An NYU Special Collections Exhibit to Commemorate Stonewall 50, and a Display of AIDS Memorial Quilt Panels, Help to Honor AIDS Activism & Art
by Chael Needle
In honor of Stonewall 50, New York University Special Collections assembled Violet Holdings: LGBTQ+ Holdings from the NYU Special Collections, which spotlights the diversity of queer life from the mid-1800s to the present day, creating a timeline that helps to illuminate the spectrum of lived experiences and different forms of art and activism taken up by LGBTQ+ individuals. The exhibit includes actor, theatrical producer and women’s suffrage activist Elizabeth Robins, who died in 1952 at the age of ninety; writer Samuel Delany; and avant-garde playwright María Irene Fornés, among many others.
Of course, the exhibit also includes queer folks who lived with and often responded in their work to HIV/AIDS, including artist Martin Wong [A&U, December 2017], artist and advocate Chloe Dzubilo, Gran Fury member and artist Avram Finkelstein [A&U, June 2019], and DJ and music producer Larry Levan.
As a complement to the exhibit, which was unveiled last April, NYU Libraries last month
unfurled nine panels from the NAMES Project Foundation’s AIDS Memorial Quilt, which were hung around the Mamdouha Bobst Gallery. Represented by the panels, each of which contains at least eight sections, are members of the trans community, incarcerated individuals, artists and activists who made an impact on New York’s downtown arts scene, and an NYU student, Paul Fitz Simmons. One panel was created by the NYU community in 1990 to honor students, faculty, and staff members lost to AIDS. Panels also pay tribute to performance artist Ethyl Eichelberger, artist Sharon Redd, AIDS physician and activist Dr. Peter Manzzoni, actress and author Cookie Mueller, filmmaker Marlon Riggs, poet Essex Hemphill, and poet and musician Gil-Scott Heron.
“These Quilt pieces bear witness to our humanity and serve to archive our history. NYU is located in Greenwich Village, just a few blocks from St. Vincent’s Hospital, where many AIDS patients were treated and spent their final days. The intimacy and tradition of the quilt as a symbol of comfort and warmth has a long history. Each quilt is handmade, takes time, offers an opportunity for close reflection, and is a truly unique document” said Marvin J. Taylor, Curator for the Arts at NYU Libraries, in a prepared release.
“The AIDS crisis continues today, but from the early eighties to the late nineties it was especially hard hitting. The trauma to so many, to an LGBT generation, disproportionately felt amongst African Americans and Latinos, needs to be recognized. These quilt panels were made by survivors in memory of those who died from the illness but they also serve as arts activism, as resistance, as a call to not be silent,” said Karen Finley, an arts professor at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and co-curator of the AIDS Memorial Quilt exhibition at NYU, in a prepared release. “When people died, they were not given proper burials or funerals. But friends, lovers, family, and community members created this magnificent quilt to recognize and celebrate those who left us too soon. We honor the creation of this archive as an act of agency, illumination, and witnessing—a memento mori.”
The panels will be displayed until December 15, when the Violet Holdings exhibit will close.
A&U recently had a chance to speak with historian, writer and activist Hugh Ryan, the exhibit’s curator and author of When Brooklyn Was Queer: A History.
Chael Needle: What does the title of the exhibit mean?
Hugh Ryan: Oh! We just wanted an evocative title that would reference the fact that it was NYU’s collections we were highlighting. Since violet is their color, and purple is often used historically by queer groups, we thought it would get at both meanings—while simultaneously suggesting the drama, oppression, and resistance the collections themselves show.
How did you go about compiling Violet Holdings: LGBTQ+ Holdings from the NYU Special Collections? What did you want to achieve in order to commemorate Stonewall 50 and “look back, move forward,” as its tagline reads?
Compiling the object list for Violet Holdings was a long process: First, I surveyed the NYU archives staff about some of their favorite LGBTQ collections, since I know they are the experts. Then, I did my own dive into the archives themselves, pulling out queer holdings that might easily go overlooked (like the collection of Elizabeth Robins, who is not always recognized as part of queer history). My goal was to show off how extensive and wide-reaching the queer holdings at NYU are, to inspire others to dig into this incredible resource. Important holdings like these are only useful in as much as they are explored, seen, and used by researchers and scholars.
Poring over and reading Martin Wong’s papers, particularly with the letter exchange commenting on experiences living with HIV, I was struck by how powerful it can be to look at personal ephemera. Wong has a devastating line in his unsent letter to friend Angel Ortiz: “They are treating me like I’m radioactive or something. Everything I touch automaticly [sic] becomes a toxic waste.” This happened again when I looked at Chloe Dzubilo’s sketch of her HIV meds and Avram Finkelstein’s “Silence = Death” journal entry sketch. They are quite different than reading a published book or looking at a finished artwork. Is this approach to understanding someone why archiving papers is important? What are other reasons to do so?
The Martin Wong collection is truly phenomenal, and those letters in particular are so captivating. For me, they show personal moments of solidarity that are moving and meaningful because they are not necessarily the story we think we know about the AIDS crisis. How often do we see discussions about HIV/AIDS among members of the NYC graffiti community? As Chloe and Avram’s collections do as well, they remind us of the person behind the art and the activism, and they show us these people in vibrant color, as full human beings.
What were your thoughts when you saw displayed the Peter Lewis Allen Safe Sex Collection, which to me seemed diverse, with different approaches, styles and target audiences?
I was really excited to show the Peter Lewis Allen Safer Sex Collection because of the incredible diversity of materials it has, which show us the manifold, creative, community-based responses that queer people (and many others) have developed over the years to take care of our sexual health.
Visit the exhibit at the Mamdouha Bobst Gallery, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, New York.
Chael Needle, MFA, PhD, is the coeditor of the anthology, Art & Understanding: Literature from the First Twenty Years of A&U. He has served as Managing Editor of A&U for nearly twenty years. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.