Dreaming of Home
By EMMA CIESLIK September 12, 2023
Amid portraits of queer couples embracing, birthday cakes, and queer parents cuddling their children, four inkjet prints seem to buzz in psychedelic color. Created by Montrael artist and photographer Laurence Philomene, the four photos depict still images of lit candles illuminating angels flying around a gold cross, a house dusted in pink snow, Philomene sitting in bed with their partner and cat, and a blue nightstand scattered with medicines and a statue of Mary. For me, a queer, neurodivergent woman, I was captivated by their pictures on the opening day of Dreaming of Home, an exhibition curated by Gemma Rolls-Bentley at the Leslie-Lohman Museum.
For me, a scholar of queer religious experience, this exhibition was a spiritual homecoming.
Dreaming of Home brings together 20 LGBTQ+ international artists from around the world, who were featured in this exhibition, which used Opie’s Self-Portrait/Cutting (1993) piece as a starting point to chronicle finding, feeling, and celebrating queer home. Opening on the 30th anniversary of Opie’s print, the exhibition reflects on how LGBTQ+ folx participate and contribute to the homecoming experience. Opie visualized her own home as part of her body, two stick figures holding hands and wearing skirts, a house billowing smoke, and a sun peeking from a cloud incised into her nude back. Her work was an open invitation, Rolls-Bentley explained to me, for other artists to explore the psychological and physical conditionality of queer homes.
For artists Rene Matić, Charmaine Poh, Jenna Gribbon, and Clifford Prince King, home is found in chosen families; for other like Leilah Babirye, Ro Robertson, Chiffon Thomas, and Whiskey Chow, it’s about finding home inside their bodies. For others, it’s about their queer families, from Cajsa von Ziepel’s baby seated in a car seat on top of a Roomba to Nicole Eisenman’s quiet portrait of a figure reading to two children at the nighttime. And still for others, including Laurence Philomene, Amos Mac and Zackary Drucker, it’s about creating a physical safe space where queerness is not policed and does not need an explanation.
Home, Rolls-Bentley explained, means strikingly different things to members of the LGBTQ+ community, and the strength of this exhibition--its diversity--is also its greatest challenge.
Walking into the Museum, I was struck by how the sexual charge of Rene Matić and Sola Olulode’s embracing couples and Shadi Al Atallah’s wrestlers contrasted sharply with the quiet, reflective love in Charmpaine Poh’s photographs of LGBTQ+ people seated in front of family wedding portraits. Sarah Francis’s Resent Bodies (2023) invite visitors to touch (and thus consider ownership of) queer bodies, while Jenna Gribbon and Clifford Prince King’s intimate portraits of nude bodies foreground queer pleasure and intimacy. The color palette is also jarring, from the blacks of Chiffon Thomas’s Rosenwald (2022) and Leilah Babirye’s Bakalipo (Family of Sisters) to Kudzanai-Violet Hwami’s crimson brushstrokes (2020) to Philomene’s neon house.
Rolls-Bentley plays off this contrast. “An understanding that queer family, queer home, means something different--that home, not even with the queer prefix,” she said, “means something completely different to different people” is at the center of this exhibition. What it means to be at home in one’s body is strikingly individual, such as Whiskey Chow’s video You Must Everywhere Wander (2021) showing the artist wearing a chest piece exploring the masculine physique, just as what it means to have a queer family. In fact, the Leslie-Lohman Museum as a home for queer art and artists has changed over time. Although it is the only contemporary museum dedicated to LGBTQIA+ art and artists in the world, Museum Executive Director Alyssa Nitchun explained that for the past 50 years, the time and resources of the museum was focused on white, cis, gay men.
While these experiences are valid, this exhibition focuses on the lives and bodies of lesbian, trans, nonbinary, and butch individuals. Historically, Rolls-Bentley notes, “these kinds of bodies have been excluded from mainstream culture” and their erasure was built off and led to transphobia, racism, and sexism within the LGBTQ+ community. Visibility and representation do not equal liberation, Nitchun cautions, but as an LGBTQ+ institution, now is a critical time to proudly and publicly affirm queer and trans lives. The exhibition is incredibly timely as more than 800 anti-LGBTQ+ bills have been proposed into legislation in the United States in the past years. Internationally as well, several of the artists in the exhibition cannot show their art in their home countries under punishment of violence and even death.
This exhibition is part of efforts to uplift artists who represent often marginalized groups within the LGBTQ+ community, including disabled and BIPOC individuals. This is also what drew me to Philomene’s prints. As a neurodivergent, disabled person, I was glad to see multi-sensory installations Sarah Francis’s touchable Resent Bodies (2023), Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s Into the Story (2021) interactive game, and Whiskey Chow’s digital video installation. Within the LGBTQ+ community, ableism is still alive and well, often in the inaccessibility of pride events and queer bars and dance floors, so including works of art that can be encountered in ways different from the traditional sight is vital to foregrounding accessibility. One of my favorite examples was Philomene’s electric neon prints that provided unexpected visual stimulation.
Philomene’s four prints were the most impactful for me, harkening back to my personal and scholarly investigation of queer religion. The candles, cross, and Marian statue felt strangely comforting, set aglow by the fluorescent lights in each photograph, and I saw my own home in the intimacy of their bedroom and bedside altar. As Philomene explained, they use the camera to humanize historically marginalized communities. Each of these pieces is a love letter to the community, a devotion of self and mutual care. Something about these intimate photographs inviting exhibition visitors into their home, into their bedroom--a sacred, safe space for me--pulled me to return once more to Opie’s piece at the end of my visit.
As I stood in front of Opie’s photograph, I remembered Rolls-Bentley’s words from our conversation. “I often describe interacting with art that’s really meaningful as religious experiences, and that Cathy Opie’s work is like going to an altar.” Gazing at the blood pooling along the cuts, I was reminded of a portrait of Christ hanging on a cross and saints gazing heavenward mid-martyrdom. Raised in a conservative Catholic parish, I realized that I was standing in a queer shrine dedicated to the lives lost and still part of the queer community today. Just how Medieval hagiographers created trans and genderqueer depictions of Jesus and saints, the figures’ divinity connected to how they superseded gender, these photographers, paintings, and sculptures were LGBTQ+ icons.
My experience is not accidental; a subset of artists has addresses implicit and explicit religious themes. Most significant, Chiffon Thomas contributed a skinned Bible whose covers were used to construct a house with uniform windows. His upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness is central to living within his queer body, just like Whiskey Chow’s video installation when she says, “at the end of reality, my stigma is my stigmata.” The experience of feeling at home in one’s body—the crux of this exhibition—is by its very nature spiritual.
For LGBTQ+ individuals in the Medieval period, these portraits provided a visual safe space wherein they could find a queer home. As Director Nitchun explained to me prior to the exhibition’s opening, “the queer interior lives, companionship, family, who we exist and care for each other is something that will always be relevant.” These photographs, paintings, sculptures, and videos were the same, allowing me to find home, to find spiritual and personal peace and safety, in works of art. Just as Opie’s work, Rolls-Bentley explains, honors and pays respect to the individuals she photographed, this exhibition is an act of queer devotion. Visiting the exhibition was, for me and I suspect many others, a pilgrimage in devotional queerness.
Dreaming of Home is open from September 7, 2023 to January 7, 2024. The Leslie-Lohman Museum is also releasing a limited podcast Dreaming of Home hosted by Gemma Rolls-Bentley. The Museum is also collaborating with the Children’s Museum about inclusivity. Also, as part of their collections policy prioritizing the acquisition of living, BIPOC, trans, and nonbinary artists, a number of the artists whose work is in the exhibition will be put before the collections committee to be acquired into the permanent collection. It is part of queering the museum, Nitchun explains, through a show that centers and celebrates queer and trans folx from around the world “in our own agency, our own power, sharing quite honestly and creatively, the joy, the challenges, in caring for ourselves and building our communities.” WM
Emma Cieslik (she/her) is a queer, disabled and neurodivergent museum professional and writer based in Washington, DC. She is also a queer religious scholar interested in the intersections of religion, gender, sexuality, and material culture, especially focused on queer religious identity and accessible histories. Her previous writing has appeared in The Art Newspaper, ArtUK, Archer Magazine, Religion & Politics, The Revealer, Nursing Clio, Killing the Buddha, Museum Next, Religion Dispatches, and Teen Vogueview all articles from this author