Sur Rodney (Sur) with artists Jack Waters, Peter Cramer and Kate Huh

For Black History Month, curator Sur Rodney (Sur) was invited by City College of New York to write about his "perspective as a black gay curator during the time of the AIDS crisis and the increase of black artists in the gallery system.” He kindly allowed us to repost it here on the Visual AIDS blog. What follows is a personal essay in which (Sur) explores art, race, and American culture, including his ongoing work with Visual AIDS.

From 1982-1988 I was co-director of the Gracie Mansion Gallery, a gallery that was given a lot of attention, as were the artists it represented, the original line-up included myself and Gerald Jackson [1]. At that time, I was aware of very few Black artists who had entered the arena of representation in the periodicals or exhibitions that I was aware of at the time. Not that they didn’t exist, they were out there, many of them associated with what I was to later realize was a segregated art world, introducing me to the fact that there were art worlds.

Looking for facets of my Black queer self at that time, I went looking in the literary world and found the Blackheart Collective, a group of poets and writers who were attempting to create a prominent place for Black gay literature similar to what had been created in the Harlem Renaissance of the1920s. Engaging within the visual arts was certainly still of interest, but my writing and homosexuality were way more important to my expressive concerns.Had I been looking in the art worlds, I might have discovered JAM (Just Above Midtown) the first gallery space to regularly exhibit the work of African-American and other artists of color in a major art district. I didn’t learn of their existence until a decade later. I was shocked when I learned of JAM’s existence late in the game, as I never understood, with my prominence in the art world during the 1980s, why I had never been approached by any of these artists to engage with them in anyway back then. Lorraine O’Grady and Gerald Jackson being the exceptions, along with Jack Waters of ABC No Rio and Joe Lewis of Fashion Moda. I guess I was too flamboyant, unabashedly queer, and socially connected with too may white folks to have the Black art world embrace me. That attitude would change a decade later when I joined forces with Kenkeleba House, named for a West African plant believed to possess spiritual powers. Kenkeleba dedicated its program to the exhibition of artworks by African-American, Latino, Asian-American and Native American artists. It was in their archives that I learned about JAM and so much more.

In my world, within the battlefield of AIDS in the 1980s, the emergence of Black visual artists were not on my radar, Basquiat and some of the graffiti writers were, as was Martin Wong who was partnered with Miguel Piñero and ran with the graffiti crews compelling Martin to amass an enormous collection of graffiti artworks that was posthumously donated to the Museum of the City of New York. In the worlds of theater, music, dance, fashion and literature we knew many artists of color, they were scarcely promoted in the visual arts although an influx would come into light later, during the decade of the 1990s when the art world had crashed and multiculturalism was briefly celebrated and swept in a few—the sweepings, much stronger since the Black Male show [2] at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1994.

My knowledge of artists of color and AIDS was achieved through my work with Visual AIDS, an organization that utilizes art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue,supporting HIV+ artists, and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over. Curating a number of shows for Visual AIDS, I came to discover a range of artists of color--Edith Alvarez; Jose L. Anselmi;Juan Manuel Arellano; Rodney R. Brown; Luis Carle; Alma “Maritza” Cortez; JoseLuis Cortes; Joe De Hoyos; Darrell Ellis; Linda Ellis; Miguel Ferrando; Anselmo Figueiredo; Donna (Peter) Giles; Doralisa Goitia; Levin L. Logan; Logan Ortiz;Juan Rivera; Abnel Rodriguez; MInda Rodriguez; Rafael Rodriguez; Juan M.Sanchez; Michael Slocum; Felix González-Torres; Willmer Velez; and the remarkable Fredrick Weston. Visual AIDS Archives would likely present many more today, as is in evidence in their monthly web exhibitions archived on the Visual AIDS web site.These artists all outstanding in what they’ve had to offer with their practice and engagement within the visual arts, the AIDS pandemic,and their colorism.

There were others I had known before then: Sunil Gupta through a gay group at McGill University in Montreal; Isaac Julian who witnessed my performing excerpts from an Assotto Saint play at the University of London; Angel Borrero, who I was already familiar with tangentially through his friendship with Ray Johnson; Tseng Kwong Chi and Adolfo Sanchez through our mutual friendship with members of Club57 in the East Village; Snuky Tate a musician, visual artist and poet; and certainly the estimable Jack Waters who directed and edited the film Percodan and Wisdom, based on my poem o fthe same title that featured an all Black cast. A recent co-curatorial excericse NOT OVER: 25 Years of Visual AIDS (2013) had me working with Rafael Sánchez, Charles Long and Derek Jackson(with whom I’ve collaborated with and launched the short lived HUNGZINEPAPERS created by and for neo queer afro punks and their admirers).

My curating exhibitions and work with Visual AIDS has me disclose all of the above mentioned artists,the majority of them identify as LGBT and their seropositive status is known.Thinking of the seropositive artists we don’t know about is a sensitive issue for many reasons, particularly as it relates to criminalization around disclosure driving many into the closet or refusing to get tested. There are a number of artists of color I worked with whose status might be seronegative albeit their contributions to a critical reception of artists working with concerns around the representation of AIDS in the visual arts are important--that group would include Pato Hebert; Camilo Godoy; Aldrin Valdez; Carlo Quispe and Hayat Hyatt amongst others. There are likely others associated with ACT-UP, a group I never participated with however a group of my comrades were active participants,and some were associated with organizations that worked with LBGT communities like the Hetrick-Martin Institute that creates an environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth between the ages of 13 and 24 and their families.

With the proliferation of African-American artists within and without AIDS and out in the LGBT community, several have come into the spotlight of contemporary visual art since the 1980s, a list I will not attempt to outline here, nor will I detail the shows and or catalogs available that highlight this. Lyle Ashton Harris I will single out as an exemplary gay African-American artist that I’ve not mentioned, as he is not amongst the artists I have worked with. Lyle, whose work has always been of interest to me was often taken as persona non grata, by his own admission, by many in the Black art world (I applaud him for speaking to this as I’ve experienced the same) for being unabashedly flamboyant and out about his queerness in his art. The other artist who stands out (when it comes to marginalization) is Vaginal Davis. If you really want to discover what queer African Americans in the contemporary visual arts have to claim use Vaginal fora template. How about trying the same with Ulrick Desert, Nayland Blake, Mickalene Thomas or Adam Pendelton. Or, maybe Kalup Linzy or Jacolby Satterwhite. How many of us are there to consider in the ongoing AIDS crisis and the surge of Black artists in the gallery system, and who’s counted?

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[1] Gerald Jackson was represented in the original group Gracie Mansion chose to work with and, was among the artists included in her landmark exhibition Beyond the American Standard.

[2] an exhibition that opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, in November 1994, chronicles these changing perceptions of African-American masculinity as interpreted in painting, sculpture, photography, and mixed-media work, as well as in film and video.