Looking for something different to do on Valentine’s Day? Then go check out “Black & Blue: The Colors of Leather,” an intriguing exhibit on display at the William Way LGBT Community Center.
“Black & Blue” is a thoughtful, edgy celebration of alternative sexuality. It features more than 40 works exploring leather, BDSM and kink through media such as paintings, digital photography and video. Twelve artists from the mid-Atlantic region contributed, including Syluss Alfaro, Gabriel Martinez and Cassi Segulin.
According to Heather Raquel Phillips, who curated the show along with Amy Phillips, the current Mid-Atlantic Leather Woman, “Black & Blue” aims at liberation via visibility.
“The exhibit is an attempt to showcase artists working around the subject of alternative sexual practices,” Phillips said. “We aimed to display work that represented what that may look like in order to allow folks to relate, find community, gain knowledge and remove stigma.”
Some of the artwork in “Black & Blue” is undeniably hot. Douglas Johnson’s watercolor, “Jacob and David,” depicts two handsome nude men embracing. One of them has a large penis with a prominent piercing.
Whatever frisson of pleasure the images provide, the exhibit’s overall tone is one of intimacy and respect. Undoubtedly, that’s because the artists and their subjects inhabit this subculture and give viewers a glimpse into their lives.
That’s true of “Tahnee,” a digital photograph by Phillips. It depicts a beautiful, curvaceous, black femme wearing leather. They're standing outdoors looking relaxed and confident; diagonal lines of color visible on the wall behind lend vibrancy to the image.
“Tahnee” points to an important theme of the exhibit: diversity. Rather than present an idealized, monochromatic view of leather and kink, “Black & Blue” shows real people, along with their bellies, blemishes and body hair.
Phillips said this was a deliberate choice.
“I want people to see that different bodies exist within this space, that you can be a person of color, you can be black, you can be trans, you can be disabled, and fit into a space with all these other people,” she said.
This inclusivity is evident in pieces like Emerson Aniceto’s black-and-white photograph “Revive,” where a mature top girds himself in leather, and Evie Snax’s colorful “Heart,” which shows a young submissive with a lush bush simultaneously offering herself up and claiming her space.
Although “Black & Blue” is inclusive, it refuses to make the artwork or the lifestyle palatable to a mainstream audience. In “Quality Bondage Time,” a digital photo by Nick Hollup, two figures are shown on a couch. They’re masked and completely encased in plastic or vinyl, which blots out their individuality. One of them is supine, practically immobilized. It’s an extreme image that subverts what would otherwise be a mundane domestic scene.
Emma Osle’s “Needle Play” is another transgressive piece. A silicone sculpture of two disembodied bare feet pierced by hypodermic needles, it prods viewers to consider the difference between consensual kink and real-life torture.
“Black & Blue” runs in conjunction with the Mr. & Ms. Philadelphia Leather Contest, which takes place Feb. 10 at The Bike Stop. But there’s more to its timing than that.
As Phillips noted, in the current political climate, the rights of marginalized people, including LGBT folks and those in the leather scene, are threatened. This exhibit, with its forthright and public depiction of untrammeled desire, represents a refusal to acquiesce. That’s especially crucial for LGBT youth and other newbies.
“For younger folks who are coming out or coming around or need community, to see something that other people are doing and are open and out and proud about is really important.”
Meanwhile, one thing’s certain: “Black & Blue” is filled with visually stimulating works of art that will get viewers thinking. As Phillips said when discussing what she looks for in an exhibit, “I want that ‘Aha!’ moment.”
“Black & Blue” runs through Feb. 23 at the William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. An artist reception will be held 2-4 p.m. Feb. 11. For more information, visit www.blackandblueart.com.
*The description of the piece, "Tahnee," has been clarified from the previous version of this story.