a history of queer street art

Born Hannah Gluckstein to a wealthy and close-knit London family in 1895, the artist Gluck changed her name (forbidding the addition of quotes or prefix) in her early adulthood. A sharply dressed fixture on the London scene of the 1920s and ’30s, she held a number of highly praised “one-man shows” at the Fine Art Society on London’s Bond Street. For these, she painted scenes from the London stage, the landscape of Cornwall and Sussex, startling and modish arrangements of flowers, portraits of those in her social circle and surprisingly candid depictions of her romantic life. Some 90 years after her first exhibition at the Fine Art Society, the gallery is staging a substantial retrospective alongside a group show responding to Gluck’s legacy.  

As she entered adult life, Gluck commenced wearing tailored suits, and had her hair cut at a gentlemen’s hairdresser and her footwear made by the royal bootmaker. This portrait of Gluck in her artist’s smock, taken in 1926 when she was 31, was by Howard Coster, a self-styled “photographer of men.”

via: T Magazine / Fine Art Society, London

June is Pride Month!
Celebrate with Notable Queer Folk from History

Marsha P. Johnson was a gay liberation activist and a muse to Andy Warhol and the NYC Art Scene. A popular street queen, she was present at the Stonewall Police Riots, and later formed the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with her friend and fellow queer activist Sylvia Riveria  in 1970. STAR was dedicated to the LGBTQIA+ youth, namely of color, who populated NYC’s streets, with STAR House acting as a shelter for many a queer folk. Marsha continued her activism organizing with ACT UP! against the AID’s epidemic. In 1992, ten days after appearing for an interview for the titular documentary ‘ Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P. Johnson ’, Marsha was found deceased in the Hudson River. Though ruled a suicide, many still question the possibility of hate-motivated violence, and her memory remains present in annual Trans Day of Remembrance (TDOR) memorials. (Source: Wiki)

If you stand just past High School Hill on Route 9 in Irvington, N.Y., and look west toward the Hudson River, you’ll see a beautiful white house with lots of columns and terra cotta tiles that evoke a Mediterranean elegance. It is one of many mansions nestled on these leafy green streets; memories carved in stone from a time when this suburban town was the jewel of the “Hudson Riviera.” Kykuit, Shadowbrook, and Nuits, Sunnyside, Hillside, and Strawberry Hill — these were the homes of robber barons and writers, judges and doctors, the 1 percent of the Gilded Age and the early 20th century.

But Villa Lewaro, that white house, was unique. It was built by Madam C. J. Walker, who was born Sarah Breedlove in 1867, one of six children and the first born free. Walker rose to prominence as the first nationally successful black female business magnate in the country. She and her daughter, A'Lelia, were the hair care queens of black America. By the time she began building Villa Lewaro in 1917, the New York Times Magazine estimated her net worth at “a cool million” (a fact that didn’t stop some of the neighbors from being appalled that a black woman was moving into town). 

Until recently, the Walker legacy was treated somewhat poorly by history. The house itself was nearly torn down in 1976. A'Lelia is rarely remembered at all, and when she is, it is as the prodigal daughter under whom the Walker hair care empire shrunk drastically. Or, as historian Eric Garber put it in his essay A Spectacle in Color, while “Madam Walker had been civic-minded, donating thousands of dollars to charity, A'Lelia used most of her inheritance to throw lavish parties.”

It’s easy to dismiss these events as fluff and folderol. But Walker’s parties, both in Irvington and at her Manhattan salon, The Dark Tower, played a crucial, if invisible role in the Harlem Renaissance: They provided a safe, welcoming environment for queer people at a time when there were few other social options available. While she herself was not known to be lesbian or bisexual, Walker’s parties were places where anyone could express their sexuality however they pleased.

Remembering A'Lelia Walker, Who Made A Ritzy Space For Harlem’s Queer Black Artists

Photo: A'lelia Walker. Credit: Carl Van Vechten/Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Finally attended “A History of Queer Street Art”

A History of Queer Street Art is an exhibition at the SOMArts Multicultural Center in San Francisco. It’s a survey of queer street artists and their allies ranging from the 80’s to 2010. It features work from artists Homo Riot, Adrian + Shane, Jeremy Novy, Daryl Vocat and Pixelstud among others. While small in scale, it’s certainly among the first to provide work from a varied group of queer (and non-queer) street artists, and one that marks a place in history for queer bodies in a world that is unabashedly dominated by straight men: the street art world.

The piece pictured above is a work by Adrian + Shane that really stood out to me because of lyrics from Madonna’s “American Life”. The lyrics contrast from the two men kissing in what they each signify. Madonna speaks of a particularly privileged space, she’s talking about the heteronormative lifestyle of the 21st Century bourgeois mother. Though her words are understanding of that place, she still can’t remove herself from her privilege. In contrast, these men occupy a space in the margins. A space dictated not by themselves, but by a society that is homophobic and sexist.

I’ll also post pictures later of some of the artwork which I took the liberty of photographing. Do check the exhibit out if you are able to. It runs until 25 June, where it will then travel to Los Angeles and London.