Discover the queer stories of labor movements
We live in a disorienting period of resistance to communism in the United States. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, a “specter” still hovers in the capitalist unconscious, dripping in socially regressive political and media debates that aim to distract ordinary people from operating practices in full view. The far-right’s targeted attacks on homosexuality also have an ideological bent – without heteropatriarchal structures like marriage and the nuclear family, how could the working class maintain the institutions of capital?
Maybe because communism was never fully realized Around the world, artists and conservatives have struggled to fully express the influence of sexuality and gender on left-wing politics. Pratt Manhattan’s last exhibition, The labor of love, the fag of labor, is working to change that. Comprised of artworks and ephemera from the labor movements of the past century, the expansive group exhibition saliently examines the tensions that still exist between revolutionary and identity politics.
Curator Olga Kopenkina conceptualizes many vectors of homosexuality in political theory and practice. Representative works of early 20th-century historical socialists are interwoven with film and agitprop by contemporary Russian and Eastern European artists, complemented by interactive artwork and literary exhibits. In two large galleries, photos, prints and sculptures appear in the foreground, while more intimate and pornographic material inhabits a darker back room.
Visible from the 14th Street window, copies of the Dyke Action Machine poster series American Lesbians: Don’t Sell Yourselves (1998) urge passers-by to reject rainbow capitalism, covering a mural painted by Pratt student Eliette Mitchell. The green and gray background of the mural brings out the red, white and blue palette of the posters, transforming the aesthetic of the American heart into a rejection of capitalist values. Alongside this is a photo of gay Catholics on a picket line, published in The Ladder: A Lesbian Critique by the Daughters of Bilitis, is placed alongside a poster of Peter Hujar’s iconic Gay Liberation Front photograph, evoking the current struggle between trans-exclusive radical feminism and the non-traditional queer family.
Dealing with these disparities upstream allows The labor of love to integrate conceptually more difficult works. On an opposite wall, non-binary South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s stunning nude self-portrait in a mining helmet, inspired by the 2012 Marikana massacre, brings the heavy history of mining work into the present. While the photography of social reformers like Lewis Hine showed white miners blackened by coal dust, Muholi’s obsidian skin visualizes the increasingly racialized dynamics of the industry.
Entire sections of the gallery show how contemporary artists pay homage to queer seniors. The yes! The Association’s striking dedication to the late poet Audre Lorde, which spans the height of one wall, details how she discovered her own homosexuality in the workplace. Photographs of a Connecticut electronics factory, where Lorde had her first lesbian encounter with a colleague at age 18, are displayed alongside a black and white GPS map of the site and printed pages detailing the experience of his autobiography, Zami: a new spelling of my name.
An entire corner of the gallery also honors the memory of late queer theorist Harry Hay, who co-founded the Mattachine Society and Radical Faeries after being expelled from the Communist Party USA in the 1940s because of his sexual orientation. A display case contains photos and prints of his many manifestos and pamphlets, such as “Radical Commonality” and “The Homosexual’s Responsibility to the Community.” On the adjacent walls, Russian artist Yevgeniy Fiks recounts the contradictions of Hay’s experience as a communist and gay man on sanded wooden stencils. Fiks’ scribbled handwriting is barely noticeable on the smooth surface, alluding to the subversive nature of his politics and sexuality in a purely capitalist state.
Kopenkina shows that Russian culture is not monolithic by including works by queer contemporaries. Hagra’s Visual Novel Evening with the Bros (2017) allows viewers to choose their own adventure in a story of mutually supportive male and transmale cisgender workers, one of whom is an affinity-affirming trio. In a colorful installation by German Lavrovsky, pink beanbags flank an asexual 3D silicone baby dangling from a harness, which visitors are encouraged to handle and kiss. Kopenkina places this alongside a video of Angela Beallor discussing the meaning of queer parenthood, adapted from the banned Soviet play I want a baby.
The exhibition takes a light-hearted look at more sensitive issues, such as the persecution of homosexuality in Estonia. Jaanus Samma’s four-part film series, Not Fit for the Job: A President’s Story (2015), shows scenes of men peeing in their mouths and making identification prints with their genitals. Kopenkina cleverly projects the films next to a table with recordings of Samma’s criminal trial. This curatorial choice indicates how Joseph Stalin’s decision in 1934 to recriminalize homosexuality may have limited the Soviets’ ability to exit capitalism, as it reversed some of the social gains made by abolishing the penal code of the Russian Empire. .
Since the show’s 2017 iteration in Connecticut, the international left has evolved significantly, especially in countries in Latin America and Asia. As such, the Euro-American and Russian accent leaves me wondering about similar stories in Venezuela, Cuba, India, and China, among other countries, as well as Communist uprisings during African decolonization. Likewise, while Harry Hay worked with Indigenous movements in the 20th century and helped popularize the Two-Spirit movement, it would be interesting to see how queer Indigenous artists approached communism’s relationship with pre-capitalist society. Given the heavy propaganda campaigns against these countries and communities, even from more liberal sources like Mother Jones and AlJazeerait seems more necessary than ever.
As Martin Niemöller once wrote, “They first came for the Communists…” Indeed, the Nazi suppression of the German Communist Party coincided with the destruction of the research institute and trans clinic of Magnus Hirschfeld, who nearly erased those resistance records. Since bodily autonomy and workers’ rights remain subject to constant and often intertwined rules threatens, The labor of love reminds us of what is still at stake.
The labor of love, the fag of labor continues at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery (144 West 14th Street, Union Square, Manhattan) through August 20. The exhibition was curated by Olga Kopenkina.