INTERVIEW: Curious Arts Festival – On Our Backs | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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We interview Phyllis Christopher, Jade Sweeting and Janina Sabaliauskaite of On Our Backs ahead of their appearance at Curious Festival.

Can you give us a bit of background about On Our Backs?  

Phyllis Christopher: On Our Backs started in 1984 and it was the first erotic lesbian magazine for lesbians, made by women and it was educational – at the time there wasn’t a lot out there about fun things or sexual things, it was a response to ‘Off Our Backs’ a very feminist magazine that thought porn was inherently misogynist. I moved to San Francisco in the early 90’s and became the photo editor, so I worked with a lot of models and writers and it launched a lot of careers because it was the only place to publish interesting lesbian topics – it launched the careers of people like Lea DeLaria from Orange is the New Black, who was an outrageous stand-up comedian at the time, and no other magazine would interview her. It had the first article on Female to Male trans issues. At the time there was a lot of energy in the city, because there wasn’t a whole lot of lesbian visibility, so women wanted to be photographed. Women would vacation in San Francisco and drop in asking to be photographed.  

How did you all meet each other? (Phyllis moved from San Francisco to Newcastle in 2007) 

Janina Sabaliauskaite: I travelled to Glasgow International in 2016 and came across an exhibition at the Transmission Gallery called No Right Way 2 Cum, by Sidsel Meineche Hansen. The exhibition mentioned pro-sex feminists such as Deborah Sundahl and Susie Bright, the former editors of On Our Backs, the first erotica magazine run by women for women. Then once I got back to Newcastle, I told Jade about the show and we started researching. 

Jade Sweeting: I got straight onto Google and tried to find back copies of the magazine, but they were really hard to find, not just because of censorship but because of complicated copyright and ownership laws. But we found one old issue on Ebay, which we paid $30 for. We were both immediately drawn to the photography but once we started reading, it had everything – sex education, articles, interviews with inspiring women, erotic fiction, book and film reviews, places to meet, personal ads, advice columns, censorship updates, which are still relevant today and it was all written with a great sense of humour. 

Phyllis: Susie Bright would do a ‘Susie Sexpert’ article in every edition, which was a highlight for me as they were always very well written and funny. She would always talk about something topical. This was before the internet, hence it was the only way for us to learn about issues in our community.  

Jade: We started showing the magazine to everyone – we were fascinated by it – and a friend of ours who knew Phyllis’s partner, Kate, mentioned Phyllis and her photography background as a link to the magazine and that’s when it clicked that this was the same Phyllis Christopher who was the former photo editor of On Our Backs, but as luck would have it, she was now living in Gateshead! So, we got in touch and asked if we could meet.

Is that how the ball got rolling for making your own work based on the research you came across in the archive? 

Janina: The research really opened up a whole new world of positive lesbian representation and histories that we found fascinating, it inspired us in our own practises, myself experimenting with the medium of photography, while Jade in screen-print. I studied photography at the university and was never taught about any of these extraordinary women pioneers of erotic photography. We want to celebrate them and everyone who contributed in making the magazine happen.  

Phyllis: It was a really great coincidence that I was just living over the bridge and Jade and Janina had such enthusiasm and energy for this topic, so it all came together very easily.  

Do you think that there is still a need for a magazine that predominantly addresses Lesbian visibility today? 

Phyllis: When the internet came along forums existed to be able to ask questions and share stories. Then in 2004 when The L Word was commissioned for TV, it felt as though there wasn’t as much of a need for On Our Backs, that there had been a breakthrough with Lesbian visibility. The magazine folded in 2006, but what I’m hearing now is that there is still a need for a discussion about lesbian sexual issues.

And finally, can you tell me a bit about what you have planned for your workshop On Our Backs: An Archive / Show and Tell at The Baltic next month? 

Phyllis: I would like the workshop to be a light-hearted sharing of work,  – a way to meet other people making work. It would be great if the word got out and people travelled from all over the UK to come to this, I’m also curious to learn about other people’s experiences, maybe there are women in other cities doing work that we can connect with. 

Jade: It would be great if this event brought people together, we want people to come along to the workshop and bring things to share in an open environment. Like old photos, articles, letters, lived experiences, stories etc.  

Janina: On the day, we are going to give a brief introduction to On Our Backs and its importance and relevance today and discuss our personal journey of curating one of the most exciting exhibitions we have been involved in, followed by Phyllis presenting slides of her work.  
We want to create a safe environment for people to meet, talk and share individual experiences and hopefully in the near future we can make something happen where we take conversations further.  

On Our Backs: An Archive / Show &Tell will take place at The Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art on Sunday 8th July at 3pm in the Cube space. Tickets are free but very limited (available here), if you would like to attend, please get your tickets asap. 

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