Works for the Now, by Queer Artists of Color

As the country contends with ongoing violence against queer and BIPOC communities, it’s paramount that voices from those communities are heard. Not all artists are activists, of course, but they are all keen observers, ones who invite the viewer to consider their way of seeing things, whether their chosen subject is as expansive as prison reform or as singular as their own sense of self. Each work tells a story, and here, we’ve asked 15 queer artists of color to elaborate on theirs. (Look for a coming compilation of works by queer Indigenous artists in the weeks ahead.)

These interviews have been edited and condensed.

In his essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown: A Letter From Harlem” (1960), James Baldwin writes, “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor; and if one is a member of a captive population, economically speaking, one’s feet have simply been placed on the treadmill forever. One is victimized, economically, in a thousand ways.” I think about emotional and moral buoyancy in the face of various kinds of impoverishment and de facto captivity. To be bankrupt does not mean that one is alone or without dignity or without meaningful personal iconography, loving sanctuary or self-respect.

“bust: indestructible columns” drew on an earlier performance I did in 2015, for which I ensconced myself in a concrete pillar outside of the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles and, once the concrete had dried, freed myself using a hand-chisel and a hammer. The work was a comment on police violence and the sort of surveillance endured by black and brown bodies. I intentionally did it in a public place, where I might have an encounter with the police and where people could bear witness and be more than a passive audience. Last year, I, along with Performance Space and Ballroom Marfa and a number of individual collaborators, brought a version of the piece to the Ellipse in Washington, D.C. In this case, I was thinking about the racist rhetoric of this administration, and the column was a replica of one of those lining the porticoes at the White House. Afterward, there was a dinner with a feast prepared by Gerardo Gonzalez and readings of writers’ reflections on the day. The evening evolved into a dance party and was a reminder of, given the risks and laboriousness of creating culture and speaking truth to power as queer folks, how important it is for us to have spaces dedicated to care and joy. Later this week, a new project that I organized with the artist Cassils will launch — I can’t say too much, but it involves 80 different artists from all walks of life coming together to appeal for the abolishment of immigrant detention.

Recently, I completed my decade-long self-portrait series “I Miss You Already,” many of the images from which were photographed during my extensive travels around the world; the series was a diary and a travelogue for capturing meaningful moments. One of the first things I do when I walk into any hotel or guest room is set up my camera on a tripod. That way, when the moment is right, the camera is there and ready, though often it stands there the entire trip without me taking a single picture. “Self-portrait (Mochi)” (2019) was photographed in a friend’s apartment in Paris. When I’m abroad, I must always stop by an Asian grocery store to satisfy my longing for homey food. I’m from Shanghai, where sticky rice is a staple, and felt very nostalgic eating a piece of mochi cake by a Parisian window shadowed with painterly bamboo leaves. “Self-portrait (Origami)” (2019) was photographed in Puebla, Mexico, in the morning hour at the dining table in my hotel room. Whenever I see paper napkins, my natural reaction is to fold them origami style, an art form I grew up learning. Something about doing a familiar thing in a foreign environment comforts me. At the end of the shoot, I folded a fan, a swan and an elephant. It was a perfectly introverted moment — I was alone but not lonely.

“Riot I” (2019) is from an ongoing series of sculptures, and that fact is important — the series is as much the work as any of the individual pieces within it. We are dealing in — we are trafficking in — systems here. The initial impetus for this series was the site of the prison visiting room, and the works themselves are altered one-to-one scale replicas of the furniture within those rooms. This is about touch and its foreclosure, intimacy and its foreclosure, as well as performance and commodification and exploitation. It’s about economics both micro and macro — defund the [expletive] police. Basically, these structures are emblematic of a system and infrastructure, a labor and actual people, actual lives. The bodies of “free” and “unfree” are meant to be affixed to this furniture for the duration of a visit. And there is so, so, so much more I could say about all of this. Maybe “Riot I” is an epic poem.

This work is based on memories shared with my husband, William. We were cleaning out the closet, going through mostly clothes and shoe boxes. It was cold that winter and our hearts and minds were cluttered with different emotions caused by the outside world that had come into the interior of our home and bodily homes. Our bedroom was like an icebox, but having our bodies close together kept us warm as we unpacked that evening. I wrote the following poem to accompany the image:

Kiss some friction on my rubber band
Sweet burning lick
His nails crush through and through waves
Why does his forehead feel like an icy wet dinner plate

I tend to use unconventional materials, specifically in my paintings, and often borrow from drag culture and the glamorous black women I’ve known. I’m thinking about the spaces where we celebrate identity and construct different fantasies on top of our bodies — there’s a sort of peacocking associated with wearing one’s Sunday best, for instance. “Grandmother’s Blessing” (2019) shows my own grandmother, with pieces of costume jewelry affixed to the canvas for her eyes and a blouse made of a beaded brocade. Whenever I move into a new place, she makes a point of coming out to visit and bless it, which sort of completes the space for us both. “The Abduction of Ganymede” leans more toward fantasy, a driving force in my work that allows me to create a brighter alternate reality. In the Greek myth, Zeus either sends his eagle or turns into an eagle and then abducts the most beautiful boy. My take is about self-love, about being able to embrace the narrative that you, with your black body, are beautiful.

“Oh Dear, Look Whut We’ve Dun to tha Blues” (2020) was one of the last paintings I made before the United States entered quarantine. I was feeling rising anxiety all around me, this sense that we were all going through the motions of business as usual amid a spreading virus. This doom bubbling just below the veneer of a calm, often decadent facade is one I have also felt with regard to the urgency of issues like global warming, racial injustice and class inequality, to name a few. Perhaps this is what led to me painting one of the figures with a pattern that I see as oscillating between expensive pink marble terrazzo and a stinky cheap slice of pimento loaf. “Pull on Thru tha Nite” (2017) is titled for the visual pun of the figure pulling down the night sky, a gesture that points to the mutability of context and our agency to move and even play within the confines of fixed meaning. In all my work, I am interested in the ways in which meaning is derived from an ever-shifting and always-constructed edge, and how within this boundary we are confined and contorted but also held and supported. We are subject to but can also be activated by these limits, a paradox outlined by the writer Joshua Gamson: Fixed categories of identity can be used to marginalize but, paradoxically, can be used by the marginalized to gain visibility and political power.

“Lighting Up” (2018) is from my “One Land to Another” project, which is partly a response to the lack of Asian representation in mainstream culture. I take on different characters and create these cinematic images — they’re almost like film stills. In 2018 and 2019, I visited Beijing and installed these images, temporarily, in my childhood home. My parents don’t know I’m gay, and it’s an environment where that sort of expression is not encouraged, so it was a rebellious act, a way of disrupting the heterosexual structure that’s embedded in the home and familial relations. But it was also an exploration of intersectionality and the fact that I’m not completely free there or here. In the United States, I’m a gay person and a foreigner. I’m very cognizant of how systems of oppression are used as a means of control, and I’m looking to bridge dialogues about both countries, which in certain ways are quite similar.

Growing up in Detroit, I never felt I could perform any gender other than male. But around 2015, during my first year of grad school, I started experimenting with gender performance and expression with my alter-ego, Dion, as a way of exploring fat, femme, queer, black bodies. “I Look Like My Momma (Self-portrait 1980),” is referencing two images — Robert Mapplethorpe’s “Self Portrait, 1980” and James Van Der Zee’s “Couple in Raccoon Coats, 1932.” I borrowed my mom’s raccoon-and-fox fur coat and gold necklace for it and took the photo in a peacock wicker chair reminiscent of those I used to see in our family photos. I sent the image to my mom and she said, “Damn, boy, you look good. You look like me.”

“#Project20s” started in 2017, when I was doing an independent study at Ox-bow and around a lot of white people listening to Taylor Swift, which was irritating. I, meanwhile, became fixated by the fact that both Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West have songs about the likelihood of black kids not making it to a certain age in their 20s, while also thinking about how heavily gentrification was hitting both Chicago and Detroit. My aim is to photograph upward of 200 black or brown people in their 20s by the time I turn 30 — Don, the young person pictured in the second image, was an art student who died in an ambulance after the EMTs took an unhurried approach to his asthma attack. I want for this series to live in museums or gallery spaces where it will confront the people privileged with leisure time. Gentrification is a form of racial violence, and my thinking is, “If you kick us out of our hood, I put us on your white walls.”

“Issa Saturday Study” (2019) is essentially a study for another painting I made titled “Issa Saturday” for my 2019 exhibition “Neon” at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla. The painting serves as an investigation of how and why we as a society choose to celebrate the Fourth of July when black people are still not free from the oppressions of this country.

I treat images like portals. My current exhibition, “Papa Don’t Preach,” (open by appointment at Janice Guy’s space, in collaboration with Higher Pictures, at 520 West 143rd Street in New York) looks at intersections of blackness, queerness and family. This image from the exhibition, “Was Blind, But Now I See (Granny)” (2018), narrates a moment between my mom’s mom and me. The title, a line from the song “Amazing Grace,” refers to an experience where my Granny was dead for 10 minutes after going into cardiac arrest over a decade ago due to smoking cigarettes. She was resuscitated but was blind, couldn’t speak and couldn’t walk. It was a sort of rebirth for her, especially religiously. Over the last decade, my granny has, with the help of family and friends, slowly regained her speech, her ability to walk and her sight. When she started speaking again, she recalled seeing God during the 10 minutes she was dead. The gesture of her hand over my face is a way of her sharing that testimony with me through touch. The use of the gaze is prominent in my work, and here, Granny’s gaze is mine and hers at once, even if we don’t always agree. With images existing as these portals, I continue to seek how life as a black, queer, H.I.V.-positive person intertwines with the depths of kinship, intimacy and history.

I created these works last summer for Frieze London, but they are extensions of a project I started in 2016, when I delved into the history of zoot suits and pachuco culture as they existed in my hometown of El Paso, Texas. The town also has Fort Bliss, the second largest Army post in the country, so I grew up seeing camouflage everyday, and collage was a way of unpacking both of these histories while exploring questions of race, gender and sexuality. As part of my research, I revisited Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” (1952), which describes the zoot suiters as men who existed outside of their time and also has the line, “When they approach me they see only my surroundings.” “Distorted In the Interest of Design” (2019) looks at what it means to be invisible but also hyper-visible, which is the reality of being black or brown in this country. For the series, I mine an archive of ’70s-era erotic magazines with fetishistic images of black men photographed through the gaze of white photographers. Using the centerfold, I draw clothing onto the nude models and then cut and weave the magazine pages back together. The process is additive and subtractive and, above all, a type of photographic disruption. In “Divided Territory” (2019), I affixed actual pieces of clothing. There are shirt collars, pockets, waistbands and cuffs — places where the body connects.

“RECOMMENDATION” (2018-19) is a fabricated steel barricade sculpture. In thinking about the infrastructure of crowd control, I became interested in the ubiquity of barricades at protests and other large public gatherings like concerts and political rallies. Barricades have origins in a very radical material tradition, having been made out of refuse by the working classes in 19th-century France to block and redirect the flow of street traffic as a means of protecting themselves against state violence. These structures also served as social spaces and ad hoc stages for these citizen insurgents to address one another. Through the advent of mass production, barricades have become a mobile architecture that controls how crowds and audiences are allowed to take up space; they are no longer technologies of the people but technologies of authority, and the freedom to speak and to listen is negated by the physical control rendered by the barricades’ presence. “RECOMMENDATION” considers exclusion and protection, radical expression and the regulation of speech and listening.

Though my work draws from my own experiences and emotions, my practice is fundamentally political. My 2018 “Pull-Up” series explores sagging — the style of wearing low-hanging pants that was popularized by hip-hop. The closely cropped compositions abstract the body into landscape, a political arena where people express their agendas and fantasies regardless of whether they mean harm or not. The photographs are often crafted in the studio, borrowing from the language and symbols of commercial advertising and alluding to the omnipresent commodification of the assumed bodies. The identities of the models are hidden, which draws upon the viewer’s fantasies. With works like “roscoe’s long beach 34.0407° N, 118.3476° W” (2018), I rephotographed the studio shots of the waist area outside, conflating the bodily landscape with the urban landscape and light of Los Angeles, the city where I was born and raised, and where young black men have lived and died.

The top image is from one of the rare occasions when I was invited to make photographs in a documentary context. I attended the funeral of a person who had a storied life, despite having suffered an incredibly traumatic racial violence early on. This was the only image I felt comfortable sharing with a wider audience; the guests’ identities aren’t disclosed, and yet it communicates why I was there and serves as a way of paying my respects. I noticed that those who had been closest to this person moved through the day with ease — mostly they seemed proud and at peace — and it made me think about the power the deceased had and whether forgiveness was a tool for cultivating that power. A lot of my work involves interiority, both of physical spaces and of individuals — I’m interested in what constitutes their foundation and enables them to act. Your attacker might not repent and the state might assist in perpetuating violence, so, in that lack, what tools do you have to fortify yourself?

“Prune and grout” (2019) I took last year at a New Orleans bar. There’s a companion piece to this that shows a woman with her head down on the bar, as though she’s mourning someone’s absence. This image shows the logistical setup — the person pictured here was just helping me with the other shot, but there was such concern in his eyes. His hand, which is just outside the frame here, was holding that of the woman.

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