[dropcap]T[/dropcap]hese images are not only documents,” contemporary artist and filmmaker Sebastian Lifshitz writes in the Introduction of his book, The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride, a collection of candid photographs of gay couples taken before the Stonewall Riots. “These photographs,” Lifshitz continues, “are like manifestos thrown into the oppressors’ faces.…I was under the strange impression of connecting the past with the present. Of being in the continuity of history. And I was able to partially verify my hypothesis: despite the difficulties, happiness did exist in the life of these homosexual men and women and continues still to run through their veins.”
Lifshitz’s book, and film with the same name, resonate with the new exhibit hosted at The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Center, in Manhattan. “LGBT Survival Guide, Strategies for Survival and Connection in an Unsupportive World” offers, in an artistic way that is, a much deeper, multifold experience of the life and history of the LGBT community from the Great War (WWI) days to present time. Curated by Visual AIDS board member and New York City-based artist Steed Taylor, the new exhibition captures a sample of the LGBT archives, through print copies of artwork (not originals), such as letters, journals, diaries, and photographs of the gay rights movement and the broader history of the LGBT community.
“The idea of the show is so important to our moment, if you will,” Taylor explains, “[and] that is,
LGBTQ people were looked at as mentally ill, undesirable, and evil. There was no protection not so ever. If someone would find out [that someone else was not straight, they] could be put in jail, kicked out of [their] apartment….”
He pauses, maybe to reflect on those days, as they unfolded, not too long ago, in this very country. “And now, in our current time,” he adds, “most of the LGBTQ people have protection in the United States, but not all of us do, in particular people who are transgender [and who] don’t have protection in many areas.” He jogs my memory, mentioning the preacher who came on-line saying that he thought we should kill all gay people by the end of the year. “That was the end of the year that just ended, and that is in this country. What I think it’s so heartbreaking is that in other countries in the world it is much worse—persecution, torture, and death. And I think of how people like me are being killed for just being themselves.”
Taylor goes on to say that this kind of hostile environment was typical for LGBT people who preceded us, and yet, they still figured out a way to exist and make a life for themselves. “So, although that happened in the past, it’s very necessary and relevant today,” he adds.
“One thing that I think touches on Black Lives Matter is the idea that everyone deserves respect,” Taylor points out, talking about the exhibition. “Most people who are black or minority can’t really hide. You can see that they are [black or minority]. [LGBTQ] people are somewhat unique, in that they do have the chance to blend and hide [that part of them], and figure out a way to get away from that [hostile] environment, and [find] an environment where [they can be accepted as they are].”
In order to survive, LGBT individuals who came before us came up with several survival strategies, which, in turn, make the basis of the exhibition. The survival strategies are divided in four groups:
“Be true to yourself even if you cannot be truly yourself with others.” This could mean keeping a diary, for example. The curator recalls a diary he found while looking through the archives, in which a teenage gay man writes about his kid crush, infatuation, and other thoughts and experiences that he couldn’t share with anybody else.
“Survive by blending in or hiding, but know the secret codes for connecting.” Taylor comments that he did not focus too much on this strategy, because it is pretty well known. Older photographs in the archive show groups of gay male friends going out, and bringing with them a few women friends, in order to blend in and look like any other group of possible couples. But there were secret codes for connecting—a woman offering another woman violets meant that her feelings for that other woman were more than just of friendship; men would offer carnations to express the same feelings, or some of them would wear red ties, as a secret code.
The third and fourth strategies are quite important, too. They include: “Find people who accept you as you are and stay connected to them”; and “Find a supportive community, join it and develop relationships within it.”
The “LGBT Survival Guide” exhibition offers, perhaps, an in-depth look and yet only a snapshot of the LGBTQ archives. While housing the exhibition, The Center displays only print copies of the artwork, not originals. “The Center doesn’t have the insurance to insure the work that’s in the show,” Taylor explains, “because what you actually have is A-list super-expensive artwork, so we have copies of the artwork.
By showing part of the archives at The Center, which is open every single day, people have the opportunity to stop by and see artwork that otherwise they would only be able to see in a museum. Lots of people are coming through The Center, especially now that it’s newly renovated. This way, The Center offers its visitors a novel way to learn more not only about art, but also, and most importantly, about LGBT history.
The “LGBT Survival Guide” exhibition opened on January 27, and will run through the end of April. The timing for the show is perfect—right after Visual AIDS shows such as Postcards From the Edge and Love Positive Women—in order to keep alive the conversation surrounding equal rights.
The exhibition has two parts—the show housed at The Center, featuring art pieces by contemporary artists that respond to or investigate the topic of survival in their work, and also an on-line gallery that covers a broader timeframe of LGBT history. Although the contemporary part of the exhibit is more specific to LGBTQ culture and doesn’t address, specifically, HIV and AIDS, the epidemic and its effects on the LGBTQ community is definitely present throughout the show, at times in a more subtle way, as an underlying theme. “I think any time you bring a group of LGBTQ artists together, HIV/AIDS is a topic that comes up in their work,” Taylor comments, “because that’s what they experienced, what they know it’s around them.”
There are fourteen artists featured in the show, some exhibiting one, others, up to four pieces of artwork. Out of the featured artists, three artists in particular show work that deals specifically with HIV and AIDS.
One of these artists is a South African activist and photographer, Zanele Muholi, whose body of work, Faces and Phases, brought her international attention. It all started with Muholi photographing her friend, Busi Sigasa, a poet and political advocate who was raped by a man she knew. The corrective rape did not make Sigasa straight. Because of that rape, she contracted HIV and died within a year after the portrait was taken.
Since then, photographer Muholi moved on to capture other faces, and to start “building a supportive community, one photograph at a time,” as part of her “ongoing series documenting black African lesbian and trans men.” She also included a portrait of herself, because, she recently told Taylor, “I’m one of us. I’m not observing from a distance.” Over the past eight years, she has captured more than 250 individuals that “have gazed frankly, shyly, proudly, defiantly” at her camera, “making their own history.”
Another artist, Anthony Viti, uses codes “to keep information from unsympathetic viewers.” In his series Elegy (After MH’s Iron Cross), he refers to the encrypted, coded messages used during WWI as a source of inspiration for using codes within the LGBTQ community. To make his art, he uses bodily fluids, including blood, hence referencing the idea of the human body going through the dangers of wars to that of going through dangers related to HIV and AIDS.
A third artist, and also AIDS and transgender activist, is Chloe Dzubilo. She died in 2011, but she left an undisputable legacy. Dzubilo came to New York City and became an artist of many talents—she was lead singer in a punk-rock band, a writer, performer, model, and “a muse for multiple A-list designers.” She was someone who really had that rare kind of life many might only dream of. She was a transgender person accepted and embraced by many people. But while she was well respected and living a busy public life, she used her art—either drawing pictures of herself or writing down memories—to express her more candid, intimate side, and to reconnect with herself, and as a way to convey her personal struggles. To the world, Chloe Dzubilo wanted to present that she was a fighter, while in her artwork, her personal struggles. “Those items came to New York University,” Taylor explains, “and then to our archives.”
The “LGBT Survival Guide” show is important, especially to younger LGBTQ people. It offers them the opportunity to see contemporary work that addresses their own issues—trying to find a community that accepts them as they are. Through this show, The Center offers a novel way to see their struggles, and also a history of contemporary art.
The exhibition has a powerful, timeless message that crosses generations. The four survival strategies it expresses do stand the test of time. Steed Taylor encourages LGBTQ youth of today to embrace these strategies, if needed. “It could be very scary to hear that a preacher online is saying that the country you live in should kill everybody who’s like you,” Taylor comments, directly addressing today’s LGBTQ youth. “In the past it was much worse, but [people] did survive.” He urges individuals to remember: “Be true to yourself, no matter what others are telling you. That is the most important thing. It doesn’t matter that people tell you that God doesn’t love you. You know God loves you. You know that you’re made this way. You know that you’re perfect as you are. And if you don’t [know] somebody that supports that, then keep it to yourself, and find people who do. In the meantime, make sure you’re safe. Stay connected with a community that accepts and values you as you are. And then make a life for yourself.”
To visit the online chapter of the “LGBT Survival Guide, Strategies for Survival and Connection in an Unsupportive World” exhibit, go to https://gaycenter.org/archives#archive-gallery.
To learn more about Steed Taylor, visit him online at www.steedtaylor.com.
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.