How sex workers are taking center stage in the art world

·3-min read
Many cultural institutions are now looking at the role of sex work in our societies.

Brothels have flourished in Germany since prostitution was legalized 20 years ago. One of them, located in Berlin, has been transformed into an art gallery to exhibit the work of sex workers -- an initiative that shines the spotlight on people who are all too often invisible.

Berlin is home to around 500 brothels, according to estimates by the Erotik Gewerbe Deutschland organization. But Studio LUX stands out from the other brothels in the German capital for the art gallery it houses. For a few weeks, this BDSM dungeon has been hosting an exhibition titled "Art. Sex. Cash." It features paintings, sketches, photographs, performances and art installations selected by Lady Velvet Steel and curator Lilith Terra.

The works featured in "Art. Sex. Cash." were created by sex workers. They highlight the similarities that connect the worlds of art and fetishism. "Historically speaking brothels have always inspired culture," dominatrix Lady Velvet Steel pointed out to Artnews .

Edgar Degas, Édouard Manet, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Pablo Picasso are among the many artists who took an interest in brothels and the young women who worked in them. In fact, there has been no shortage of male -- and often macho -- perspectives on the world's oldest profession . "Sex workers are always the objects of art historically," the sculptor and stripper Ginger Angelica told the specialist publication.

Studio LUX aims to counter this pictorial tradition by showing that sex workers are not only models or subjects of inspiration. Those participating in the "Art. Sex. Cash." exhibition are artists in their own right. This is the case of the video and visual artist Dasa Hink, also known as Katherine Rixdorf. She chose to turn to the sex industry to have time to dedicate her artistic career in parallel to her professional activities. "So many of my colleagues are artists. They prefer this flexible job which encourages creativity, and allows for an abundance of time," the artist wrote in a post on her Instagram page.

The world of sex work comes to the museum

While Studio LUX's initiative may come as a surprise, many cultural institutions are now looking at the role of sex work in our societies. The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London has mounted an entire exhibition on the subject, entitled "Decriminalised Futures." In it, 13 international artists show their work and question the general public on the need, as they see it, to legalize prostitution. "Sex workers and their allies have fought tirelessly for strong workers' rights, an end to exploitation, an end to [the] criminalization [of sex work], and real measures to address poverty," the exhibition co-curators, Elio Sea and Yves Sanglante, said in a statement. "'Decriminalised Futures' is a celebration of this movement."

Through its first art exhibition, Studio LUX also hopes to break down some of the stigma surrounding sex work. "Art is one of the best ways for sex-workers to mediate their experiences to a public that would never be able to understand it otherwise," performer Liad Hussein Kantorowicz told Artnews. The organizers of the French festival Snap! also agree on that point. For the past four years, they have been trying to give a voice to people working in sex trades in order to shed light on insider experiences of these activities that are all too often ignored. Indeed, art could have a real role to play in overcoming centuries-old prejudices ...

Caroline Drzewinski

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