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Las Vegas art exhibit explores language of sexuality, gender

Updated July 9, 2019 - 11:49 am

In the world of botany, the rose is perfect.

Where some flowers are male, some are female and some transition throughout their lifetimes, the “perfect flower” is one that has parts that are both female and male.

“I saw this relationship between botany and humanity,” artist Denise Duarte says. “I thought about my friends who are intersex. And I had this lightbulb moment.”

In “Unraveling Identity,” on display at The Studio at Sahara West Library, Duarte explores the language that defines human sexuality and gender identity, using the botanical world as a metaphor.

Duarte first studied botany at University of Nevada, Reno.

“The seed was planted in 2009,” says Duarte (pronounced do-art). “Here I am, an adult studying the flower anatomy I learned as a child, but from a different perspective.”

She went on to get a master’s of fine art in community art at Maryland Institute College of Art. In that time, she compiled new words she heard in her LGBTQ community and noted their definitions in a word document.

In the two years that her research in botany and gender deepened, Duarte found that society’s language surrounding gender expression was growing.

For her thesis in 2013, she presented a sculpture called “Flora Varietas” alongside her glossary, which had expanded to fill nine vinyl panels.

“The glossary was in Arial font, blown up by Kinkos,” Duarte says. “I thought people would read a few terms, then walk away. I found that most people read all nine panels.”

The glossary has since grown to 264 terms, each with a definition specific to humans or flowers, and often both.

One hundred thirty-seven of those definitions are listed across 14 panels in “Unraveling Identity.” Among them are terms such as “intersex,” “complete flower,” “drag queen” and “cisgender.”

“I wanted to update the list because language is always growing. I wanted to see that growth, to express the beautiful diversity of humanity that is not recognized enough,” Duarte says.

She recruited a group of volunteers, involved in LGBTQ communities across the country, to edit her glossary and ensure she fully expressed how each term was defined by others.

The exhibit is also the temporary home to four sculptures, including “Flora Varietas.” A mesh screen is adorned with fabric flowers, each one chosen for its symbolism: violets for Sappho of Lesbo, who is said to have draped her female lover in violets; Lord Byron Fuschias for Lord Byron, who had relationships with men and women; early meadow-rues that produce single-gender flowers; and the perfect rose.

Duarte’s use of the mesh screen harks back to Baltimore’s tradition of painted window screens, but also functions as a tool for translucency.

“I like the idea of a window screen as something you can look through, but can’t be seen through from the outside,” Duarte says. “I felt my community was historically invisible; we always lived in the shadows. Now we’re coming into the light.”

“To me, when you look at a person, you can’t really tell their gender identity,” she says. “It’s not binary.”

Duarte acknowledges that her glossary may still be incomplete. She provides cards at the gallery for visitors to contribute to the growing index of identities. And she encourages guests to participate by adding to a community loom.

Visitors can select from among 16 colors of ribbon to weave into the loom, representing their gender identity or sexuality.

“Each individual should be able to find two ribbons to identify themselves. I’m lesbian. I’m also cisgender,” Duarte says, adding that she likes to provide opportunity for viewers to express themselves.

She visits the exhibit a few days a week and talks with visitors about their impressions.

She recalls one man who read through all the definitions before finding one that applied to him, cisgender, which Duarte defines as “a person whose gender identity, gender expression and biological sex are in alignment.”

“He didn’t know that people could have multiple identities,” Duarte says. “It’s that realization that there are people who have experiences other than our own. And that language can provide them with dignity and respect they should have in life.”

Contact Janna Karel at jkarel@reviewjournal.com. Follow @jannainprogress on Twitter.

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