Essay by Alex Pretyman for Contextualising Practice


Within western archives, be that art-historical, social, queer, other archives, there is a distinct – or to many, not-so-distinct – absence of the asexual and aromantic. Asexuality can be defined as experiencing little to no sexual attraction and/or sexual desire, aromantacism can be defined along these same lines just for the romantic. According to academic Anderson the state and its institutions’ archives leave queer cultural material ‘to rot’ (2021:55). This is only compounded for asexuality and aromantacism where compulsory heterosexuality morphs into compulsory sexuality. Ever since reading Przybylo and Cooper’s paper Asexual Resonances: Tracing a Queerly Asexual Archive in 2021, the question of how to formulate an asexual(-aromantic) archive through artistic practice has shaped my practice. This essay aims to contextualise and then inquire into this archival gap, exploring the possible avenues for bringing forth aroace[1] narratives and history in the face of an archive typified by the allonormative[2] and other aphobic[3] structures.

A Hostile Archive

The archive of history has an agenda, and in the case of Western archives, that is frequently turned towards validating imperialism and its structures. Wade outlines the purposeful and targeted way scholars have warped, twisted and ignored queer history across centuries in service of imperialism. He notes three alternate periods of archival disinformation: queer happening as barbaric, medicalisation of queerness and queerness as anachronistic to the past (Wade 2022). These alternate periods of archival disinformation have been used to justify colonialism and imperialism. By depicting queerness as ‘barbarity’ (Wade 2022:293), a colonial power justified its supposedly ‘civilising’ presence and validity of existence. Wade focuses on medieval scholarship, but notes the enduring relevance of such analysis when ‘for much of the nineteenth and twentieth century, western nations claimed that they—unlike the so-called East—had proper heterosexual morals and traditional families’ (Wade:283).  It is clear that systemic disavowal of queer identity occurred, and continues to occur, and that it is often predicated on racial discrimination. The hostility of the archive is multiplied when ‘sexuality has become inextricably linked with ‘humanness’…sexuality has become intimately linked with nearly all aspects of human social life’ (MacInnis and Hodson:728), to be asexual or a-spec[4] is not only to be rarely regarded but also to be considered separate from humanity. When the archive of gender and sexuality tells the tale of a heterosexual and cisgendered world, with only glimpses to the contrary shining through, what space is left for the invisible orientation[5]?

A Different Language

When general queer history is so denigrated under cisheteropatriachal systems and structures, asexuality and aromantacism become even more hidden. The essayist Brown (2022:137) asks ‘how many [a-spec people] have been assigned other, more legible queer identities, because the idea of an asexual or aromantic existence – whether in concept or name – was unfathomable to those around them?’. Where compulsory heterosexuality pushes allo-queerness to the wayside, compulsory sexuality – ‘the ways in which sexuality is presumed to be natural and normal to the detriment of various forms of asexual and nonsexual lives, relationships, and identities’ (Przybylo:1) intensifies this. Asexuality and aromantacism become an off shoot of queerness. A new language that is frequently incomprehensible or irrelevant to allosexual queer people and particularly invisible to ‘cisheteronormative understandings of sexuality, desire, romance, and connection’ (Brown:158).

The illegible language of asexuality and aromantacism is exemplified even within this essay in which I have had to frequently introduce terminology. Even the terms ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’ themselves require definition. According to De Witt a-spec people are ‘inconvenient to remember – on all sides of the political and religious spectrums’ (2023), we upset the nuclear family and we appear regressive and anti-sex; antithetical to queerness as ‘outlaw sensibilities, self-made kinships, chosen lineages, utopic futurity, exilic commitment, and rage at institutions that police the borders of normal’ (Getsy). A-spec identity within the archive falls under a queer spectrality ‘a term that encapsulates the ways queerness has been rendered spectral and erased from history culture, and society’ (Yan:1).

In the face of this compounded erasure of a-spec identities, Przybylo and Cooper ask how new queer and more importantly new asexually considered perspectives can collect the threads of lost and pulled apart history. This collecting of threads is something my own practice has attempted. My art practice has become an experimental vessel for a newly asexual – or rather – aroace archive that works in counter to those hostile archives defined by compulsory sexuality and amatonormativity. My practice attempts to unravel what it means to be illegible. Through an analysis of my print works; I Implore You, Take a Look (2023) and Minor Spaces (2022) and various works of a-spec and queer scholarship this essay will attempt to unpack the possibilities of practice to create asexually and aromantically queer space within the archive. What can be found if practice talks with history, inquires into the ephemeral and questions narratives of humanity? What happens if practice begins to ‘merely [pay] attention’ (Chen:46) as writer Chen puts it, to viewpoints that are not mired by the influence of the norms, or a society endlessly engaged with directed sexuality as the norm?

Talking with History

My most recent piece I Implore You Take a Look, forms an investigation of alternate modes of talking and looking at/with history particularly through a-spec and queer lenses. The work is a set of 55cm by 65cm black-and-white screen prints depicting two alternate appropriative illustrations of the late-medieval tapestry The Unicorn Rests in a Garden (1495-1505). The appropriative illustrations serve as an attempt to contest the targeted erasure of queerness typified by Wade’s investigation of medieval scholarship. I worked from the writings of scholars also trying to rectify the norm; in the book Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography where the authors speak to no longer allowing ‘hegemonic, unmarked situations and bodies…to masquerade as ‘normality’ and ‘neutrality’’ (Spencer-Hall and Gutt 2021:20). The specific imagery of my illustrations anthropomorphises the resting unicorn, in an attempt to increase relatability, but also muddle expectations. The first image keeps the unicorn at rest, they remain seated and contained, ‘the beloved tamed’ (Metropolitan Museum of Art 2023), at peace in the verdant garden abundantly filled with the original medieval symbols of fertility. While this first image retains much of the reality of the original tapestry, the placement of the anthropomorphised unicorn troubles the certainty of the narrative, why has the image changed? However, when installed in conjunction with a secondary print that depicts a changed version of the tapestry asexuality is ‘a temporal arrangement in which the past is a field of possibility in which subjects can act in the present in the service of a new futurity’ (Muñoz 2009). Worn down into the first image are holes that allow sight through to the second print displayed, set back around 20cm from the first. In this image the unicorn crushes the fruit, the seeds of the pomegranate; a scene of destruction the fence broken apart, the chain tether broken. This is the hidden original, only just revealed. It is an asexual and aromantic denial of the ideals of heterosexuality and procreation. The work emulates scholar Kathy Carbone’s (2020:260) understanding of how the archive is used by artists:

Artists apply a variety of critical and aesthetic approaches to the archive, and their archival interventions are often concerned with constructions of meaning, challenging or provoking change in a situation or condition, opening out possibilities for new meaning-making processes, and providing alternative and more socially situated meanings that diverge from an ‘official’ interpretation. Thus talking to, and skewing the archive, is a process addressing and deconstructing the biases present. In the case of my work and practice, the biases of a society and thus archive in which sexual and romantic attraction is unquestionably the standard.

Aroace: Gender

When it comes to hegemonic narratives of sexuality and romance, performances of gender get pulled in and assigned. As such asexuality and aromantacism can trouble gender: ‘[t]he structural, relational, and subjective elements of gender and sexuality are in continuous dialogue, as the social system of hetero-patriarchy is traced through individual identities and interpersonal interactions’ (Cuthbert 2019). Gupta and Cuthbert’s analysis highlights the queering or asexualising/aromantacising of gender binaries that occurs for many a-spec individuals. According to Gupta, ‘asexually identified individuals may feel less attached to those aspects of gender that are related to sexual scripts’ (Gupta 2018). This disconnect is something I weave into my own works. Across all my analysed works the figures play across lines of gender. I ascribe no particular identity to these figures, their relationship and portrayal to gender is best described by a participant in Cuthbert’s study of asexuality and agender identity: ‘I don’t participate in the gender game because I don’t feel the need to get a sexual partner’. Gender is insubstantial to manifestations of a-spec identity because to many (not all) it is so intrinsically connected to sexual and romantic partnering. Thus, the presence of these figures which stand outside the binary or are undefinable by normative gender standards – while not necessarily indicators of aromantacism or asexuality – are rife with space to expand the aromantic and asexual archive.

Aroace: Unhumanity

Similar to the linking of gender and sexuality, humanity has been linked intrinsically to the presence of sexuality. In research into intergroup bias toward asexuals MacInnis and Hodson found:

Most disturbingly, asexuals are viewed as less human, especially lacking in terms of human nature. This confirms that sexual desire is considered a key component of human nature, and those lacking it are viewed as relatively deficient, less human, and disliked. It appears that asexuals do not ‘fit’ the typical definition of human and as such are viewed as less human or even nonhuman, rendering them an extreme sexual orientation outgroup and very strong targets of bias.

I explore this in my project Minor Spaces. Minor Spaces which is a series of intaglio etchings where the interplay between “humanness” and a-spec identity are explored through the architectural feature of the foliate head, more folklorically known as ‘the Green Man’. To medievalist Carolyn Dinshaw ‘Green Men are good to think with; if the figure visually represents the breakdown of the human/non-human opposition, and poses the question of what gender is and how it must be reinvented in such a trans-species world, we can use it to help us confront histories of dehumanisation which have brought that human/non-human binary into being, histories which, we might feel, haunt those vegetal men’. I took this figure of the Green Man and used it as a deified figure of non-human aroace-ness. In the same way that these faces occupy the “minor spaces” of architecture – predominantly that of churches – I printed this green man and hid them in books at Melbourne City Library. On the alternate side to my illustration of the green man I printed a message from this ‘deity’:

As you sit in loneliness remember the green man. A queer creature indeed. They relegate me to the hidden, but my visage persists. From the coldness of these stone walls, I sprout forth, a comfort in the cold. I hold out a branch of holly in a forest of thorns. Come to my garden o’ lonely one; a resting place for those with vines instead of veins. O’ come into the cradle of my branches, always there to hold your tender heart.

Rather than allowing the unhumanity of the figure – and by extension a-spec identies – to be entirely weaponised against a-spec people, I hoped the work would act as a small action against the isolation of being a-spec. Placing them in a library, I worked directly with an archive. In an attempt to rectify archival exclusion and dehumanisation, practice can stand to create asexual and aromantic space and solace through reclaiming those same narratives.


These previous methods of formulating an a-spec archive are very much grounded in the more tangible aspects of queerness/a-spec identity. While this is  important, both Brown, Przybylo and Cooper call for the implementation of finding asexuality in the ephemeral. Throughout all my works, I have discussed that there is a certain intangibility to expressions of a-spec identity; an enactment of ‘touches, instances, moments, and resonances’ (Przybylo and Cooper 2014) that are asexually and aromantically charged. These indistinguishable iterations of the asexually and aromantically queer don’t alter the narrative of a-spec identity to be distinguishable to an allosexual society but ask it to come to us (to alter their own ways of seeing). While present visually in these works, it is most prevalent in my titling. Minor Spaces inquires into the small spaces, asking you to look into those pushed to the side and I Implore You, Take a Look explicitly asks the viewer to engage, to look into the work and consider the ways in which they are looking. While this ephemerality may by counter-productive in that it indulges in asexual and aromantic ways of being and understanding that could arguably compound a-spec invisibility, pandering to the allosexual view of the world already does just that. Ultimately the more ephemeral aspects of my practice align with Brown’s envisaging of the future:

[M]ay we move toward an understanding of ace- and aro-spectrum queerness itself as an avowal of the right to exist as an enigma, as refusal – to persist in illegibility, to be unknown and unknowable.

While definitions create space and community, ephemerality can be employed as a technique towards asexual and aromantic archiving. Brown speaks of the labelling of Langston Hughes and Octavia E. Butler as gay and lesbian respectively as they were not allowed to exist in un-definable queer status (Brown 2022). In the indefinability of aspects of my own work as queer, the work is undeniably asexual and aromantic.

The presence of asexuality and aromantacism within archives – while increasing – remains minimal. A-spec identities are diminished in the face of compulsory sexuality, dehumanised and considered unintelligible. Artistic practice, in the face of this can alter and create new archives. In order to create these asexual and aromantic archives practice needs to consider not just ‘queer evidence: an evidence that has been queered in relation to the laws of what counts as proof’ (Muñoz 2009), but asexual and aromantic evidence. To consider asexual and aromantic ways of looking, talking to history, tracing the ephemeral and undefinable, and to challenge to how dehumanising perceptions are manifested.



[1] Aroace is a contraction of aromantic and asexual, typically referring to someone who identifies with both spectrums.

[2] Allonormativity: the perception that allosexuality – non asexual sexuality – is the norm.

[3] Aphobic: discrimination against asexual and or aromantic people

[4] a-spec’ or ‘a-spectrum’ refers to aromantic and asexual identities collectively, it can also include agender

[5] The ‘invisible orientation’, coined by Julia Sondra Decker refers to the resounding lack of awareness and knowledge surrounding asexuality.


Reference list

Anderson F (2021) ‘Please Help Yourself: Queer Preservation and the Uses of the Past’, Third Text, 35(1):53–79, doi:

Brown SJ (2022) Refusing Compulsory Sexuality: A Black Asexual Lens on Our Sex-Obsessed Culture, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California.

Carbone K (2020) ‘Archival Art: Memory Practices, Interventions, and Productions’, Curator: The Museum Journal, 63(20):257–263, doi:

Chen A (2020) ACE : What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex, Beacon Press, Boston, Massachusettes.

Cuthbert K (2019) ‘“When We Talk about Gender We Talk about Sex”: (A)sexuality and (A)gendered Subjectivities’, Gender & Society, 33(6):841–864, doi:

Decker JS (2015) The Invisible Orientation : an Introduction to Asexuality, Skyhorse Publishing, New York,, accessed 26 October 2021.

DeWitt J (2023) Asexual and Aromantic People Are Often Forgotten, but God Sees Us, Sojourners,, accessed 4 June 2023.

Getsy DJ (2016) Queer, Whitechapel Gallery Ventures Limited, London.

Gupta K (2018) ‘Gendering Asexuality and Asexualizing gender: a Qualitative Study Exploring the Intersections between Gender and Asexuality’, Sexualities, 22(7-8):1201, doi:

MacInnis CC and Hodson G (2012) ‘Intergroup bias toward “Group X”: Evidence of prejudice, dehumanization, avoidance, and discrimination against asexuals’, Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 15(6):725–743, doi:

Muñoz JE (2009) ‘Gesture, Ephemera, and Queer Feeling: Approaching Kevin Aviance’, in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, New York University Press, New York ,, accessed 13 April 2023.

Przybylo E (2019) Asexual Erotics : Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality, S Herring (ed), The Ohio State University Press, Cop, Columbus,, accessed 11 August 2021.

Przybylo E and Cooper D (2014) ‘Asexual Resonances: Tracing a Queerly Asexual Archive’, GLQ: a Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, 20(3):297–318, doi:

Spencer–Hall A and Gutt B (eds) (2021) Trans and Genderqueer Subjects in Medieval Hagiography, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam,, accessed 10 April 2023.

The Unicorn Rests in a Garden (from the Unicorn Tapestries) (2019) The Metropolitan Museum of Art ,, accessed 1 June 2023.

Wade E (2022) ‘Skeletons in the Closet: Scholarly Erasure of Queer and Trans Themes in Early Medieval English Texts’, ELH, 89(2):281–316, doi:

Yan M-Y (2020) A Sensitive Surface: Exploring Queer Spectrality Through Lens-Based Paranormal Methods [MFA Thesis], University of New South Wales ,, accessed 3 August 2022.

Essay – How can practice create an asexually and aromantically queer space in an archive of allonormativity?
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