The art gallery in the William Way LGBT Community Center has been temporarily transformed into a time machine of sorts, thanks to its current exhibition.
“Black Trans Futuristic” features the work of six artists: Jamie Grace Alexander, Wriply M. Bennet, Shanel Edwards, Devyn Farries, Myx Omiya Isa and Essa Terick, aka Tahnee. The contributors are people of color from throughout the African diaspora, as well as being trans, queer, nonbinary or gender-nonconforming.
The work on display in “Black Trans Futuristic” is similarly wide-ranging. Among the more than 20 pieces on display, viewers can see watercolors by Farries, evocative objects by Tahnee and a mini-installation combining digital images and poetic text by Omiya Isa.
According to Wit López, who curated the exhibition, the title was kept deliberately open-ended. In other words, the artists were given plenty of freedom in deciding how to interpret it.
“It makes space for black trans artists to define or to say what’s going to be futuristic for them,” said López, who is also a nonbinary trans performer and visual artist. “So, it’s spirituality, it’s their relationships with other people, it’s their ideas about philosophy, it’s their ideas around themselves and their identities.”
Seeing the various ways in which the artists responded is part of what makes “Black Trans Futuristic” so interesting.
Consider, for example, Alexander’s “Contingency Altar,” a curious object fashioned from a discarded mirror, paint marker and glitter. Most of the mirror’s reflective surface is obscured by splotches of color in various shades of purple — except for two small spots, both labeled “portal.” What it means is difficult to say, but the cheerful colors and graffiti-like squiggles lend it a playful, hopeful tone.
Bennet approaches the topic from a different perspective. Her five digital illustrations, colorful and humorous, are as accessible as any comic-book imagery. Her subjects are curvy, beaming, female and fantastic creatures like mermaids. In one illustration, a smiling, lush-lipped goldfish points its fin toward an elegant, beautiful black mermaid and exclaims “Clocked!!!”
Ordinarily, the term “clocked” has negative connotations within the trans community. It refers to situations where a trans person attempting to “pass” is recognized by someone from outside the trans community. But transferring that potentially threatening situation to a cartoon-like underwater world of talking goldfish and beautiful mermaids transforms it into an altogether more positive experience.
In contrast to Bennet’s fanciful world, Edwards’s digital photographs are firmly rooted in everyday life. In “future, who?” a black-and-white image, a nonbinary person sits curbside, leaning against a parked car and gazing directly back at viewers. They reappear in a color photo called “Brighter Future.” The photo was shot at a slight angle and is suffused with vivid colors like aqua, orange and teal. Now the person is standing and, apparently, on the verge of moving. All told, it’s a dynamic image, just one of many pieces on display in “Black Trans Futuristic” that envision a better future. And that’s no coincidence.
“The reason why I chose futuristic is because, as we know, black trans folks often are the recipients of violence and a lot of systemic injustice,” López said. “And so, the idea of allowing black trans people to have some type of futurism for themselves implies this longevity of life and this longevity of existence that in our current society needs to be a reality.”
The exhibition will be on display throughout most of February, which is Black History Month. Its focus on the future complements the month-long celebration of the past.
As it turns out, “Black Trans Futuristic” is just one of López’s current critical interventions in this ongoing discussion of race, gender and sexuality. They are also putting on a two-day event at The Rotunda called the “QT Noir Arts Festival.” The festival, which takes place Feb. 2 and 3, is billed as a “joy session for and by Black QT folks.”
It offers the center yet another opportunity to showcase the creativity of its community. Visitors can check out the work of 10 visual artists, including Brian Bazemore and Petra Floyd; watch live performances from people such as Icon Ebony Fierce and Alex Smith; or just a enjoy a set from a set by DJ Kilamanzego.
Both events offer a glimpse at a thriving community enjoying a creative, fertile moment.
“There is a very vibrant and productive black trans and queer community in Philly,” López said. “I feel there is a sort of artistic renaissance happening within the Black LGBTQ+ community and it is wonderful and life-giving.”
“Black Trans Futuristic” runs until Feb. 22. Admission is free. To learn more, visit www.facebook.com/events/267511980611714/. For information about the “QT Noir Arts Festival,” see www.therotunda.org/.event/qt-noir-arts-festival-a-2-day-joy-session-for-and-by-black-qt-folks.