As a teenager growing up in a conservative city in Australia, Derek Sargent struggled to find reference points that clarified his personal perception of the world. The lack of representation of queer adolescents and reinforcement of conventional gender roles in the mainstream media bothered Sargent, who began using his artwork to make sense of the world around him and give a voice to a taboo subject.
“When I was growing up in the 90s, queer imagery for adolescents was non-existent. As a queer adolescent viewing pop culture you would have to look at the imagery which was made in a heteronormative context and twist it to fit into your own perspective,” says Sargent.
The talented artist, from Adelaide, South Australia, has focused his sculpture and installation work on the formative years of adolescent development and favours queer imagery as a way to highlight the overlooked themes of adolescent sexuality and identity.
“I don’t think many artists are exploring this area,” Sargent says.
“While there are many artists exploring sexuality and gender, the moment of adolescence and sexual awakening is skipped over. It’s something that isn’t really talked about.”
The images of adolescents used by Sargent in his sculptures and installations are mostly stills and video footage taken from movies and television because the issue of photographing children remains contentious.
I Wish I Could Be You
His progressive work has earned him a host of awards, including the prestigious 2016 Samstag Scholarship from the University of South Australia.
The scholarship gives the winner a tax-exempt payment equivalent to US$45,000 for twelve months of overseas study plus return airfares and institutional fees.
Sargent has not yet decided where he will study, but cities with a strong history to queer culture are at the top of his list.
The upcoming year will be busy for Sargent.
On top of the Samstag Scholarship, he will be undertaking the NARS Foundation International Artist Residency Program in Brooklyn, New York.
While Sargent acknowledges that socially progressive work is inevitably going to spur reactionary backlash, he remains unconcerned that he may ruffle a few conservative feathers.
“There is always going to be opposition to anything breaking the heterosexual narrative, but thankfully over time these religious and bigotry groups are slipping into the minority.
“There is nothing I can really do to persuade someone with a pre-determined agenda against anything queer, but I do see my work exploring more than just queer adolescence. I hope my work reflects the human yearning to feel connected to others; a universal experience that anyone can connect to.”
Sargent aims to use his artwork to encourage people to face the underlying fear of adolescent sexuality and identity, and give a voice to those who have previously felt oppressed by heteronormative ideals.
“The more something is in sight of society the more something becomes accepted. I like to think I’m just playing my very small part in that.”
Sargent is unsure of how his work will be received in the United States, but says that one of the strengths of his work is the raw honesty it conveys.
“I’m putting part of myself into my work and trying to be as honest as I can. I think to be successful you need to stay true to yourself, be as least pretentious as possible and you’ll find your place.”