featured gallery for July 2016

Archival Pleasures

“Surely our desire for radical social change is intimately linked with our desire to experience pleasure, erotic fulfillment, and a host of other passions." -bell hooks

As a fine art photographic artist who works with and within archives, my practice is first and foremost driven by curiosity and a desire to re-think and re-imagine what our black and queer archives can be, what they can become, and most importantly what the archive is doing.

My month-long curatorial residency with Visual AIDS / Residency Unlimited in March 2016 afforded me a unique opportunity to be in "dialogue" with both artists whom we have sadly lost to HIV/AIDS through their work as well as those living with the virus. In addition to this, I had the opportunity to meet artists and cultural workers who include an analysis of HIV/AIDS within their wider social engagement work; in some instances, I photographed and filmed them within my makeshift pop–up studio.

It was this curiosity and a host of continuing conversations that led me to apply for the Visual AIDS curatorial residency, as there is currently no such slide registry in the UK, charting the journey of HIV/AIDS through photography, painting, mixed media and object-based work.

My concern is not what archives include, but what our black, queer and black-queer archives exclude? What are the oversights? What is the role of affect, the erotic, pleasure, the sensual, emotions, feelings in our work as archival archivists/black-queer griots. How can pleasure, for instance, be employed as a political tactic within our social movement work?

Cruising the registry, I am always excited when I am able to have free reign and open access to files: Dropping in on other peoples conversations over the decades; reading touching personal notes; seeing hand written notes I am unable to decipher; imagining and re-imagining what the words could mean; indirectly laying my finger prints on top of others and knowing other archivist-activists and researchers will come and lay their fingerprints on top of mine; touching materials that people have cared for and cherished; touching our multiple interconnected histories.

Working with the Visual AIDS slide registry and coming across artists and creative practioners outside of the usuals, there is always a pleasure in exploring artists and works of arts that have been unknown to me. In addition to this, I realized how much I miss holding 35mm colour transparencies. Seeing them on a light box is one thing, but the gesture of closing one eye (usually it’s the right eye) and holding them up to the window light is another thing altogether.

The images from the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry I’ve selected are among my favorites but are only a handful of the many works I came across during my residency. With each image I looked at, each bit of material I touched in the archive, and each individual artist–archivist–activist whom I had the pleasure of meeting during my time with Visual AIDS, I am reminded that AIDS is not over.

The numbers below correspond to my responses for the artworks above:

1. What Charles Long's badge affirms for me is how much of our queer identities within the mainstream press, including our Black and LGBT mainstream, are at risk of becoming sanitized, cleaned up and made palatable. Whilst I am not romantic about the margins, I still think the margins can and do generate all kinds of experiences and narratives on the left of our queer experiences.

2. I have always been drawn to the raw energy of Michael Mitchell’s art, since I first came upon his work in back issues of Black Leather in Color, a magazine dedicated to articles, image and discussions on Black queer folks in the leather, kink lifestyle. What this image also alludes to is one of the final taboos in relation to black sexual practices and those into brown (also known as scat).

3. Matthew Papa's Jerome poses at the edge of the sofa, his black skin contrasts against the blue sofa and the wall, which has dances of light on it. I am drawn to his full lips and his chest, and I like the position of his feet, as his toes trigger my own fetishism for toes. He looks directly at the camera, yet his frame twists away from the viewer/spectator/voyeur (I am the one who enjoys projecting my desires). What stands out more is the yellow and green band on his wrist: I am unsure if it is a watch, a medical band or something else altogether. My curiosity leads me to come back to the wrist.

4. Richard Renaldi's photograph of poppers reminds me that I am always drawn to photographs that trigger and host pleasurable experiences. Here is my poppers 101 for those who have not had the pleasure: Poppers are primarily sold in sex-shops, cruise bars, and saunas. There are primarily 3 different types of poppers you can purchase: amyl nitrate, butyl nitrate and isobutyl nitrate. It is not illegal to be in possession of poppers, however there have been discussions in the UK government about whether they should be made illegal under The Medicine Act.

Tip - Keep in fridge for longevity.

5. I love the playfulness of the T-shirt in Peter Robinson Jr's "Everybody Loves Cock" and the play on the word cock. I like the double entendre it evokes around the sexual and the risqué. What this image also evokes for me is my love for double entendre: within British cinematic tradition, as an example, one can look at the early carry on movies from the 60’s and 70’ or with gay language such as Polari when homosexuality was illegal. Polari was brought mainstream with such radio shows as Round the Horne in the UK or by queens of comedy such as John Iman, Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howerd, and Larry Grayson.

6. Through the Visual AIDS archive there are a range of artists I came across for the first time; one such artist is Derek Jackson—whose work immediately spoke to me. First of all, SM/Kink has always had a problematic relationship to Black experiences and narratives, so what I am drawn to is that fact Derek’s images highlight the performative nature of our practices and I am delighted that it takes place with a public space and not always kept behind close doors:

Topless hairy chested guy with dreadlocks with what appears to be a bullwhip in one hand and on the floor doggy position a guy with afro—being lead by guy with locks—both occupying their respective roles as master and slave. However, this is not to say that there is a binary, as one does not need the other in order to exist. I am reminded of one of my top ten books here: Coldness and Cruelty with Venus in Furs by Gilles Deleuze.

7. A sensual diptych with brother looking away from camera, contemplative, draws up the Greco–Roman tradition of posing male nudes. Brother is both object and subject at the same time, which in my view breaks down the binary between self and other.

Bathhouses for me represent a nocturnal community and there is a confidence in the eyes, staring out to the viewer. My own fantasies are triggered … how many more men are in the bathhouse? Was the self-portrait taken before or after a fuck session? What was spoken or not? Why this position on the bed—hands on nipple, fingers partially hidden under the towel? Does this indicate a preferred sexual position or not? I have a preference for those images that leave questions unanswered and allow room for my fantasies to run riot. The stare is never direct, which makes the vouyeur somehow feel invited into the room.

8. A man tenderly looks at his own reflection, wearing a slave collar, harness, thong–pierced nipple holding a belt in one hand, trousers just above the knees, his ass lovingly tilted towards the mirror. The image conjures up a modern day narcissus—while this was taken as recent as 2004—it is black and white, which always invokes a past, nostalgia. The image leaves room for me to project my own fantasies… Is this self-portrait taken in a play room or a space-constructed for pleasure? There is another harness hanging up in the picture... Does this belong to Tracy Silverberg, the artist? How deep is the leather obsession? What scenes are played out? Part of me wishes that the camera would pan out so I can see more of the space, to have a sense of what else is part of this leather obsession.

9. With this photograph, Walt Cessna pictures two of the many things I am drawn to (and sexually turned on by): the black male body (in repose, non-confronational) and fish nets. The feet in fish nets reminds me of another one of my favourite artists, Pierre Molinier.

10. 35 Polaroids, framed within a grid format by Angel Borreo. One of the things I miss about Polaroids is their scale and the fetish-like quality to them, including their tactile qualities.

One of the challenges of looking at images, since they are representational, is a desire to make sense, to find meaning. There is a large question at play and it is what makes an image work, even if the viewer can not make sense. To put it another way… I am drawn to images without always knowing why.

11. Bern Boyle's image is noteworthy: The body as canvas, the body as a blue and white canvas… The delicate tattoos, symbols and signs… The luscious pink nipples jutting out of the blue and white canvas. Red Ink, red nipples and the different shades of red-ness against shades of blue on the beautiful skin canvas.

12. Beards – Steve Muench's "Charlie" reminds me of one of my former boys who has a thing for beards, he gets off calling men with beards daddy – and it’s a beautifully lit black and white profile shot of a guy with a beard.

I am always drawn to images that have a full range of black, whites and greys with a keen eye for symmetry and composition.

13. My curiosity is to see what can’t be seen in Charles Hopkinson's image, but only implied – that is sub/slave hands tied back. I have purposely not used the pronoun he as not to give the sub/slave an identity.

14. One of my favourite 10 ten books is Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz. A quote I keep coming back to and have used on many occasions as part of my artist talks: “People have found it necessary to define themselves in images, in photographs, in film and drawings, in order not to disappear—I am beginning to think that the last frontier for radical gesture is the imagination."

15. Marcelo Maia's image pictures black blue skin by virtue of the lighting technique, revealing hairless muscle toned chest – dreadlocked, no beard revealing full lips... Eyes looking not directly at the spectator/voyeur but slightly above the eyeline—posed as if slightly standing to attention. (I recognize that pose and looks from the days I was in the army.)

16. Quentin Crisp (1908–1999), pictured here by TRET Tierney, was an English writer and raconteur. I remember being totally mesmerised when I saw The Naked Civil Servant (staring John Hurt, 1975) on the life and queer times of Quentin Crisp. One of my favourite quotes by the stately homo is "Never keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level."

17. Richard Vechi has created a beautiful twist and re-visioning of the Greek mythology of Narcissius—me watching me watching me—this image moves away from the narrative of the pursuit of gratification/the ego as one of dis-order to one of self-empowerment.

18. I am drawn to the juxtaposition of one medium against another, in this case painting which has a long and illustrious history against a relative new technology-based medium, photocopy. The colour of the skin of the sitter is unreal with various shades of pink and red overlaying each other. I am also drawn to this image for the mere fact that toilets and associated pleasure are the domain of the private and Frederick Weston is blurring the lines between private and public.