Uncovering the Queer Histories of Workers’ Movements

We are living through a disorienting period of resistance to communism in the United States. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union, a “specter” still hangs in the capitalist unconscious, trickling down into socially regressive policy and media debates that aim to distract everyday people from exploitative practices in plain sight. The far right’s targeted attacks on queerness, too, have an ideological bent — without heteropatriarchal structures like marriage and the nuclear family, how else will the working class uphold the institutions of capital? 

Perhaps because communism has never been fully realized around the world, artists and curators have struggled to articulate the full extent to which sexuality and gender influence leftist politics. Pratt Manhattan’s latest exhibition, The Work of Love, the Queer of Labor, endeavors to change that. Composed of art and ephemera from workers’ movements of the last century or so, the sprawling group exhibition saliently contemplates tensions that still exist between revolutionary and identity politics. 

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Installation view of The Work of Love, the Queer of Labor (courtesy Pratt Manhattan Gallery)

Curator Olga Kopenkina conceptualizes many vectors of queerness in political theory and praxis. Representational works by historic socialists of the early 20th century are interwoven with films and agitprop by contemporary Russian and Eastern European artists, complemented by interactive artworks and literary displays. Across two large galleries, photos, prints, and sculptures appear at the forefront, while more intimate and pornographic materials dwell in a darker back room.

Visible from the window on 14th Street, copies of Dyke Action Machine’s poster series Lesbian Americans: Don’t Sell Out (1998) urge passersby to reject rainbow capitalism, overlaying a mural painted by Pratt student Eliette Mitchell. The mural’s green and gray backdrop brings out the posters’ red, white, and blue palette, transforming American heartland aesthetics into a rejection of capitalist values. Beside this, a photograph of queer Catholics on a picket line, published in The Ladder: A Lesbian Review by the Daughters of Bilitis, is placed next to a poster of Peter Hujar’s iconic Gay Liberation Front photograph, evoking today’s struggle between trans-exclusionary radical feminism and the non-traditional queer family.

Confronting these disparities early on allows The Work of Love to integrate more conceptually challenging works. On an opposite wall, nonbinary South African photographer Zanele Muholi’s stunning nude self-portrait in a mining helmet, inspired by the 2012 Marikana Massacre, brings the fraught history of mining labor into the present. While photography by social reformers like Lewis Hine showed White miners blackened by coal dust, Muholi’s obsidian skin visualizes the increasingly racialized dynamics of the industry.

Zanele Muholi, “Thulani II, Parktown” (2015) (courtesy the artist, Yancey Richardson, New York, and Stevenson Cape Town/Johannesburg)

Entire sections of the gallery show how contemporary artists pay tribute to queer elders. The YES! Association’s gripping dedication to 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 plant, where Lorde had her first lesbian encounter with a coworker at age 18, are displayed alongside a black-and-white GPS map of the site and printed pages detailing the experience from her autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name.

An entire gallery corner likewise honors the memory of late queer theorist Harry Hay, who co-founded the Mattachine Society and Radical Faeries after being forced out of the Communist Party USA in the 1940s for his sexual orientation. A display case contains pictures and printouts 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 narrates the contradictions of Hay’s experience as a communist and gay man on sanded wood templates. Fiks’s scrawled handwriting is barely perceptible against the smooth surface, hinting at the subversive nature of his politics and sexuality in a nakedly capitalist state.

Yevgeniy Fiks, “Toward a Portfolio of Woodcuts (Harry Hay)” (2013) (courtesy the artist)

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 cisgender male and transmasculine workers supporting each other, one of which is a threesome affirming their affinity. In a highly colorful installation by German Lavrovsky, pink beanbag chairs flank a 3D silicone genderless baby hanging on a harness, whom visitors are encouraged to handle and embrace. Kopenkina positions 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 treads lightly around more sensitive issues, such as Estonia’s persecution of queerness. Jaanus Samma’s four-part film series, Not Suitable for Work: A Chairman’s Tale (2015), shows scenes of men pissing in each other’s mouths and making identification prints with their genitals. Kopenkina cleverly screens the films beside a table with records from Samma’s criminal trial. This curatorial choice hints at how Joseph Stalin’s 1934 decision to re-criminalize homosexuality may have limited the Soviets’ ability to transition out of capitalism, as it reversed some of the social gains made by abolishing the Russian Empire’s penal code.

German Lavrovski, “Reborn” (2020) (courtesy the artist)

Since the show’s 2017 iteration in Connecticut, the international left has evolved significantly, particularly in Latin American and Asian countries. As such, the Euro-American and Russian focus leaves me wondering about similar histories in Venezuela, Cuba, India, and China, among other countries, as well as the communist uprisings during African decolonization. Likewise, while Harry Hay worked with 20th-century Indigenous movements, and helped popularize the Two-Spirit Movement, it would be interesting to see how queer Indigenous artists have addressed communism’s relation to pre-capitalist society. Considering the heavy propaganda campaigns against these countries and communities, even from more liberal sources like Mother Jones and Al Jazeera, this feels more necessary than ever.

As Martin Niemöller once wrote, “First they came for the communists …” Sure enough, the Nazi suppression of the German Communist Party coincided with the destruction of Magnus Hirschfeld’s research institution and trans clinic, which nearly wiped out these records of resistance. As bodily autonomy and workers’ rights remain under constant and often intertwined threat, The Work of Love reminds us of what is still at stake. 

The Work of Love, the Queer of Labor continues at Pratt Manhattan Gallery (144 West 14th Street, Union Square, Manhattan) through August 20. The exhibition was curated by Olga Kopenkina.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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