The art of perseverance

A lighting installation with America written in black above America written upside down in white.

Queer Black artists have shaped the history of Pride in the US, says writer Osman Can Yerebakan

By Osman Can Yerebakan . Above image: Glenn Ligon, Double America 2, 2014©; Hauser & Wirth, New York; Regen Projects, Los Angeles; Thomas Dane Gallery, London and Chantal Crousel, Paris   Friday 3 July, 2020    Long read

Alvin Baltrop’s iconic photograph of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson misses an exact date. Similar to his other 200-plus photographs, however, it is known today that the artist shot the black and white portrait during his silently productive years between 1975 and 1986. This was a pivotal decade bookended by the beginning of the Stonewall uprising and the AIDS pandemic. In it, Johnson smiles with a mundane enchantment. Her loose, wavy hair embodies the bittersweet haste of surviving the mean streets of New York and trailblazing a revolution with her queer comrades. Replacing the arduous energy of a Stonewall activist is an expression of serenity. 
A vintage photograph of a woman.
Untitled (Portrait of Marsha P. Johnson), Alvin Baltrop©, The Alvin Baltrop Trust and Galerie Buchholz
The work stands out among Baltrop’s photographs of anonymous gay cruisers inhabiting west Manhattan’s industrial hospitality for sex, companionship and refuge, stepping away from a queer liberation blaring around Stonewall Inn. He insistently shot his aloof subjects from extreme distance, rendering them as sensual accents dotting the piers’ monstrous architecture. Baltrop’s Marsh P. Johnson portrait, however, is exceptional for breaking these rules. Johnson, whose glam grabbed attention from art-world figures such as Andy Warhol, is seen with an effortless frankness, responding to the artist with a candid close-up. Today, the photograph quietly speaks to the struggle and invisibility endured by its subject and maker, along with their queer fellows of colour whose work has been kept away from museum walls and history books. 

In 51 years following the first Pride, art has remained a fundamental channel for the queer community. Its subversive fury granted shelter for the disenfranchised, a voice for the silenced, and an escape for the broken.
A vintage photograph of a smoking person peering through a curtain.

The Piers (male drinking with cigarette), Alvin Baltrop©, The Alvin Baltrop Trust and Galerie Buchholz

A vintage photograph of two naked men standing in a disused building.

The Piers (Exterior), Alvin Baltrop©, The Alvin Baltrop Trust and Galerie Buchholz

Black queer artists have single-handedly spearheaded their own movement, fuelled by resistance against a twofold stigma towards gender and race. Art has blossomed from many noble ordeals, wrapping an august cry with righteously earned joy, weathered at the worst and best of times. Similar to Baltrop, many have turned to the camera to document, alter and rewrite a history that has discounted their voices. Lyle Ashton Harris started experimenting with self-portraiture in his Americas series in the mid-80s, performing his own Blackness to challenge the audience’s gaze. He flirted with the camera in whiteface, donning an American flag and a blond wig. Paul Mpagi Sepuya, who juxtaposes props, his circle of friends and his own body before the camera, has moved the domineering gaze of the lens to centre stage. Widened legs of a tripod, crossed thighs of a young man, and the voluminousness of a drape intertwine in moments that he orchestrates to render queer intimacy in front of and away from the onlooker. 

Photography has been a conceptual tool for some, such as Glenn Ligon whose Notes On The Margin Of The Black Book (1991-93) installation breaks down polarising representations of Black masculinity in art and media through image and text. Ninety-one reproduced pages of nudes from Robert Mapplethorpe’s infamous The Black Book series (1986) are paired with 78 quotes from various influential figures about, but not limited to, his photographs of Black male physiques. 
A naked man holds another naked man, who is holding a camera, in a headlock.

PMS 17 Darkroom Mirror, Paul Mpagi Sepuya© 

An arm pulling on a black cloth.

PMS 16 Darkcloth, Paul Mpagi Sepuya©

'Art has remained a fundamental channel for the queer community. Its subversive fury granted shelter for the disenfranchised, a voice for the silenced, and an escape for the broken'

Ampleness of Black culture, shaped by celebration as much as struggle, has continuously cast an influence on painting, too. Mickalene Thomas and Kehinde Wiley have single-handedly defied the boundaries of art-world recognition. For Wiley, this expanded as far as painting Barack Obama’s presidential portrait. Both painters have subverted Western painting’s deeply problematic representation of Black bodies and African experience. They utilised tropes of traditional European art to place figures who resemble them, yet never appeared in art history books. Their queer gaze, on the other hand, questions objectification for desire and entitlement. A new generation of painters continue to bond the links, which have been missing between queer Black artists and the canon. Jennifer Packer, Jonathan Lyndon Chase and Jarvis Boyland look no further than their own communities to reflect on their canvases, pushing both definitions of representation to uncharted territories under the influence of social media culture. 
A rendered artwork on an interior on a black background.
A hallway converted into a colourful artwork.

Top: Designs for Drug Stores, 2019, Jacolby Satterwhite©. Courtesy of the artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York. Above: Mickalene Thomas: Better Nights, installation view at The Bass Museum of Art, Miami Beach, December 1, 2019-September 27, 2020. Image courtesy of The Bass, photography by Zachary Balber

Technology, in fact, replaces the easel and paint for artists, such as Jacolby Satterwhite and Juliana Huxtable. Satterwhite takes cues from the elegant chaos of Hieronymus Bosch paintings to digitally build blasting queer dreamscapes, laden with voguers, sex slaves and masters, and high-mojo androids. They occupy dwarfing interiors oozing with neon purples and pinks over a Metropolis-like, inside-out utopia. And they rave, flailing their limbs similar to combat soldiers, in this case, of ardor and pleasure. For Huxtable, the digital has been a platform of self-making and a DIY museum, where art is not filtered through mainstream demands and limitations. From a Tumblr account filled with her poetry-reading performances to text-based prints inspired by online chat room and hookup site conversations, Huxtable’s flirtation with the internet is a testimony on cyber utopia granted to queer kids for self-expression. Breadth of textures is still essence for others. Back on paper, Toyin Ojih Odutola’s drawings illustrate imagined stories, one bound by a gay marriage between heirs from two wealthy Nigerian families. Ojih Odutola’s five-chapter drawing series builds the elaborate tale of two lovers and their thriving families with the immediacy of pastel and charcoal that replace the eloquence of a writer’s words. Yet, look for her grand statement in details, such as renditions of Black skin in varying complexities and lush layers of fabrics as signifiers of class. 
A painting of a black man with orange hair.

Looking at the Sunrise and Calling it Dusk 2016, Toyin Ojih Odutola©. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

A drawing of a black person with a white border.

Untitled (Tokyo, 2017), Toyin Ojih Odutola©. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

A framed, colour painting of a black person.
The Collector, Toyin Ojih Odutola©. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York 
Colours and materials transform into an explosive visual lexicon in the hands of Nick Cave. The grand master of unabashed jubilance has been mixing a vibrant cocktail of sculpture, dance, painting, fashion, and even drag in his three-decade career. But his bursting energy is most lavishly embodied in his wearable Soundsuit sculptures. Each dazzling piece is meticulously adorned with materials culled from ample references, including Leigh Bowery, as well as police brutality against Black Americans. His first Soundsuit was created in response to the beating of Rodney King by LAPD in 1992. Proving activism is shaped in all hues and textures are the make-up paintings and sculptures by the multifaceted artist and provocateur Vaginal Davis, a grand dame of queer transgression. After decades of norm-defying film-making and musical performance, lipstick, mascara and nail polish are newfound weapons for Davis. In addition to sculpting dense layers of lipstick into gender-vague faces, the Berlin-based artist – a ‘terrorist drag’ according to late queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz – draws semi-abstract, totemic drawings of Black Hollywood actresses with make-up gear.  

‘You never completely have your rights, one person, until you have all your rights,’ once declared Johnson about ‘throwing the brick’ to the police on 28 June 1969, alongside other pioneering activists of colour, such as Sylvia Rivera, Zazu Nova, and Stormé DeLarverie. A paintbrush, camera or brick, survival finds its tools in various forms for queer artists, especially for those of colour. Names, faces and struggles have continued to evolve over the half-century, building an ever-growing community, and for them, perseverance is a form of art itself.    
Osman Can Yerebakan is an art writer and curator based in New York
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