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Reflections on making Mapping Gender

by Anders Duckworth

After a piece premieres, I often feel a big hole, as if something has dislodged itself. For the last 2 and a bit years I have been working on the project Mapping Gender. However, when I cast my mind back, I realise that the beginnings of this journey were almost a decade ago, before I even knew the word non-binary. Before I could take this word and use it to communicate something about myself.

In 2014 I created a book which acts as both an art object and an essay which explored borders and the in-between spaces. This work laid the foundations for what would develop into Mapping Gender. Then one day walking through the V&A historical costume galleries, I came across a mantua. This mantua was designed as a court dress, made between 1765-70 in England with fabric from France, and most striking of all, was about 1.8 m wide and as narrow as the human body would allow. The dress spoke to me of the constructions of femininity, feminine ideals, and their relation to beauty, class, race, and empire. The sheer volume the garment occupied would have dominated the space, simultaneously exhibiting a quantity of wealth expressed in the amount of visible fabric. However, the person wearing this mantua would have experienced restriction and discomfort as I did as I rehearsed for Mapping Gender wearing an imitation of this very one. The flatness of the specific dresses couldn’t help reminding me of maps and their flatness in relation to the world they purport to depict, somehow there didn’t seem to be space for the person in this garment, the garment was the person. I knew from the very beginning that this was something I needed to explore.

Working on Mapping Gender has been such an exciting process bringing together so many different elements and ways of expressing the complex ideas of the work. The research for the project has been sprawling and sometimes difficult to contain and control, reflecting the subject matter of the work. To help pull together all these strands it was a joy to bring the broad team of makers and creatives together. Each element of the project, be that smell, video, sculpture, historical costume, lighting or design, has its own story to tell, and its own way of relating to the concepts

The thread that passes through all these elements is that of the border; how and why it is defined and what it does to people and places. Borders exist everywhere on the micro and macro levels of our lives, they can be vital but are often harmful. Felt by people who existed by them, the ones who they affect and by the people who fall in between. My specific interest in borders stems, in part, from my dual nationality which gave me the feeling of standing in two places at the same time and never at home in one or the other. Later, as I came to understand myself as non-binary and then also as transgender I felt the way humans are divided into distinct genders seemed at odds with the way that I felt and understood myself. Mapping Gender is the place I have been able to explore these feelings around navigating these borders, particularly those which do not appear as physical structures but which shape us nevertheless. It has been such a privilege to interview and work with so many trans and non-binary people, and the responsibility that comes with taking care of those voices and perspectives yet also honouring my journey and my body in the work. In many ways, that feeling of something dislodging itself is part of the work – part of the work that continues in my body which will continue as I come to understand more about the invisible borders and their presence in us.

Images by Camilla Greenwell Photography

Anders sits on top of the deconstructed Mapping Gender set with a look of bliss. There are reflections of water and their costume lies in pieces.