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November 16, 2023

ICOM VoicesRecommendations on how to write about non-binary artists

Edmundo Albornoz Pinto

Art historian, researcher and cultural mediator

Keywords: institutions, exhibition, gender, LGBTQ+

Editor’s note: This article has been translated from Spanish, a language in which grammatical gender affects different types of words, this applies to pronouns and nouns. The masculine gender is the default or unmarked, while the feminine gender is marked or distinct.

Can you imagine being exhibited under a name and gender that are not your own? This is a dilemma faced in museums by non-binary artists who, for various reasons, have changed their names, gender and/or personal pronouns.

The number of people who identify outside the gender binary is increasing. A study by The Trevor Project (2019) concluded that one in four LGBTQ+ youth identify as such. So, with the arrival in museum collections of works from young artists, it is undeniable that the influx of non-binary identity in cultural institutions is a reality, and those institutions must be prepared.

To address this issue, I will examine how the works of Seba Calfuqueo, a Mapuche and non-binary artist, are circulated to identify ways to exhibit non-binary artists. 

1.Do not refer to gender

The Mapuche curator Cristian Vargas Paillahueque has collaborated with Calfuqueo on numerous occasions, for example on the Ko ñi weychan (2020) exhibition in the Metropolitan Gallery, and on the Kalul ñi tukulpan (2021) exhibition in the Cultural Centre of Spain. In the former, the video installation entitled Welu Kumplipe (2018) was exhibited, and the latter included the performance entitled Ko ta mapungey ka (2020).

In both exhibitions, curated by Cristian Vargas Paillahueque, it is notable that at no time in his curatorial text does he refer to the gender of the exhibitors. In the 2021 exhibition, he writes: ‘Viewed from a decolonising perspective, the works of Paula and [Seba] included in the exhibition, some of which are unpublished, reincorporate a topic of debate that is still ongoing…’ (Vargas, 2021). In this way, he manages to refer to two artists, one with a feminine pronoun (Paula), and another with neutral pronouns (Seba), without the need to assign any gender within the curatorial text. 

2.The use of typographical signs

In 2021, the exhibition Cuando cambia el mundo: preguntas sobre arte y feminismos (When the world changes: questions about art and feminisms), curated by historian Andrea Giunta, was inaugurated in Argentina. 

In this exhibition, held at the Kirchner Cultural Center, Giunta brought together five artists who ‘put forward agendas of diverse feminisms, both powerful in historical terms, and urgent in contemporary terms’ (2021). Seba Calfuqueo was one of the artists exhibited. On this occasion, the artist exhibited two audiovisual pieces: Asentamiento (2015) y Buscando a Marcela Calfuqueo (2018). In the text, Giunta uses another approach to neutral language seen in Latin American feminist and queer circles – that of replacing the vowel of the pronoun [in the original Spanish] with a typographical sign. Often, the typographical sign ‘x’ is used. For example, lxs artistas [Translator’s note: Without inclusive language, this would be written as las artistas for women or los artistas for men. The use of the ‘x’ typographical sign therefore avoids specifying the gender]. Some people also use the ‘@’ typographical sign. For example, l@s artistas.

In this case, the curator changed the letter which marks the gender of the pronoun and the noun for a ‘+’ (plus) typographical sign: ‘Can we learn from our original cultures other ways of understanding the relationship between humans and nature, between our body and the possibilities of desire?’ (Giunta, 2021). [In the Spanish text, “humans” is written as l+s human+s; it would usually be written as las humanas for women or los humanos for men. The use of the ‘+’ typographical sign therefore avoids specifying the gender]. Giunta uses this way of writing throughout the publication and not just when referring to non-binary artists, thus providing  an inclusive language framework from the outset.

The same practice is applied in the exhibition entitled Y de pronto ya no había más orilla (2022), curated by Gala Berger and Miguel A. López. In this case, the curators replace the vowel of the pronoun with an ‘x’: “The pieces of these artists, which are part of the Il Posto collection…” (2022). [In the Spanish text, “these artists” is written as estxs artistas; and it would usually be written as estas artistas for women or estos artistas for men. For a mixed group of women and men, los artistas (ie the masculine pronoun) would usually be used]. Making this change aims to combat the idea that the masculine pronoun is neutral in the Spanish language, on the basis that it excludes those who use other pronouns. With the use of typographical signs such as ‘x’, ‘+’ or ‘@’, all identities are included – men, women and non-binary people – without distinguishing them with pronouns traditionally considered as masculine or feminine.

3. Using elle / ‘they’ / ‘them’

In 2021, another one of Calfuqueo’s works titled So many times, apümngeiñ (2016) was exhibited at the 34th Sao Paulo Biennial.

The curatorial text is in English and begins with the presentation of the artist and their work: ‘In most of their work, Seba Calfuqueo…’ (34th Sao Paulo Biennial, 2021). The use of the possessive pronoun ‘their’ comes from the pronouns ‘they/them’, used in English to refer to those people who do not identify with masculine or feminine pronouns. An approximate translation in Spanish is the pronoun elle, used for the same purpose as ‘they’. For example, ‘the artist announced that they are non-binary’ would be translated as le artista anunció que elle es no binarie’ [the words in bold would usually be written as la, ella and binaria for women and el, el and binario for men].

In Chile, there is the example of curator Mariairis Flores in the exhibition Espejo de agua / Esporas (Water Mirror / Spores) (2020), shown at the Patricia Ready Gallery. In the exhibition, the curator complies with the artist’s identity and uses neutral pronouns to refer to Calfuqueo: ‘As an artist of Mapuche origin, and based on honesty and their own experience, they propose an integrated relationship between nature and human beings, granting the former the status of a legal entity. The artist notes that…’ (Patricia Ready Gallery, 2020) [In this example, the original Spanish text uses the le approach outlined in the previous paragraph: “Señala le artista” (“The artist notes that”). As ‘the’ is not gendered, the problem does not arise in English]. This approach is ideal, since it was requested by the artist, it is also the most common approach for the non-binary population, it can be read out loud, unlike the ‘x’ or another typographical sign, and it allows for easy translation by having an English equivalent. Ultimately, it is best to ask what pronoun suits the person in question and not make assumptions based on their gender expression.

In short, to facilitate a proper interpretation of works made by non-binary artists, we must understand, accept and express their identities. Whoever writes the texts must ask and use the pronouns adopted by the artist, incorporate them in documents, exhibition texts, catalogues, social networks, biographies and any other publications. Incorporating inclusive language not only impacts the artist and their work, but also makes non-binary people who visit cultural spaces and read about art feel embraced, visible, and invited.

Non-binary identities are a reality. They exist, we exist. In this article, I have drawn together and presented three approaches that we can use when writing to include different gender identities, and people are invited to use them at an individual and an institutional level. In the present day, we discuss and debate stories that have been silenced throughout history. We now have an opportunity to incorporate those stories into History. Let us not regret in the future what we can do today. 


BERGER, Gala and LÓPEZ, Miguel. Y de pronto ya no había más orilla. Santiago: Il Posto, 2022.

SÃO PAULO BIENNIAL. Seba Calfuqueo. En: 34 São Paulo Biennial. São Paulo: 34 Bienal de São Paulo, 2022.

PATRICIA READY GALLERY. Espejo de agua / Esporas. Santiago: Patricia Ready Gallery, 2020.

GIUNTA, Andrea. Cuando cambia el mundo: preguntas sobre arte y feminismos. Buenos Aires: Kirchner Cultural Centre, 2021.

THE TREVOR PROJECT. Diversity of Youth Gender Identity. The Trevor Project, 2019. 

VARGAS PAILLAHUEQUE, Cristián. Exposición Kalul ñi tukulpan. Santiago: Centro Cultural de España en Santiago (CCESantiago), 2021.