On Our Backs:
An Archive

The female form has been the focus of many an artist, from the fair beauty of Titian’s Venus of Urbino (1538) to Picasso’s dark and intense Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (1932). Yet whether these works of art are a celebration of the female form or a display of male voyeurism, is up for debate. By contrast, the images included in On Our Backs: An Archive at The NewBridge Project were definitely not made for the male gaze. They were made by women for the pleasure of other women. Laid bare in all their glory, they represent a celebration of sexual liberation, and one that can now be appreciated by all.

Spread across the walls of the NewBridge annex, the collection is a monumental archive charting the pioneering success of On Our Backs, a bold and ground-breaking magazine launched in San Francisco in 1984 and printed until 2006, that initiated the mainstream acceptance of women’s erotica. Throughout its run, the magazine faced serious challenges with censorship, impeding its distribution and reach.

Brought together for the first time by curators Jade Sweeting and Janina Sabaliauskaite, the exhibition at The NewBridge Project introduces a substantial back catalogue of publications and photographs taken from the personal collection of renowned photographer Phyllis Christopher. Having made a successful career documenting lesbian sexual exploration through the late 1980s to the early 2000s, Christopher spent many years as contributing photo editor to the On Our Backs publication.

On Our Backs paved the way for women to find a real, accessible expression and representation of lesbian desire. The plastic facade so often seen in pornography was shunned in favour of capturing authentic chemistry between actual lesbian couples; allowing the women to be portrayed as they wanted, doing what they wanted. This self-representation was a form of empowerment and ultimately blazed the way towards an uprising of sexuality.

Catering for ‘the adventurous lesbian’, the editorial filled its pages with a variety of content that explored the cultures and concerns around gender equality, identity and diversity. Yet it approached these heady subjects with decorum, and challenged dominant categories using avant-garde reviews, photography, sex education, and erotic fiction. Alongside Christopher’s work, editions included the work of established photographers such as Leon Mostovoy, Jill Posener, Tee Corrine and Honey Lee Cottrell.

The NewBridge exhibition literally magnifies the ethos of the magazine with enlarged black and white illustrative depictions of female anatomy. It allows viewers a closer look at this and other segments of content, such as recommendations for the best vibrator. At the back of the space, Christopher’s own personal photographs reflect twenty years of visiting underground clubs and political protests, each image a journey through uprising, liberation and very simple but powerful intimate moments between women.

On Our Backs: An Archive is at The NewBridge Project, 6-28 January 2017.

Niomi Fitzsimmons Fairweather is an artist and writer based in Newcastle.

Installation photo courtesy of the author.