This is the first in a series of blogs I’m doing for the NYPL in conjunction with the show Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism.
I’ll be taking an in depth look at six key works generated during the early days of AIDS in NY, and sharing some stories about the issues and strategies that surrounded their creation.
Jackie “Moms” Mabley: The Early Years
Pioneering African American comedienne Jackie “Moms” Mabley (1894-1975) is the subject of a new documentary airing November 18th on HBO, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley.
While Mabley reportedly “came out as a lesbian” at the age of 79, she was known for her gender-bending appearance during her early years in black vaudeville as well. Within the entertainment industry of the early 20th century, her romantic interest in women was common knowledge, but such behavior was also ubiquitous, as other performers such as Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Alberta Hunter and Mabel Hampton also engaged in sexual and romantic relationships with women. During this era, Mabley was a central figure in the Harlem social world of queer black performers. Mabel Hampton remembered that Mabley used to throw parties that “all the girls in the show would go” to in the 1920s.
In 1934, the New York Age newspaper reported that Mabley and talented pianist and singer Gladys Bentley – who was also known for her bulldagger swagger – shared the stage at Harlem’s Log Cabin Grill. The New York Age had frequently noted that the Log Cabin Grill was a popular hangout for “lady lovers” with their “boyish bobs.” They also printed a gossip item noting, “That versatile lady, J.M.” was seen “strolling the avenue” with another young woman. Women who loved women were becoming so visible on the streets of Harlem that the same journalists advised, “The fellows better keep their eyes open and watch their women,” lest they lose them to a “sophisticated lady” like Jackie Mabley.
Mabley went on to become a nationally renown comedienne: she performed regularly at the Apollo Theater, appeared at Carnegie Hall in 1962, which introduced her to a white audience, and then went on to make many television appearances. While her persona was by then that of an eccentrically dressed older woman who tackled taboo social subjects through her humor, off-stage she enjoyed wearing tailored suits, which was clearly a lifelong preference since her early years on the vaudeville stage.
Last week, LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art opened the first-ever American museum exhibition of the works of Tuoko Laaksonen and Bob Mizer. Laaksonen’s drawings were first published by Mizer’s Physique Pictorial magazine in 1956. Mizer, concerned readers would be put off by Laaksonen’s name, dubbed him “Tom of Finland.”
Most are familiar with Finland’s explicit, hyper-masculine line drawings. Sailors and lifeguards and jackboot soldiers, exchanging winks and handjobs in parks and doorways and on the backs of motorcycles. Fewer may no Mizer, founder of both Physique Pictorial and Athletic Model Guild, film and photo studios featuring buff men in posing straps, playing Greek god or cowboy and Indian.
Fond as we are of an origin story that situates the Stonewall Riots as the Big Bang from which all brave gay culture springs, it’s far from true. Chest-deep in post-war masculinity, Laaksonen and Mizer managed to produce unapologetic images that still raise eyebrows, even in a contemporary art context. (Mizer was sent to a work camp in 1947 for sending a photo of a man in a posing strap through the U.S. mail.) Maybe it’s easier to remember the first victory, rather than the Pyrrhic charges that went before it. Gay liberation may have been a joyful throng, but the roads the caravan travelled were paved by men like Mizer and Laaksonen.
Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland were propagandists of the first order, on par with post-war Soviet artists and WPA muralists. Mizer’s sunny photos and Finland’s gleefully sexual drawings imagined what gay life could be, to give us the sustenance we needed to survive what gay life was.
Another profile from an artist in our show, this time from Teamworks Unlimited! Their immersive audio walking tour experience, “An Impalpable Sustenance,” is available to download from the Pop-Up Museum’s website: http://www.queermuseum.com/sustenance/. The artists will be at the start of the work, at Columbia Heights and Cranberry Street, from 1-3pm on both Saturday 10/26 and Sunday 10/27.
Our interview with them follows!
YOUR NAME(S): Teamworks Unlimited
NAME OF EXHIBIT/PERFORMANCE/WORKSHOP/ORGANIZATION: An Impalpable Sustenance
SHORT DESCRIPTION OF THE EXHIBIT/ORGANIZATION’S WORK/WORKSHOP/PERFORMANCE: An Impalpable Sustenance is a 40-minute, site-specific audio work created specifically for the Queer Pop Up Museum’s On the (Queer) Waterfront. It is a physical and sensory exploration on and around the Brooklyn Heights Promenade—a series of encounters musing on desire, gender, and public space. Weaving historical facts, topography, poetry, music, and physical sensations into an audio MP3, the work is meant to be experienced on site, listening. Actively listening, seeing, walking, feeling. It’s easy: you download it, you go to where the map indicates, press play, and enjoy the experience. History is not static, so neither should our understanding of it be. Why can’t the informational be replenishing?
TELL US ABOUT WHY YOU’RE PARTICIPATING IN/COLLABORATING WITH THE POP UP MUSEUM OF QUEER HISTORY: We are honored to be a part of the show. It’s not just any show, it’s a coalition, and that appeals to the foundation of our own collaborative process, as we consider the role of the arts in propelling social progress. There are very few platforms that provide opportunities for this kind of exploration into historical and creative work.
IF YOU’RE AN ARTIST OR EXHIBIT MAKER, TELL US SOMETHING ABOUT THE PROCESS YOU USED TO DEVELOP THE PIECE: We had been thinking about a waterfront project for months before we saw the Pop Up Museum’s call for proposals. We thought we were ready. But while our heads were in the clouds, dreaming of big things, our senses were roaming closer to the ground. Our research began: in the public archives (NYPL, Brooklyn Historical Society, Lesbian Herstory Archives, Britten Pears Foundation), as well as staring blankly at patterns in the pavement. Who has walked here? We sought out locals who have been tracking the neighborhood history, and interviewed them. This alone was two and a half months, maybe more, and then we began work with our sound designer, Heidi Martin. All along, we were writing and clustering ideas together, developing a spatial map for an experience. How to make history feel alive? How does one take historical facts and run them through the “vacation” setting on the activist blender?
WEBSITE URL: http://impalpablesustenance.tumblr.com/
A Google Map of Brooklyn’s Lost Queer History
“I felt that blush in my chest as we talked stupid talk never quite revealing our queerness to each other but somehow wordlessly generating volumes of desire like some kind of sublanguage that makes you want to splash into it even with all its tensions.”
― David Wojnarowicz, The Waterfront Journals
A BLUSH IN A CHEST
You wouldn’t know it from most history books, but Brooklyn’s queer history is just as rich and colorful as Manhattan’s. But perhaps because it was working class, Brooklyn hasn’t always gotten the same respect. Until now.
For the Pop-Up Museum’s “On the (Queer) Waterfront” exhibit, artist and historian Sarah G. Sharp took to Google Maps to create an interactive digital tour of some of Brooklyn’s most potent queer historical sites — from the WWII lesbian ship yards and the cruising grounds of Vinegar Hill to the place where Leaves of Grass was printed, and where ACT UP demonstrators closed the Brooklyn Bridge. If you thought New York gay history was all Stonewall and Broadway, it’s time to take a stroll.
View A Blush in the Chest: Queer Poets, Workers, Radical and Freaks in a larger map
Sharp hopes to open the map to contributors, not just to mark the headline grabbing stories or protests and poets, but the “soft histories” of the way gay life was lived by private citizens.
(You might also want to pair it with The Impalpable Sustenance, a 40 minute “audio excursion” in and around the Brooklyn Promenade created by Teamworks Unlimited.)
We hope that the map— like this spring’s Google Map of the Lost Gay Bars of San Francisco — will inspire others to begin mapping their own neighborhoods, so this crucial history won’t be lost.
ABOUT SARAH G. SHARP
Sarah G. Sharp is an artist with a research-based practice whose interests include alternative social histories, language, place, intuitive processes and craft. She is the recipient of a Getty Library Research Grant and a BRIC Arts Media Fellowship. Exhibitions include The Aldrich Museum, CT, The Hampden Gallery at UMass Amherst, Frederieke Taylor Gallery and Stephan Stoyanov Gallery, NY. Sarah is the co-founder of Cohort artist’s collective. She holds an MFA and an MA from Purchase College and is faculty in the Art Practice MFA Program at School of Visual Arts in New York. Sarah lives and works in Brooklyn. www.sarahgsharp.net.
On the (Queer) Waterfront Pop-Up Profile: Brooklyn Community Pride Center
Throughout the month of our show, we’ve invited participants to answer a few questions about who they are and what they do. We’ve been excited to partner with the Brooklyn Community Pride Center, Brooklyn’s very own LGBTQ community space. They’ll be hosting our event on October 19th, “Queering Planning Practice for a More Inclusive City.”
Name of organization: the Brooklyn Community Pride Center
Tell us about why you’re participating in the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History: To be a part of the queer history! We think this is an amazing opportunity and we are happy to be a part of it. It will help us reach out to the community and contribute to the Queer Pop Up History.
On the (Queer) Waterfront Pop-Up Profile: Lesbian Herstory Archives
Throughout the month of our show, we’ve invited participants to answer a few questions about who they are and what they do. We kick off with an awesome organization, the Lesbian Herstory Archives.
Name of organization: The Lesbian Herstory Archives
Short description of our organization’s work: In operation since 1974, The Lesbian Herstory Archives is home to the world’s oldest and largest collection of archival, bibliographic and multimedia materials by and about the lesbian experience. We offer research assistance, tours, exhibits and programs that are open to the public as well as a 3 month Lesbian Studies course each semester. The Archives exists to provide access to documents about the lesbian experience so that future generations will have ready access to materials relevant to their lives.
Why we’re participating in/collaborating with the Pop Up Museum of Queer History: The Archives loves the work of Pop Up and has a deep connection to lesbian herstorical activities in Brooklyn. We are always looking to connect with other Queer History organizations and activities to contribute to the deepening and broadening of general knowledge about queer experiences.
Something you might not know about our organization: The Lesbian Herstory Archives accepts no local/state/federal government funding and has always been completely run by volunteers and funded by individual donors since its founding.
Stay tuned for more profiles throughout the month!
See you tomorrow in DUMBO!!!
Our kickoff event is on Saturday, October 5 from 11 AM to 4 PM in the DUMBO archway under the Manhattan bridge.
The event is a unique combination of history lab, art space, and teach-in. We will be leading workshops on how to archive your own materials at home and how to design a history exhibit, and a roundtable on the domestic rights of queer youth. We’ll also feature live performances, mural making and the work of history-based organizations.
and PLEASE RSVP to email@example.com so we know you’re coming!
WORKSHOPS: Great Small Works Space, 20 Jay St., #214
11:30 – 12:30 – At Home Archiving
1 – 2 – Choose Your Own Adventure: Making Art Out of Queer History
2:30 – 4 – Tony Whitfield’s Queer Home Sweet Home
On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories is a scatter-site-specific investigation of the queer histories of the beloved borough where the museum got its start. Through a series of performances, talks, community gatherings, and related events, it will explore the waterfronts and the stories they hold, starting new conversations about the queer history and contemporary life of Brooklyn.
On the (Queer) Waterfront: Brooklyn Histories Timeline
Saturday, Oct 5th – Queer History Block Party at the Archway in DUMBO
**Thursday, Oct 17th – Gay Life on the Carnival Lot, 1940s to the Present: Jennifer Miller and Sideshow Impresario Ward Hall (SPONSORED BY: Circus Amok &The Coney Island Sideshow;**This is a ticketed event)
Saturday, Oct 19th – Queering Planning Practice for a More Inclusive City at Brooklyn Pride Center (TBA)
Saturday, Oct 26th – Justin Sayre’s A Rite Of Water: An American Passion Play at Jalopy
This project is sponsored, in part, by the Greater New York Arts Development Fund of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, administered by Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC).
Fiscal sponsorship is provided by MIX NYC.
Public Relations support provided by Riot Grrrl, Ink.
You Tell Us: What’s so important about queer history?
"Working for the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, I’ve learned a lot about LGBTQ communities and my own queer legacy; it’s actually one of my favorite parts of the job. We don’t tell people what their history is - we ask people to tell us, and then we work together to make sure those stories are heard." - G, Pop-Up Organizer
October is Queer History Month, and we’re kicking it off with a question:
What’s so important about queer history? Why do you think it matters?