In this moment, we’re seeing unprecedented commercial success for Black, queer creatives.
RuPaul has packaged and distributed drag culture to the masses, picking up critical acclaim and Emmys in the process. Justin Simien’s Dear White People has explored the many facets of Black life, inclusive of fully formed queer characters. Janet Mock has played a vital, and historic, role in telling emotional and truthful stories about trans women of color on FX’s hit series Pose. And, after a history-making Emmy win in 2017, Lena Waithe has plans for a new TBS comedy centered around a queer, Black woman.
Of course, given the reach and impact of TV and film, these are the categories in which we’ve witnessed the most notable achievements and contributions. But this full embrace of our cultural experiences extends to literature too. Uzodinma Iweala’s novel, Speak No Evil, about a gay Nigerian man, is one of the year’s buzziest and best-reviewed books.
However, one category that’s seeing radical, powerful work, yet evading mainstream appeal, is art. The art world has less restrictions and conventions when it comes to creative works but is often reserved for an affluent consumer with well-informed tastes. This world can be intimidating to less experienced patrons and, on many levels, is unavailable to Black, queer artists.
Racism still prevails in this creative space. In 2015, British journalist and filmmaker Bidisha explored the ways in which the art world was reckoning with its racist past. “It’s time for the arts world to look hard at its own misogyny and racism, starting with language and then going much deeper,” she wrote for The Guardian. In this piece, she referenced Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, which updated titles for more than 100 works, including many that originally referred to Afro-Caribbean subjects as negro.
Yet still, a rising group of Black queer creatives is using this time to leap over industry-specific hurdles and produce inspiring art that reflects the moment and offers another perspective on our experience.
The BBZ BLK BK: Alternative Graduation Show offered ten Black, queer artists space at Peckham’s Copeland Gallery from July 18-22. The show highlighted many inspiring and challenging pieces from this promising group, including Shadi Al-Atallah’s mixed media series, in which a contorted black subject used ancient practices to tackle mental health issues and a lack of visibility.
Jonathan Lyndon Chase’s bright, and often erotic, paintings (pictured in cover photo) show Black, gay men in vulnerable positions, with their bodies and femininity on full display. Filmmaker Isaac Julien, whose 1989 film Looking for Langston explored black, gay desire, took part in an Australian multimedia exhibit earlier this year. The exhibit further explored the themes from his film and offered never-before-seen production photos from the original shoot.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya’s photography explores Black queerness in the studio space. Sepuya often reconfigures the photos by hand to tell more specific stories. In his MFA thesis project for UCLA, he wrote, “I want these queer, Black photographs to exist within historic and contemporary conversations about photography as a whole.”
And, in New York’s Hudson Valley, artists Tschabalala Self and Shanekia McIntosh founded the Free Range series along with DJ Michael Mosby. The series offers Black queer artists of all disciplines a stage to share their work. In a recent New York Times piece, McIntosh said, “Our mission is to really make room for the connective tissue of the black queer scene happening in New York City and the Hudson Valley.”
There’s no doubt that we’re bearing witness to a Black queer creative revolution. And though it’s important to celebrate and elevate the most visible achievements, we must also look to other disciplines, like fine art, to gain a full view of our community’s artistic expression.
Cover photo: New American Paintings