After Orlando Massacre, Queer Art Takes a Political Turn

A new exhibit in New York City highlights an effort among artists to fight against the dehumanization of the LGBTQ community.

A photograph from "The African Queens" series, by Namsa Leuba. Photo: Namsa Leuba

In the past month, Efrem Zelony-Mindell has transformed a small gallery in New York City into a space for LBGTQ reinvention. His show, n e w f l e s h, seeks to redefine gender and sexual identities through novel representations of the queer community — a task that Zelony-Mindell, a curator and visual artist, considers uniquely pressing in the face of increasingly visible anti-LGBTQ violence. His approach: to abstract, obscure, or remove the body entirely from the works on display. “We tend to see queerness portrayed as a physical or corporeal matter,” he told The Intercept. “This thinking is dehumanizing, and that dehumanization inevitably leads to violence.”

While stereotypical images of queer culture have long frustrated Zelony-Mindell, the dehumanization he describes is all the more troubling in the wake of what is perhaps the most explicit act of anti-LGBTQ violence in our time — this past June’s massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, where 49 people were killed because they were at a space for celebrating queer identities

n e w f l e s h, which opened at the Rubber Factory on the Lower East Side last week, is part of the arts community’s larger response to the Orlando tragedy. According to Romke Hoogwaerts, editor of the photography publication Mossless, there is a growing awareness of “queer art after Orlando.” In particular, he sees an increased emphasis on the need to portray people of all identities in a way that is rigorously humanizing. “Orlando is not the only source for this,” he said, “but it was a significant, albeit dark milestone that propelled queer art in a more explicitly political direction.”

This tendency is evident not only in the works that are being made following Orlando but also in the way they are being viewed. Among the 14 pieces that comprise n e w f l e s h, perhaps the most jarring is Signe Pierce and Alli Coates’s “American Reflexxx,” a performance piece that was filmed in 2013. In it, Pierce dons a metallic mask and a cropped blue dress and meanders down the boardwalk of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Coates, her collaborator, filmed what began as a series of unsavory jeers that quickly devolved into verbal and physical violence against the performer. “By no means were we expecting violence, especially that quickly,” Coates said of the experience. “[Signe] was bleeding on the ground in only 45 minutes from the start of filming.”

Though the piece predates the Orlando shooting, its disturbing revelations are all the more relevant following the tragedy. “American Reflexxx” highlights the way in which some people react to queer identity as a target for violence. In n e w f l e s h, the piece sheds light on the mentality that drives anti-LGBTQ violence broadly and reminds us how deeply endemic this sort of violence is to American culture; per capita, the LGBT community remains the most likely minority group to be targeted by a hate crime in the United States. “The viewer walks in step with a person that is violently attacked for being different,” Coates told The Intercept in an email. “The film makes these statistics real, you can see how something like this can unfold and escalate so quickly.”

This immediacy is palpable within the walls of the Rubber Factory, where Zelony-Mindell successfully provides a new visual vocabulary for understanding queerness through the works of Ellen Carey, Thomas Albdorf, and Pacifico Silano, among others. Though he has long felt the need for new representations of LGBTQ identities, Orlando incited this grappling anew, Zelony-Mindell explains.

“It became crucial to assert the humanity inherent in queer identity,” he said.

Top photo: A photograph from “The African Queens” series, by Namsa Leuba.

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