During the preparation of this catalogue, Keijaun Thomas, one of the Drama Queer artists, asked:
I personally don’t think it is enough to say that queer art has always been left out of art history—well damn, black art and black history, especially art that focuses on creating space and holding space for black and brown people and our legacies, have always been on the margins. What will the Drama Queer catalogue do to sustain our lives? How does the catalogue reflect the urgency to preserve our collective histories?1
Drama Queer was the visual art exhibition for the 2016 Queer Arts Festival in Vancouver, British Columbia, curated by seminal queer studies scholar and activist Jonathan D. Katz and Conor Moynihan. It took place June 21-30, which meant QAF’s crew began the exhibition load-in just two days after the Pulse shooting in Orlando, Florida. This massacre targeting predominantly QPOC (queer people of colour) hit us hard, even though we were in another country, across a continent.
While I want the scale of the loss in Orlando to be unfathomable, it is not: it is a grim reminder that homophobia is still killing us. So many of us have stories of violence. Our fundamental rite of passage as queers, coming out, remains an act of courage.
I was reminded of the man that came to my house with a gun in Rock Creek to shoot me, a story I had never told until the morning after Pulse—what’s yours?
It is important to remember that Orlando’s carnage is part of a larger violent project. Part of a system in which trans people and people of colour—especially Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people—are disproportionately targeted, assaulted, and killed, too often by the police, then blamed for their own murders. Part of a system that pipelines racialized youth from resource-starved schools and social services into slave labour in prisons, and cannon fodder in wars.
Pulse reminded us how vulnerable and permeable our “safe spaces” are.
So, as I sat trying to work on the Queer Arts Festival opening just a few days later, engulfed, sputtering in rage and sadness, and trying to carry on, I was reminded again why we do what we do.
For generations, queers have carved our own spaces out of a hostile world, spaces where we can sing and dance and draw and rhyme and fuck our resistance; spaces that meld struggle with celebration, politics with sex, serious purpose with more fabulous than anyone could ever swallow. The Queer Arts Festival was specifically created as one of these spaces, an opportunity for queer artists to do the things that are hard to do as queers in the art world, as well as those things that are hard to do as artists in the queer world, including—perhaps especially—at the intersections that get stonewalled in both of these worlds.
To answer Keijaun’s question, I don’t think that an art catalogue alone can sustain us. However, I do believe the work of the artists in Drama Queer reflects the urgency to preserve collective histories/herstories/ ourstories at multiple margins. I believe that art is the first step to revolution. From Oscar Wilde to General Idea, artists have been the vanguard of the queer civil rights movement, with social and aesthetic innovations inextricably entwined. Far from a thing of the past, the underlying current of unrest in most contemporary queer art speaks to the socio-political reality of queers today. A wise person once said, resistance is important not because it changes anything, but because it keeps us human.
Queer histories are so often palimpsests, requiring loving and painstaking restoration of legacies erased and overwritten. Analogously, queer spaces tend to be temporary and contingent, rainbow-glossed bubbles blooming briefly before they give way to exhaustion or gentrification—or both.
If, as Betsy Warland asserts, the blank page is the writer’s homeland,2 then the filled page—paper and/or web—is where we as queers often find home. This catalogue extends through time and space the invitation I tendered after Pulse: Come for the art, come for a drink, come to help out, come just to hang out with us queers: us dykes, fags, nancy boys, bulldaggers, girlymen, mannish women, fairies, fence-sitters, and deviants. Come be with your people. Come because you are not afraid, or because you are. You are wanted here, and you are not alone.
Jonathan D. Katz & the birth of Drama Queer Drama Queer focuses on art produced in the new
millennium, bringing together Canadian, American, and international visual artists working in video, photography, performance, painting, and installation. It is part of Pride in Art’s mission to incite dialogue between contemporary artists that transcends discipline and place, yet it was the first time that
I engaged a US-based scholar—the internationally- renowned curator Jonathan D. Katz—to guest curate the visual art component of this festival. Katz is arguably the leading authority in queer art history, and his work as curator, scholar, and activist has had a profound impact on the understanding of queer art and artists in both academia and the larger world.
I encountered Jonathan’s work as I was researching my essay “Towards a Repositioning of Queer Art.”3 Katz co-curated the 2010 exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference, Desire, and the Invention of Modern American Portraiture at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, the first major museum show of overtly queer visual art in the US. Katz was doing transformative work most others were afraid to do: to identify what was hidden in plain sight. It felt like Katz was reading my mail when he articulated, “We’re in a place where we have carved out a position for queers in popular culture, but not, if you’ll excuse the term, in high culture.”4
I tracked Katz down when he was speaking in Vancouver and asked him to curate for QAF. I told him the festival theme for the year was Stonewall was a Riot, but that the exhibition theme was open. He responded with the theme for Drama Queer:
Drama Queer explores the role of emotion in contemporary queer art as a form of political practice. Emotion has been identified by scholars and activists as central to much queer contemporary work. This exhibition places the queer utility of emotion into a historical context… Wildly diverging queer artists have shared credence in art’s capacity to, if not produce social change, at least lubricate its prospects. And central to this generalized belief is the idea that queerness works a seduction away from naturalized, normative and thus invisible ideological creeds towards a position that is precisely other to, at a tangent from, social expectation. In deviating from social norms, queer art calls the viewer, of whatever sexualities, to an awareness of their own deviancy. Drama Queer solicits a range of contemporary work that engages how feelings function in our political present and the different facets of art and emotion—political emotion, erotic emotion etc. This exhibition explores art that seeks to engender social change by making the viewer an accomplice, queering their perspective or seducing them into seeing the world from a dissident vantage point.
Jonathan commented at QAF’s opening night that despite our budgetary restraints, he was able to program works and take risks that would have been impossible at the large museums with whom he typically works.
Meanwhile, in Canada…
Now after all this death and all this pain and all this unbearable truth about persecution, suffering and the indifference of the protected, Now, they’re going to pretend that naturally, naturally, things just happened to get better… We come around when it’s the right thing to do. We’re so nice. Everything just happens the way it should.
—Sarah Schulman, The Gentrification of the Mind: Witness to a Lost Imagination, 2012
Canada likes to portray itself as a haven for sexual and gender diversity, with over a decade of same-sex marriage behind us, and many legal protections in place. We paint these developments as the inevitable progress of an enlightened nation.
Yet, two thirds of the homophobic/transphobic hate crimes reported in this country are violent attacks— two to three times the rate of violent racist or religious hate crimes. That man that came to my house with a gun: that was in the great, “safe” country of Canada. In addition to the systemic violence, queer youth are grossly overrepresented among our nation’s homeless and suicides. It is clear that everything does not just happen the way it should.
Canadians are deeply attached to our national mythology of niceness, in spite—or perhaps because— of our country’s foundation on genocidal colonialism. Indigenous historians remind us that in two thirds of the nearly 200 Indigenous languages on this continent, the words for gender were not binaries, but rather varying conceptions of three to six genders. They teach us that prior to colonization, Two-Spirit people held an honoured place in their societies. The homophobic dystopia in which we now find ourselves is a direct product of colonization.
So, as we contemplated Pulse, it was particularly symbolic that Drama Queer took place at the Roundhouse, which repurposes as an arts centre the western terminus of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the literal endpoint of pioneering westward expansion. And overlooking the former locomotive turntable sashayed Kent Monkman’s monumental Dance to the Berdashe. The term “Berdache” is a racist slur denoting a Two-Spirit person, and this five-channel video installation references a colonial oil painting of the same name. Depicting Saukie warriors vying for the sexual favours of an I-coo-coo-a (Saukie Two-Spirit person) to win glory in battle, the original was painted in the 1860s by pseudo-ethnographer George Catlin to illustrate what he termed “one of the most unaccountable and disgusting customs that I have ever met in the Indian country… and where I should wish that it might be extinguished before it be more fully recorded.”5
In Monkman’s revisioning, four Indigenous dandies pay court to his stunningly sensual alter-ego Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. It is hard to convey in a catalogue the extent to which Dance to the Berdashe dominated the gallery, with its 750 m2 (50’x50’) footprint occupying the huge central swath of Drama Queer’s floor plan, and its rhythmic soundtrack penetrating to every corner of the hall as the beating heart of the exhibition, Monkman’s hybridity queering European colonial elements into Indigeneity.
Audre Lorde notwithstanding, reclaiming the tools of our oppressors to the service of our liberation has long been a key strategy in queer collective herstories. Words or symbols we now commonly use to identify ourselves within our communities, like Queer, Dyke, or the Pink Triangle, we have subverted from erstwhile derogatory or outright murderous purpose.
The Drama Queer artists chosen as essayists deploy this strategy with varying materials, including language, imagery, and the detritus of capitalist consumer culture. They have each been working for many years at the many-hyphenated junctures of queer art, and their essays here amplify perspectives rooted in their multifaceted identities.
Del LaGrace Volcano, international spokesmodel of delirious gender ambiguity, writes about their collaboration with theatre artist Mojisola Adebayo for the work that generated the most controversy in the exhibition: Moj: Minstrel Tears.
Carl Pope reminds us that this mayhem of hate, while shocking to all-realities-white, is just another Tuesday in the life of the descendants of bodies stolen, kept sick and illegal.
Joey Terrill muses about his love of Pop art, despite never seeing himself reflected in it. His riotous and colourful insertions of his Chicano self into the Pop art landscape defy erasure: “Look at me/¡Mirame!”.
This exhibition and catalogue were a labour of love, to which a great many people contributed their energy and devotion. I’d like to thank the artists for contributing their work to this catalogue so that Drama Queer could live on. The exhibition was made possible through the generous support of the Vancouver Foundation, the Canada Council, Canadian Heritage, BC Gaming, the BC Arts Council, and the City of Vancouver. Thank you to our terrific partners at the Roundhouse, especially Marie Lopes for your tireless support and François Grenier. I’d particularly like to extend my personal thanks to QAF’s terrific crew, who went above and beyond to make Drama Queer a reality: Elliott Hearte, Rachel Iwaasa, Odette Hidalgo, Eugenio Sáenz Flores, Kimberly Sayson, Gavin Liang, Maggie Holblingova, Emily Bailey, Alecska Divisadero, Lauren Emmett, and Richard Forzley. Thank you to Jonathan D. Katz and a very special thanks to Conor Moynihan, without whose assiduousness and perseverance this catalogue could never have happened.
The 2016 Queer Arts Festival is lovingly dedicated to the memory of all the beautiful queers who died at Pulse in Orlando on June 12, 2016, and to all those who survive. Keep loving, keep fighting.
1 Keijaun Thomas, e-mail to author and Conor Moynihan, September 11, 2017.
2 Betsy Warland, Oscar of Between: A Memoir of Identity and Ideas (Halfmoon Bay, BC: Caitlin Press 2016), 40.
3 SD Holman, “Towards a Repositioning of Queer Art,”SD Holman: Artist Website, December 31, 2014, http://sdholman.com/towards-a-repositioning-of-queer-art/.
4 Jonathan D. Katz quoted in Avram Finkelstein, “Speaking With Jonathan David Katz,” Art Writ, Spring 2011, http://www.artwrit. com/article/avram-finkelstein-speaks-with-jonathan-david-katz/.
5. George Catlin quoted in “Dance to the Berdashe,” Urban Nation: a filmmaking project between Kent Monkman and Gisèle Gordon, accessed November 16, 2017, http://urbannation.com/ films.php?film=dance-to-the-berdashe.