Now you see us: How LGBTQ+ artists have contributed to world of visual art 

Illustration of various people kissing
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The yearning for visibility is a burning ache felt most by people who are excluded, silenced and mistreated. Marginalized people have searched poetry, listened to music and watched films to find representations of themselves and see anything that resembles their innermost feelings and experiences. With visibility comes hope for respect, validation and equality. Through visual art, whether it be paintings, propaganda or photographs, queer people have gotten the chance to be makers and subjects of art that transform their invisibility to radical visibility. 

Pride Month is a time when the LGBTQ+ community is celebrated, empowered and most importantly, seen. Prominent artists and visual activists such as Joan E. Biren, or JEB, Gran Fury and Zanele Muholi have used art to advance queer representation and to spread awareness about issues such as HIV/AIDS and sexual violence within queer communities.

For lesbians in the 1970s, even after the Stonewall riots and the first official gay pride parades, it was not commonplace to see authentic, positive images of themselves. Because she had never seen it before, JEB took it upon herself to document the everyday lives of lesbians. In 1979, she published a photo book called “Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians.” The photographs feature lesbians doing everyday activities such as cooking, laughing and working. In an oral history interview, JEB said “My thing was to take pictures of people that other people weren’t taking pictures of, to make visible what was invisible.” JEB has documented the lives of queer people for more than 30 years now through photography and documentary film. Her authentic representation has allowed lesbians and other queer people to see themselves in a positive light, to see what had never been seen before and mark their existence.

A decade after JEB started capturing these powerful images, a deadly virus started to kill thousands of Americans, hitting the gay community especially hard. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic started in the 1980s, government inaction and public criticism of homosexuality caused grassroots organizations such as AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, or ACT UP, to mobilize and teach safe sex practices, promote access to treatment and fight the stigma associated with AIDS. One group that formed as part of ACT UP was a collective of 11 artist-activists who called themselves Gran Fury. 

Picture a New Yorker walking their usual route to work on the crowded streets of Brooklyn, thinking about the pile of work on their desk. Then, from the corner of their eye, they spot a poster on the side of a bus that reads “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do” above an image of three couples of different races and sexual orientations kissing. Their eyes roam to the bottom of the poster that reads, “Corporate greed, government inaction, and public indifference make AIDS a political crisis.” Distracted, the New Yorker bumps into a young woman standing still to read a billboard that looks like an advertisement with the image of a baby accompanied with “Welcome to America, the only industrialized country besides South Africa without national healthcare.”

Both of these images modeled after common advertising styles were designed by Gran Fury to increase awareness of AIDS, call people to take direct action and hold politicians accountable. The images and graphics produced by Gran Fury were in the most visible of spaces and were not created for aesthetic purposes. Gran Fury made it known that art wasn’t enough, visibility needed to be tied with direct action to end the AIDS crisis and discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, another country has its own HIV/AIDS epidemic: South Africa. Imagine a queer young adult growing up during this epidemic, in a nation where discrimination and violence against LGBTQ+ people prevail even after its 2006 same-sex marriage law. This young adult sees images of lesbians in JEB’s “Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians” and feels inspired to capture the queer communities of South Africa so the world can know of their existence too. Queer visual activist Muholi has photographed hundreds of South Africa’s LGBTQ+ citizens as a response to the discrimination in the country. Their work has been featured in museums and galleries around the world, showing portraits of queer men and women, some of who have been the survivors of atrocious hate crimes. JEB and Muholi contribute not only to the world of visual art but also to history by documenting the stories and images of the queer men and women they encounter. 

As we celebrate Pride Month, we must honor the LGBTQ+ artists who also double as activists, historians and guardians of their communities. When we make invisible communities and issues visible, we get closer and closer to a time where no one will have to ask to be seen, they just will be. 

Daniella Lake covers visual art and culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected].