davies to her story.
The photograph was taken before Macgregor fell ill. “The diagnosis was it was her hair, it was too big, and it was draining all of her power,” Davies says, relaying mythology gleaned from a historic house curator. “They forced her to chop all her hair off, which was pretty cruel.”
Macgregor, who had been living with her elder sister at Wollongong, succumbed to pneumonia in 1918, aged 44. For his exhibition Iridescent, Davies photographed himself clad in sequinned red from head to foot, holding a book aloft outside Meroogal, which is today a museum.
Davies’ big red wig in the Meroogal image might be read as an ode to Macgregor’s lost locks, but he cautions that none of the 12 campy figures he creates in his new show, shot at 12 Sydney Living Museums and NSW State Archives locations, should be read as directly representing the real people who passed through these sites. The artist’s greater interest is playing with the gender, sexuality and class strictures that bound such people.
Queensland-born, Sydney-based Davies, 36, sews his own costumes. He wants to transform into sculptures, not create self-portraits, so he never shows his face in any of his photographs. Often, he cannot see out of the costume when he is photographing himself.
“There are times when I can vaguely see through a haze of fabric, but there are other times when the material is really restrictive and I can panic. It gets hot. It’s this PVC stretch, but it doesn’t breathe, so putting it on your face can be quite confronting.”
Davies does often display his arms and legs, hence his tattoos are on show. Over a decade ago, he had an image of bushranger Captain Moonlite tattooed on his bicep. Davies was captivated by Moonlite’s “sexually transgressive” element, subverting the usual “hypermasculine aura” of the bushranger figure, “the stuff of stubby coolers and bumper stickers”.
Moonlite reportedly went to his execution wearing a ring on his wedding finger made of a lock of hair from James Nesbitt, the man widely interpreted as his lover. When Davies started making a costume inspired by Moonlite, which he shot at the Justice & Police museum at Sydney’s Circular Quay, he wanted to represent the wedding band, but as Davies began assembling the tubular gold outfit, it morphed into the shackles Moonlite also wore to the gallows.
Davies spent his primary school years in Darwin, a time he recalls with fondness, rollerblading and meeting hippies from a commune across the road, and another neighbour who kept a big crocodile in his swimming pool. Less happy were his subsequent three years at a Catholic boarding school in Toowoomba, Queensland.
“I was quite heavily bullied,” he recalls. “It was a very country, rugby school, and I was very effeminate and performative and clearly gay.”
Citing the Melbourne-born performance artist Leigh Bowery as an influence, Davies has just completed a four-year PhD in photo media at the University of NSW, studying the aesthetics of camp. His partner, advertising creative director Andrew Henderson, will critique his work: “It always comes with, ‘Do you want my honest opinion?’” says Davies. “I trust his very sharp, keen eye and incredible knowledge of pop culture.”
When it came to research for making an Iridescent work at inner-Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay House, Davies at first stumbled, because he found the original owner of the trophy house, colonial secretary Alexander Macleay, an “unappetising” figure.
The key was Macleay’s rooms containing entomological specimens and an “overly masculine” library with marble busts of Greek philosophers. Davies created a big yellow costume with ears and a tail, “a specimen that looked like it had devoured him and taken over the house”.
At Vaucluse House, former resident Sarah Wentworth provided the inspiration for a monochrome costume inspired by the black and white tiles in the courtyard. Despite marrying colonial statesman William Charles Wentworth, the daughter of two ex-convicts was never accepted by colonial Sydney society because their first two children had been born out of wedlock.
“The way I’ve painted it, it was this very campy tragedy,” says Davies. “But from all reports she was quite happy to be the social outsider out there.”