What does it mean to be queer?
A new art exhibition explores the past, present and future of queerness. "About Face: Stonewall, Revolt and New Queer Art" runs through Saturday, Aug. 10 at Wrightwood 659, 659 W. Wrightwood Ave. On June 28, the gallery hosted "Voices from the Community," a panel in which five local artists, curators and LGBTQ+ advocates discussed themes within the exhibition.
Located in Lincoln Park, Wrightwood 659 was designed by Tadao Ando, a Pritzker Prize-winning architect. According to its website, the gallery is intended "as a site for contemplative experiences of art and architecture, and as a place to engage with the pressing social issues of our time." The About Face exhibition was curated by Jonathan D. Katz, PhD, a Visiting Professor of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies at The University of Pennsylvania and chair of the doctoral program in Visual Studies at the University at Buffalo. Wrightwood 659 exhibitions manager Lauren Leving moderated the panel.
"About Face" is organized into five sectionsTransgress, Transfigure, Transpose, Transform and Transcendand features almost 500 portrait-based works of 43 artists, from queer icons Keith Haring and Harvey Milk to late Chicago surrealist Roger Brown to current multidisciplinary artists like Tianzhuo Chen and Sharon Hayes. In a program note, Katz calls the exhibition "diverse" and "a state-of-the-field survey of queer art today."
Several panelists disagreed with this assessment.
"I didn't see myself when I walked through," said LaSaia Wade, executive director of Brave Space Alliance and the first trans woman in Illinois history to be honored in Women's History Month. "Normally, I have to pick what intersections I hold [Wade is an Afro-Puerto Rican Indigenous trans woman], but I didn't see myself as a Black queer trans person within this art." A notable exception, said Wade, was a video installation featuring Black queer individuals dancing. "I spent a good 10 minutes watching it," she said.
Canadian artist and current Whitney Biennial participant Brendan Fernandes agreed. "I'm a dancer, so the first thing I do [in an exhibit] is walk through the space," he said. "Walking through the space I was asking, where do I fit in?" Jessie Mott, a Chicago-based visual artist and social worker, agreed that the exhibition felt "a little bit whitewashed. We can't have a queer show without acknowledging trans people of color. Where are those voices?
"I think it is a wonderful show that asks a lot of important questions," Mott said. "But I think there are so many more."
It wasn't just the lack of diversity, added Sarita Hernandez, arts educator and co-founder of Marimacha Monarca Press, a South Side "creative familia" for queer and trans people of color. "The [exhibition's] narrative was missing something," she said. "When the setting is framed in Stonewall, we are talking about police violence. I was hoping to engage in more of a discussion around it. LGBTQ people of color experience so much police violence."
Lisa Stone countered, speaking positively about the exhibition. "One of the things that struck me [about the exhibition] was the self-deliberation and self-identity," said Stone, curator of the Roger Brown Study Collection and senior lecturer in the Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism, both at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "I feel like most, if not all, of the portraits show an incredible sincerity. Some kinds of portraiture can be more attitudinal, but these were about the self."
The discussion moved on to the definition of "queer" and how it is defined in About Face.
"Older people see the word 'queer' as something offensive and shameful. For younger people, 'queer' is all they want to use," Mott observed.
"Growing up as a Black person in a Black household, that word was weaponized against me," said Wade. "Seeing a new generation bring positivity to the word, brings light to the future of language."
"I am a lover of the ever-changing language," Hernandez agreed. "I also think it's frustrating when the world queer is used as a blanket term. Queerness is such a resistance to violence so I get frustrated when people throw it around without understanding the struggle behind the word."
"We all have different definitions of queer. I think it's beautiful," Fernandes said. "[But] something about the way it's used in the exhibition makes it static. [In the exhibition] queerness is heavily connected to gender and sexuality, and I think we need to get away from that."
Panelists agreed that though About Face rightfully celebrates queerness, the struggle is still real.
"We want to celebrate, but we need to remember that the work still continues," Fernandes said. "I think this panel is doing that: we're trying to find new strategies and new possibilities."
"For me, everyone connects queer and gay and lesbian to happy," Wade said. "It's not. It's struggle. I'm still at Stonewall."
She added in closing, "And Pride don't stop on [June 30]. Period."
For tickets and more information, visit Wrightwood659.org .