The Portfolio: Philip Steele

When I was an art student at Michaelis I noticed small ads all over Cape Town. They promised improvement of penis size, marriage (within a week) and cures for various ailments, together with a 100% guarantee of masculinity and satisfaction at the simple call of a number — something that even medical science cannot guarantee.

They were stuck up in plain sight on electricity boxes, in toilet cubicles and on empty shop windows. I wasn’t sure why, but I felt an urgency to collect these ads. They were so direct and unambiguous.

Later, in Buenos Aires, while on an artist’s residency at Panal 361, I noticed the city was covered with similar ads. Here, they promised the company of a beautiful blonde woman, air-conditioned rooms to relax and get to know your little kitten, and the touch of your dreams. Here, too, the ads were in plain sight: on telephone booths, and especially all over the dumpsters that populate every street.

I had gone to Argentina to do research on the country’s positive gay-rights developments. Argentina has become one of the most liberal countries in South America and the world in terms of gay rights. It now recognises gay marriage and protects the LGBTQ+ community in the work place. This was a huge surprise, considering its past as a conservative Catholic country.

Instead of looking at Rodins or Rembrandts, I ran around collecting, archiving, and carefully cataloguing these sex ads by colour, font, offer of service, design, and so on.


Returning to South Africa, I designed my own ads. I then registered cellphone numbers for each ad. Each ad developed its own virtual existence, a kind of artificial intelligence.

When you call the numbers, there is a recording in my voice of quotes from Michel Foucault’s 1961 interview published in the French gay magazine Gai Pied, in which he discusses that being gay is all about what we do with that gayness, what we aspire to, what we become and how we change things for the better.

I printed the ads on eight different coloured papers emulating the gay flag. They were then wallpapered in galleries and museums on a massive scale. I have liberated these ads from dark alleyways and dingy corners.

In the Three way exhibition, curated by Kim Kandan and Joy Voysey (on show at the KwaZulu-Natal Society of Art Gallery in Durban until the beginning of November), they have installed the flag across a whole gallery wall, 3m high and 5m wide. It is impossible to overlook or ignore.

Now the ads, and their recorded messages, find homes in contemporary temples of culture. They are protected, celebrated and honoured. My community’s voices are front and centre, no longer silenced.

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Philip Steele
Philip Steele’s work focuses on the deconstruction of the mechanisms of visual language, specifically as it pertains to gay representation. This contributes to an understanding of the systems of operation that construct and define gay identity.

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