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RE-QUEERING BLACK ARTISTS
In this article, we are highlighting Black artists in LGBTQ+ history. You may ask “why specifically black artists?”
We need to understand that categories like “Black” or “queer” are not biologically defined. As elusive as the definition of race is (is it about origin? skin color? genetics?), so are gender and sexuality since they are ways we represent ourselves regardless of genitalia given at birth.
This means experiences as a Black and queer person are saturated with cultural implications.
First of all they experience discrimination on two fronts - for example, in legal actions like Proposition 8 in California (2008) or the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (2009), where the queer community accused Black people as committing homophobic hate crimes.
Equally important are the contradictions between the way society characterizes Black and queer people. Black men and women are characterized as hyper-masculine or femininine as opposed to LGBTQ+ gender-fluidity; Black communities have historically been socioeconomically marginalized whereas gaynesss has become increasingly commercialized for tastes of affluent White people; and Black women have self-chosen silence regarding their sexuality when White lesbians chose public protest.
(On these ”oppositions”, refer to Elena Kiesling’s excellent article The Missing Colors of the Rainbow: Black Queer Resistance: https://journals.openedition.org/ejas/11830#ftn10)
1. They were always there
Let us first acknowledge that the entirety of human history has hardly been as heteronormative as historians want you to believe. This applies to the most remembered moments in Black American history. Openly and covertly queer creatives include Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Richard Bruce Nugent during the Harlem Renaissance and the seminal writer James Baldwin, activists Bayard Rustin and Pauli Murray during the Civil Rights Movement.
2. Re-member Stonewall
Literature on the Stonewall Riot (1969) were written by predominantly white gay men, and is therefore remembered as movement spearheaded by white gay men. In reality, Stonewall was one within many protests against police violence towards minorities - it was less the well-to-do or college educated class than marginalized people of color who held personal stakes in this movement.
Marsha P. Johnson, one of many drag queens and trans women who participated such as Latina activist Sylvia Rivera, is remembered for throwing the first shot glass at the protest. Even today, drag queens are vocal in LGBTQ+ and Black rights movements - Bob the Drag Queen, a New York favorite, comes to mind.
3. HIV/AIDS Crisis
The main reason the HIV/AIDS Crisis exacerbated the way it did was society’s refusal to publicly discuss and address the problem - because of associations with gay culture, it was considered taboo. As a result, queer Black people who were less economically able and with little access to medical care were the most hard hit.
Lyle Ashton Harris, Americas, 1987–88, gelatin silver prints, triptych.
Source: Artnews ©LYLE ASHTON HARRIS/GUGGENHEIM MUSEUM, NEW YORK PURCHASED WITH FUNDS CONTRIBUTED BY THE PHOTOGRAPHY COMMITTEE
Lyle Ashton Harris
While he works in various media, Lyle Ashton Harris’ photographs are rare documentation of Black lives, many of them creatives, who fell to the HIV/AIDS crisis - like the filmmaker Marlon Riggs and the poet Essex Hemphill, for example. In the soft fading of polaroid cameras and candid, close angles on family and friends, Ektachrome Archives restores the sense of intimacy to such a large scale epidemic that is usually quantified and abstracted by numbers.
On the other hand, his collages remind you that memory, whether it be historical or individual, is never a bounded and finished volume. The different textures reflect his experiences within his family - growing up in the Bronx or the more universal typology of an “absent father” - and cultural experiences like witnessing a traditional funeral.
Glenn Ligon, Black Like Me
The scientific, almost medical diagnosis-like appearance of Black Rage and other similar works by Glenn Ligon makes you wonder whether analyzing - or at least trying to do so - is a coping mechanism for something so unpredictable like disease. At the same time, many of the notes written on the boundary of the page are nonsensical and reveal that science, too, is somewhat random and at its worst exclusionary.
Glenn used a similar format of text-based art to record his musings on Black identity from the first-person perspective in works like Black Like Me, bringing political relevance to an Idealist and mostly White Conceptual Art.
5. Communities, Here And Now
Stills from Yams Collective’s NO HUMANS INVOLVED exhibition at Witte de Width, Rotterdam, Netherlands (2015)
The Yams Collective
Producing collective work in itself refutes the idea that Black queerness is one single thing. And the Yams Collective’s combination of video, music, poetry, and installation from more than 30 artists internationally is definitely not that.
If you are only familiar with the most recent Whitney Biennial scandal, this is a good time to know that in 2014 Yams Collective withdrew from the event in objection to artist Joe Scanlan who created works under the persona of a Black woman. However, Yams Collective members were quick to clarify that their decision was not about Joe Scanlan - rather, it was a protest against a wider definition of White supremacy that manifests not only in expressed violence but the failure of institutions like the Whitney to represent non-White artists.
Performance still from Let ‘Im Move You: Formation at Abrons Art Center (2019)
Photo credit: Foundation for Contemporary Arts and original photographer
Jumatatu M. Poe
Jumatatu brings together DJs and dancers for collaborative performances taking place in historically Black neighborhoods. Their and Jermone “Donte” Beacham’s Let ‘Im Move You: Intervention in 2016 memorialized the murders at queer night club Pulse. These events can be seen as reintroducing Black bodies to places often soiled with oppression and violence - but not with anger but with the feeling of “being moved” by some mysterious force when you are in the presence of others who acknowledge you.
Watch performance here: https://www.jumatatu.org/project/let-im-move-you-intervention/
Kamra Hakim, Founder of Activation Residency
Activation is an artist residency program held in Upstate NY that channels the dreamy sense of bonding you get at music festivals. Not surprisingly, Kamra has worked at festivals like Bonnaroo which became her inspiration, and studied Global Studies and Gender. They started Activation so queer black artists and allies can share living and creating space to start a healing process - as well as put under spotlight issues that would be marginalized in wider society.