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Lesbians in the Visual Arts

Published in Lesbian In The Visual Arts Newsletter, Winter 1996

Visible for a Change
By Lorraine Inzalaco

I believe the creative energy of the lesbian artist has been severely wounded. This damage has been accomplished through historical invalidation, the lack of continuity, and the absence of a supportive art community.

In our world of image and language, silence is oppression. In order for values and creativity to exist and flourish for lesbians, we must have out lesbian images in our art, the works of lesbian hands, images, for us to look at as well as the right to decide for ourselves what our public image is to be. Also, lesbian artists need other lesbian artists, both past and present, for history and dialogue.

Surely since the beginning of time, dykes have been making art, poetry, and music. It can't be that the leap is from Sappho to you and me. So what has happened to all the lesbian art? More importantly, how has this message of void affected our creative energy both personally and collectively? I strongly believe the effect of this long period of suppression and erasure can destroy our creative energy before it even takes shape. Lesbians need continuity to become strong and prolific and VISIBLE.

I'll never forget a wonderfully brave young dyke's lecture: “One Hundred Years of Lesbians”. It seemed spotty and unpolished at best, with poorly gathered and incomplete information (I naively thought). Listening to her, I felt more and more depressed rather than enlightened and connected, until I realized it wasn't the presenter – it was the herstory. The lives of these great lesbians were buried and the vein of truth cauterized by history. She gave a wonderful program in fact, since she was attempting to give back to us that lost continuity. I can't think of a better way to grow and procreate than to produce our art and have it shown so other lesbians can relate and elate. This also establishes community. I would like to tell you about my present findings. For the past several years, my artwork was censored by the heterosexual New York gallery scene because it is imagery of women, by a woman artist and primarily for a female audience. And since everything is at such a premium in a large city – I mean your job, your apartment even your seat on a subway – it's very difficult to be “out” unless you want to spend much of your day fighting homophobia. So galleries and museums aren't ready to show “out” lesbian images…I don't mean work of an “out” lesbian …I mean explicitly “out” images. It's still too radical an idea for them and they think it will threaten their position in the art scene, so they play it safe. We haven't even gotten as far as including women in equal numbers in galleries and museums (the Gorrilla Girls are still working on that), let alone including the work of lesbians with “out” imagery.

Finally, I packed up my car with art work and slide portfolios and headed west in search of lesbian galleries (still can't find them) and places to exhibit my work. I now temporarily reside in Chicago where I am beginning to find a way to make my work “visible for a change”.

Because of what I learned in NYC about the galleries not being true risk takers, I instead approached local gay and lesbian organizations, i.e., centers, archives/libraries, support groups, cancer projects etc, offering the use of my art work free of charge. Some accepted, some were not in need of visual work and all were welcoming. With that introduction, I once again approached the same list, suggesting the possibility of a one-lesbian exhibition of my work. I asked them to help stop the censorship of lesbian art works by offering a few walls to display the work, a reception for the public to view the show and learn what the event is really about, and their agreement to include my invitation in their next mailing. The Gerber/Hart Gay and Lesbian Archives agreed it would be an important step to take in their community services programming. And Spectrum Center for Integrated Care is also exhibiting my work.

With their help, I contacted local newspapers, gay and lesbian radio programs, etc., for coverage. My exhibit, "Visible for a Change” was well reviewed in three papers. I also notified gay and lesbian campus organizations and sent invitations to every gay and gay-friendly member of the community, including businesses. The show was a success and the library extended the exhibition. Approximately 350 viewers have seen it so far.

I also made arrangements with a lesbian youth organization/walk-in center for troubled lesbians, ages 13-18, to come to the exhibition, have a tour of the library facilities and allow me to be part of their group chat. I'm very excited about the opportunity. I know how important it would have been for me when I was a teen dyke to see an 'out' lesbian artist being supported publicly (as a matter of fact, it's still important to me now). There is another reason this chance to connect with young lesbians through my art is important. Recently, I heard a gay teen speak on the importance of teachers being out: “I want to see 'out' gays,” she said. “We have plenty of good 'closeted' role models.”

I support any lesbian artist whose concerns are showing 'out' work, community, and continuity. Reach out to your local lesbian and gay organizations for support. It has been a wonderfully healing experience for me, and my work is finally “Visible for a Change.”

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