Leo Maher’s tribute to oppressed gay men from the past work as fragmented patchworks of history woven through queer legend and legacy.  This series of new sculptures he made at Design Academy Eindhoven look simultaneously back and forward in time to create a historical continuum.

Leo Maher, Homo-Delicatus fruit bowl, photo: Leo Maher

Leo Maher is a young British artist and both a graduate of the Kingston School of Art, London (2017) and the Design Academy Eindhoven (2021). These contemporary details should not prevent anyone from acknowledging how much his innovative work is actually bound to inspirations coming from other times. If his approach is to diagnose a social phenomenon, it would be an assumed anamnesis of modern gay liberation in our western civilization.

If his role had to refer to a human sciences discipline, Maher would be an historian. Not someone who tells the story of the past, but someone who exhumes signified elements in order to keep track of events, behaviors and experiences, aiming at explaining the evolution that took place between this long period of time when homosexuals were ostracized, tortured, condemned, humiliated and possibly put to death, and the current precarious freedom every homosexual can enjoy in progressive countries.

If his work were an architectural structure, it would be a triple arch bridge jumping the river of the previous terror, going through the right to difference and reaching the right to indifference. If these works of art had a human dimension, they would embody the memory which brings up awareness of where we come from and how we, as a society, ended up reaching a more peaceful acceptance of what was originally named ‘deviance’. Somehow, Leo Maher’s work is a tribute to these forgotten men facing discrimination for centuries. Oscar Wilde is never far from his mind, as well as Bernard Meadows and a group of British sculptors from the 1950s named ‘Geometry of Fear’.

To grasp Maher’s work, one should keep in mind how much the ‘now’ relies on the ‘before’. This is true while considering the shape of an antique bowl, assembled from materials like metal, ceramic or wooden pieces, the colors which sometimes refer to the Roman period, sometimes to the Victorian times. He assumes a kind of naivety amid his state of permanent surprise at how these techniques, materials, colors and shapes can end up in one timeless piece of art. Which must be seen, in fact, as a series of pieces overlaying each other. Surprisingly, the series also has something to do with time, in terms of a beginning and an end, but also in terms of frequency and repetition.

Beyond the academic training which leads him to master different kinds of materials, Maher’s artistic experience goes through a reinvention in the way he assembles matters, colors and shapes. Although from an aesthetic point of view, these five pieces probably refer more to the 20th century, he confesses to being particularly inspired by what has happened in art between the 15th and the 18th centuries. In his view, this period allowed the gathering of techniques and cultures from different civilizations, some that were established in Europe, notably in the Greek and Roman period, but also some others from China or ancient Egypt. Whether he confronts the recent period of homosexual liberation or the field of contemporary art, the question continuously weighing on Maher’s artistic approach is how did we reach ‘here’ and ‘this’ today. In an artistic as much as a social point of view. Transcending time is not only his personal desire nor a moral duty, it is the reality which these five pieces bring to our senses.

All of the works contain a narrative which constitute an act of memory of homosexual oppression, of those who suffered and fought to finally lead us to the stage Maher’s generation can enjoy today. In a suggestive manner which does not rely on queer aesthetic codes such as glowing colors, Maher insists on a timeless purpose which represents a debt to history, likely to bear witness to the nightmare homosexual liberation comes from.

Leo Maher, Homo-Delicatus fruit bowl, photo: Leo Maher

Homo-delicatus represents the identification of homosexuals across time. For instance, the limp wrist of the white hand refers to Roman times when male scholars were teaching academic boys not to hold their hand in a loose way, which was seen, for thousands of years, as something unmasculine signifying the guilt of effeminate men. According to Maher’s research, later in the 18th century some religions punished suspected homosexuality by beating the loose hands of effeminate children. The transcultural ambition of the piece can also be seen in the boot made of white and black leather like in ancient Rome, where it was a sign used by gay men to recognize each other.

‘Violet Lit Patriarchy’ is composed of a vegetable made in three pieces of white ceramics on a wooden box. It speaks to the custom of sexual intercourse between masters and slaves forced in to the passive role, with no rights and the constant risk of punishment. Maher recalls how much patriarchy needed to suppress the idea of passive partners who were seen as an intermediate ladder between men and women, which meant a danger for the structure of the society. Like a sign of power which has more to do with domination than with sexuality, the white radish is the foothold of this oppression back then. On the top of the 70 centimeter sculpture, the light and the violets recall those from the isle of Lesbos in the time of the poet Sappho. They symbolize nature whereas the dash of lavender (also referring to the purple hours of Oscar Wilde with rent boys) is still very much seen as the color of liberation of the queer community.

Leo Maher Backgammon table. photo: Leo Maher

‘Gentlemen of the Backdoor’ is a Backgammon table in reference to England in the 18th century, when homosexuals were still hung or convicted to ten years in prison. This piece reminds us of the pejorative methods used to downgrade homosexuals while naming them. “Backgammon players” is still a slang word synonymous with sodomites; back pointing the rear of the body and gammon meaning the behind side of a pig. ‘Gentleman of the backdoor’ is also a British slang expression from the 18th century to name active (top) gay men dealing with the ass (back door) in the sodomy practice. The front leg of the table shows metal sticks representing wooden faggots, also used as an insult to name homosexuals. The chicken head refers to a term from the 19th century, to represent an underage and effeminate boy, which would be described today as a Twink. In Maher’s work, all these implicit elements are here to hook the viewer’s attention by suggesting more than by imposing.

‘Cruising’ is a golden tree which talks about deviant behaviors that emerged for queer people as a result of oppression. Somehow, cruising places represent the early gay social network before bars and clubs opened. The bottom of the tree references the sauna frequented by men, a space of nudity where close contacts were the norm. The turquoise color of the sculpture has to be seen as a reference to the particular tiles of the Turkish baths in Victorian times, while the wood refers to the small benches of the saunas. Men would visit these parks and public gardens so they could recognize each other through certain practices and symbols, such as with eye contact: three seconds in the eye meaning you are gay, while five seconds would mean seeking sexual intercourse.

Leo Maher, Cruising, photo: Leo Maher

Leo Maher, Cruising, photo: Leo Maher

‘Polari’ refers to the language spoken by queers, sailors and prostitutes from late 19th to late 20th  century in England. It aggregates elements from Yiddish, French and American slang. This language belongs to the culture of those who were foreign in their own country, and it was used by homosexuals to talk openly in public without facing prosecution. Nowadays Polari is a dying language. Keeping track of it through this art constitutes a poetic engagement aimed at addressing the memory of those gays who have been forgotten from that dark period of history, notably since the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1967. Somehow, realizing this belongs to the past reveals the state of liberation. Something Maher wants to celebrate in 2021, keeping in mind that today is inextricably bound to the previous chapters which his art aims at remembering.

Leo Maher, Polari, photo: Leo Maher

Leo Maher, Polari, photo: Leo Maher


Text by Arnaud Gaillard