LGBTQ online collection connects to pandemic, protests

Design: Claire Wong; Photos courtesy of ONE Archives Collection

As Alexis Bard Johnson, along with the rest of her co-workers at USC ONE Archives Collection, made the transition to working from home as a result of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home orders to mitigate the spread of coronavirus in public settings, she began to question what the term “safer-at-home” meant for people, particularly within the LGBTQ community and people of color. Looking through the archives collection of LGBTQ images and objects, the curator decided to use her experience as an art historian to contextualize how individuals develop and define safety in their home in their own subjective ways. 

With art exhibitions often developing behind the public eye, unveiled after countless hours of preparation, research and organization, Johnson’s ongoing project is chartering on unknown territory. With weekly posts and commentary available for immediate critique for the general public, Johnson looks to provide an artistic response to the shelter at home orders prompted by the pandemic.

“As a trained art historian, I make sense of the world through history and material culture,” Johnson wrote on the exhibition’s website. “Combining those skills with the resources of the Archives is the best way I can contribute to understanding and contextualizing our present moment and make sense of what we are currently feeling and experiencing.”

Her exhibition “Safer at Home” is an online display of archival materials from the ONE Archives Collection, the world’s largest repository of LGBTQ materials, at USC Libraries. Using photographs of historical events that mirror modern phenomena, including overrun hospitals caring for coronavirus patients and the ongoing civil unrest regarding police brutality and anti-Blackness, Johnson looks to explore what safety and “home” mean for LGBTQ communities circa 1976 compared to the present.

Initially, Johnson focused on the rhetoric of “safer-at-home” regulations spurred by the pandemic and how LGBTQ people may view safety through the lens of institutional discrimination that was most notably present during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Now, the exhibition strives to be vigilant in responding to significant cultural shifts, such as the recent protests against police brutality and in solidarity of Black lives.

“The fact that we’ve had this huge upsurge of a movement that’s been long going … in the midst of the pandemic, they’re two totally related concepts,” Johnson said. “The project has responded to [the protests]. You’ll see the most recent posts are much more thinking about ending racism, ending sexism [and] defunding the police.” 

As noted on the exhibition’s website, the pandemic and continued police violence and killings have disproportionately Black, brown and transgender individuals. Johnson said she also identifies the inequality evident in both of these global crises as they pertain to the LGBTQ population and people of color, particularly to Black people.  

Along with sharing archives from the collection, Johnson also provides a personal interpretation and commentary each week on a select image depicting moments of anti-sexism and anti-racism activism from the past century while relating it to the protests to end police brutality against LGBTQ and Black people. Her commentary has revolved around how the meanings of home and safety change during crises. 

“In light of recent protests, the phrase also draws attention to the stark privilege of [safer at home],” Johnson writes. “Who’s safety? Who’s home? Safety as defined by whom?”

The exhibition also frames history in a way that critiques institutional failures, unfulfilled promises and discriminatory practices of the past, such as inadequate hospital beds for AIDS patients. For Johnson, the past can provide positive lessons for contemporary global crises. 

“It’s about duration, and if you look at any past protests that have been kind of successful in impacting change [on] policy, they have to be long and sustained,” Johnson said. “I think that’s one of the things that we can learn from history while also acknowledging the failures — the failed promises [and] the failed inclusive practices of the past.”

According to the project’s website, the exhibition will “continue to probe what ‘safer at home’ means in a world shaped by structural racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.” To counterbalance the limited material available for digital exhibition, Johnson decided to include the voices of queer people of color, contemporary Los Angeles-based artists and their perspective of current events.

A photograph by Pat Rocco of a hustler on Selma Avenue in 1970 recreated by Ben Cuevas to present day is featured in the archive collection. (Photo courtesy of Ben Cuevas)

In recorded interviews, Johnson discusses the previous works of four artists — Ben Cuevas, MariNaomi, Brenda Zhang “Bz” and Rakeem Cunningham — and how ongoing protests and isolating at home during the pandemic have influenced their artistic thinking.

“These connections between past artists and materials in the Archive and these contemporary artists not only further the dialogue between past and present but underscore the idea that an archive is always in process,” Johnson wrote on the website.

Zhang, a visual artist and architectural designer, centers her work on exploring the influence that cultural construction has on physical construction. In response to the recent protests, they defined the physical body of police forces as a component of modern safety as they are meant to protect citizens and uphold the law. However, a discriminatory culture within the police force is evidenced by the disproportionate use of force against marginalized populations, creating a skewed perception of safety for the impacted communities. 

“That idea of safety actually hinges on and actively is producing a system of state-sanctioned violence against Black communities and trans communities and making those communities incredibly targeted,” Zhang said. 

Zhang agreed with Johnson in identifying the recent protests against police brutality as a historic moment that must maintain its momentum to effect tangible change and recognized the necessity for non-Black artists of color, as well as white artists, to commit to doing the work of anti-racism.

“We need to speak out intentionally and thoughtfully, appropriately and without fear, and we need to model it for each other so that we don’t unduly burden Black artists, trans artists and other artists of marginalized identities,” Zhang said.

Cuevas, a multimedia artist, said he identifies similarities between the safer-at-home ordinances for the pandemic and the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Recognizing how safety became unclear during both health crises, Cuevas said it further impacted how individuals considered what a home meant for them. 

“It’s not just staying safe in your home, it’s also making home a safe space for yourself,” Cuevas said.

As a queer, nonbinary, HIV-positive artist, he stressed the need for people to develop positive, self-care methods of safety construction to promote healthy living during uncertain times.

Developing safety within the home also requires individuals to ask difficult questions about how to engage in meaningful activism, Cuevas said. People of different ages, races and with different beliefs must each answer the question of where safety is best found for them — staying at home or joining the street protests against police brutality. 

“I think we have to question, you know, safer for who?” Cuevas said. “When gentrification happens places often become safer for people with wealth, white people — people who benefit from a lot of privileges in society … [We can’t just say] a neighborhood changes and more fancy shops and stuff come in and there’s less crime visible in the street [that] it’s automatically safer. You have to think about those crimes in relationship to our criminal justice and policing.”

Placing archival material and contemporary artwork together in the exhibition encourages various perspectives on the pandemic, protests and the meaning of safer at home to develop, Johnson said. The goal of the project is to provide multiple lenses through which to interpret historical moments and better understand the present.

“[Both artwork and archival material] offer glances … into both our present moment and [history],” Johnson said. “At any moment in time, you might think of something different or something new or change your perspective at best. That’s what an exhibition does at its best.”

Grace Chang contributed to this report.

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