Black and Queer. Two fragments of my identity that piece me together but rarely have the opportunity to openly coexist in outside spaces. To be able to experience an exhibit on Blackness and an exhibit on Queer history in the same day is an privilege that we don’t always receive - I’m thankful for the opportunity the resident’s free museum day at Balboa Park provided. The Museum of Photographic Arts and the San Diego History Center are the particular spaces I’m referring to.
Jamaican-and-English-mixed photographer, Erica Deeman, had two collections within the MOPA installation room. Both focused on imbuing the African diaspora with positive visual representation through traditional techniques that, in many occasions, were created for a white gaze.
Her first collection in the space, Silhouettes, is a series of portraits that reference the work of 19th century silhouettes and physiognomy, which is often linked to racial or sexual stereotyping as it indicates character based off of physical, often facial, characteristics. The juxtaposition of this style with the use of Black models presents a dichotomy that reveals the incredible nuances of the Black feminine. I say feminine because the portraits of this series were women. It makes me think of Audre Lorde’s poignant heed of using the master’s tool to dismantle his house - Deeman is actually (and successfully) using the master’s techniques to dismantle how we see art. The context is far different, but Deeman’s work truly captures the diverse beauty of Black women; from their facial structure to their hair.
The added bonus that the portraits - although seemingly look black and white - are in color visually speaks to the idea that nothing in this world is “black and white.” I stepped away from this collection really thinking a lot about identity and how Black women experience it in our society. I imagine that my friend, Emily, who accompanied me to the exhibit, identified a lot with the collection. You can read her post on the exhibits here.
In Deeman’s words, “Today, we are living through an important time where tough questions about both people of color and women are being treated and depicted.”
Deeman’s second collection, Brown, was a treat I didn’t think I’d get to experience. The choice to use a color similar to her skin tone as a background added a wonderful dimension to the series because it not only injected identity into the picture, but also helps us further connect to the Blackness exercised in here. To have a space that’s Black-occupied is a compelling way to make other Black folk feel welcome and see ourselves as art.
The portraits themselves were beautiful, showing an array of Black men without any clothing to strip away any signifiers that could cause us to interpret the subjects any differently than themselves. Many of the men look away from the camera, with very few looking into it. This makes me wonder if they feel uncomfortable with the idea of being seen as art in a society that continually reiterates to them that they aren’t worthy of it. Erica’s words at the end of the introducing really gives me chills: “The images ask us to rethink how we see Black men and challenge their portrayal in fine art, emphasizing their individuality.”
To say that I walked away feeling full from the exhibit would be an understand. To see Black people used are symbols of beauty was incredibly warming and humbling. I’m very conscious of my privilege of being lightskinned to the brink of adjacency to euro-centric beauty standards. I have the privilege (sometimes disadvantage) of being in the window seat, often to both sides, so to see a culture that I identify so much with being placed in a position of celebration makes me emotional. If you have the opportunity to visit MOPA this weekend, I encourage you to see the exhibit. The museum itself is pay-what-you-can.
I honestly wasn’t expecting to see this exhibit. As part of the free museum day, the San Diego History Center was admission-free to residents but I wasn’t too conscious on what would be in there. So imagine my surprise when the first thing I see when we walked in is “LGBTQ+.” As Emily mentions in her blog post, my eyes lit up the whole time we walked through because I’ve never been to a space that was so dedicated to Queer history in a public area. To say that I was more surprised for it to be in San Diego would be an understatement. This exhibit refreshed my mind quite a bit and also educated me in the history of San Diego’s community.
The curation team, led by LGBTQ+ historian, Lillian Faderman, outdid themselves on the design of the space and history discussed. The main wall was a timeline that begin in the 50s and ended on today. It covered moments from before the Stonewall Riots and the “AIDS Crisis” in the 1980s, to the first Gay & Lesbian Parade and local history about San Diego County’s relationship with the community. While I feel quite educated in the grand scheme of Queer history, seeing the connections between our history as a whole and San Diego’s history was extremely informative and made me feel a deeper appreciation for the city itself; a city that I don’t often feel attached too. It was particularly compelling to read how galvanized the community was during the AIDS crisis in providing help and assistance to those who contracted HIV.
The linear path of the exhibit was paved with giant letters that spelled “San Diego,” which I felt provided a really creative touch as each letter held more history, resources and acknowledged the struggles we still have ahead of us. Part of the exhibit also honored community leaders in San Diego, with spaces for nominations (I already know who I want to nominate to be featured there, someone who’s had an impact on me since I first came here).
Something that really captivated me was that in the middle of the center hung a panel of the original AIDS Memorial Quilt that was presented at the National Mall in 1987. The energy emanating from it was beautiful, powerful and harrowing. Additionally, the exhibit had its own community quilt that it was making, and that Emily and I contributed too. Whether big or small, we contributed to a new history. I’m thankful to have shared that moment with such a special friend!
The LGBTQ+ San Diego exhibit will be flagshipped until January 2020, so please visit it if you have the opportunity too. The San Diego History Center is open to all with suggested donation of $10.
To visit Balboa Park: