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Detroit showcases queer art in pioneering exhibition


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: This Pride Month, the city of Detroit plays host to a pioneering exhibition, what's thought to be the first queer international art biennial.

Special correspondent Christopher Booker has the story part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Christopher Booker: In his Detroit studio, artist Tylonn Sawyer works on his latest series, large-scale portraits of Black authors, including James Baldwin and Octavia Butler, on horseback.

Tylonn Sawyer, Artist: Traditionally, in art, equestrian portraits have been saved for, like, the rich, the high elite. I'm taking it away from the aristocracy and more or less ascribing importance to people who are writers, who are intellects.

Christopher Booker: History, race, and politics weave throughout much of Sawyer's work, themes that he says explore what it means to be American. That includes his most recent work, called Forever Young: Pulse Club 49, a collection of portraits, one for each victim of the 2016 mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando.

Tylonn Sawyer: The fact that this happened in a gay club, which is supposed to be a safe space, it just was really tragic to me and really, really sort of, like, sent shockwaves through to my mind.

Christopher Booker: Sawyer, who is gay, only used the colors of the Pride Flag for the piece, which covers an entire wall at Galerie Camille, a contemporary gallery in Detroit's Midtown.

Tylonn Sawyer: Yes, it's OK to remember the tragedy, in and of itself, but also enjoy the beauty of who these people are. It's my goal that those two things are constantly butting up against each other.

Christopher Booker: Forever Young is one of more than 800 works, part of what organizers describe as the first-ever major biennial of works by LGBTQ+ artists.

Entitled I'll Be Your Mirror: Reflections of the Contemporary Queer, the biennial was produced by Mighty Real/Queer Detroit, a nonprofit founded by artist and public schoolteacher, Patrick Burton.

Patrick Burton, Mighty Real/Queer Detroit: Not only are we celebrating with parades. We want to reflect, we want to enlighten, we want to affirm our community. We want to educate young people.

Christopher Booker: The biennial features more than 170 artists representing over a century of queer self-expression, from early 20th Century German photographer Baron von Gloeden, one of the founders of modern gay iconography, to painter Hugh Steers, who captured everyday life under the specter of AIDS in 1980s New York, to contemporary artists, like Detroiter Bre'Ann White.

Oliver Ragsdale Jr. is director of The Carr Center, a key Detroit Black institution, one of 11 biennial venues.

Oliver Ragsdale, Director, The Carr Center: We were excited about the opportunity to show our support and recognize there are so many Black queer artists and others, to be -- and to welcome them into our house.

Laura Makar, Manager, Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, Wayne State University: We have shown artists who have a queer background, but not a full exhibition of this scale.

Christopher Booker: Laura Makar manages Wayne State University's Elaine L. Jacob Gallery. She says pieces like In Darkness by Julie Shafer, which traces Matthew Shepard's last moments using long exposure photography, have taught students about queer history.

Laura Makar: A lot of students that I talk to, they know about the Stonewall riots, but they don't know what happened necessarily in between.

Christopher Booker: Other works, like these bricks by artist Peter McGough emblazoned with a homophobic slur, are intended to portray an act of defiance and resistance.

Patrick Burton: The word is something that's now just being introduced as an affirming word, a word to take back. And I know that not everybody agrees with that idea. So, there's a few pieces, I'm sure, that might shock or possibly challenge the viewer.

Christopher Booker: The biennial is also a response to what Burton sees as a worsening political environment in this country for the queer community. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, since January, more than 500 bills targeting LGBTQ rights have been introduced in local and state legislatures.

Patrick Burton: I would say I'm a queer civil servant. I see the exhibition as a response, as a remedy, hopefully changing hearts and minds slowly, right?

Linda Simpson, Photographer: We were mighty warriors. Say it loud, gay and proud. Ooh, I'm always so proud of myself when I time that with the music.

Christopher Booker: Together with visual arts, the biennial includes events, like The Drag Explosion, a presentation by drag queen Linda Simpson of her photography documenting New York's underground drag scene in the 1980s.

Linda Simpson: In the East Village, they were celebrating drag in sort of a tongue-in-cheek, it's so out that it's in, way, and that really intrigued me, because it had almost like an artsy feel to it and sort of punk rock.

Christopher Booker: Simpson's candid photos captured the arc of this subculture through the early 1990s, when it exploded into the mainstream.

Linda Simpson: The buzz was incredible.

Christopher Booker: Her work features the early years of world-famous drag queen RuPaul and more obscure figures like transgender performance artist Page.

Linda Simpson: If Page had wanted to, she could have blended into straight society. But Page's loyalties were with the freaks and the outcasts and the drag queens like me.

Christopher Booker: What do you hope people take away from seeing your show?

Linda Simpson: Well, I hope they're entertained, first of all. More than anything, my slideshow pays respect to these people. They were part of a collective group.

Christopher Booker: For artist Tylonn Sawyer, showing his work at the biennial places it in dialogue with the past and future of his community.

Tylonn Sawyer: Queer people are not all the same. An exhibition like this shows that, and it's really important for me to be a part of it, because I'm not like this artist, right? But this artist isn't like me. But yet our work can sit in concert with one another. And it's beautiful, and I think it works.

Christopher Booker: An exhibition that organizers say will now become a regular fixture on Detroit's arts calendar.

For the PBS "NewsHour," I'm Christopher Booker.

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