LESLIE-LOHMAN MUSEUM PRESENTS ON OUR BACKS: THE REVOLUTIONARY ART OF QUEER SEX WORK September 28, 2019–January 19, 2020
An exhibition exploring the history of sex work culture through the lenses of art, activism, and archival ephemera.
It's been a wonderful experience working with legendary sex work activists- Ceyenne Doroshow and Carol Leigh- on this important exhibition, curated by Alexis Heller. What a phenomenal opportunity it has been to get to know several of the participating artists and learn more about sex worker history.
Come Out to the Opening on Sept 28th!!
On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work draws on contemporary works in diverse media along with archival ephemera to highlight the many links between queerness, sex work, art and activism, and the ways in which they have led to radical transformation. On view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art from September 28, 2019 through January 19, 2020, On Our Backs brings together work from three intersecting LGBTQ groups: artists who identify as having exchanged sex or erotic services for gain; artists whose lives and work demonstrate a close allyship with sex workers; and artists who harness the power of pornography in their practice as a tool towards liberation.
Featured artists include Patrick Angus, Nina Arsenault, Robert Blanchon, Fernando Carpaneda, Tee Corinne, Ben Cuevas, Chloe Dzubilo, Juniper Fleming, Amber Hawk Swanson, Xandra Ibarra, Efrain John-Gonzalez, Bruce LaBruce, Robert Mapplethorpe, shawné michaelain holloway, Midori, D’Angelo Madsen Minax, Leon Mostovoy, Ms. Naughty, Pink + White Productions, Mirha Soleil- Ross, Annie Sprinkle, Pluma Sumaq, Veronica Vera, Khalil West & Ajamu, and David Wojnarowicz.
Organized by social worker and independent curator Alexis Heller, On Our Backs presents artworks and artifacts that tell a complex story about sex workers’ and pornography’s ties within queer and transgender history. Deep reflections of LGBTQ desire; radical responses to current issues including HIV/AIDS, immigration, labor, housing, racial justice, and gender; pioneering approaches to community healing; and freedom through sex are all illuminated. Queer and transgender sex workers and their allies have long utilized art to communicate the realities of their everyday lives and relationships, and to demonstrate sex workers’ embedment in the fabric of LGBTQ movement building.
“Sex work has historically been at the core of queer cultural production and activism, yet has been too often omitted from the walls of the museum. It is a pleasure to rectify that misstep with a curated selection of essential works,” says Gonzalo Casals, Executive Director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum. “It is a vital reminder that our community is inseparable and that by uplifting the narratives of queer and transgender sex workers, we uplift the entire queer community.”
From 1980 to 1994, Annie Sprinkle, foremother of sex positivity, sex art and sex work activism, dubbed her apartment The Sprinkle Salon, which served as a radical space for sex education, porn production, sex work, art making, community gathering, and groundbreaking social action. A robust collection of her photographs and ephemera from that period of dense creativity and queer worldmaking will be presented, as well as an exploration of Sprinkle’s many collaborations.
Internationally acclaimed filmmaker, photographer, and self-proclaimed “Prince of Homosexuals” Bruce LaBruce utilizes boundary-pushing pornography to engage with complicated social issues. His short film Refugee’s Welcome (2017) is a beautiful, timely, humanistic portrait of queer lust and care experienced by a Syrian refugee in Berlin, following an incident of xenophobic violence.
Japanese rope bondage Master, artist, and sex educator Midori highlights the rituals, kinship and sacred objects of sex workers with an immersive, site-specific installation. Comprising a “curtain” of ornate rope ties and submitted personal items from her queer sex worker community, the piece considers the tensions between what is seen/unseen, how we feel held and what we hold on to, and opportunities for letting go.
Ben Cuevas’s new, never-before-exhibited Reinserted series examines ideas about commodities and public space. Working with photos of sex workers and cruising sites from the archives of Pat Rocco and Annie Sprinkle, Cuevas digitally reinserts the subjects into the images’ modern-day locations. The series serves as a documentation of how sex worker history and the palatability of sex as a commodity is lost to gentrification, and often replaced by more “high-definition” capitalist pursuits.
Pluma Sumaq works to decompartmentalize her experience as a sex worker with the rest of her cultural identity, by creating ceremonialized altars, calling on the spirits of money and the sex trade, and synchronizing them with the energies of her spiritual tradition. Installed beneath a “Wall of Elders” in the exhibition, a representation of tireless LGBTQ sex worker activists, the altar offers a space for visitors to pay reverence to those who have so ardently fought.
The exhibition’s title is a nod to the seminal lesbian erotic magazine, On Our Backs, founded in the United States in the 1980’s. However, it is more than just an honorific reference. “The title is a recognition of the long history of sex workers helping to carry social movements forward on their backs, as well as being walked over once a more comfortable path towards freedom had been laid. The time is past due to center LGBTQ sex workers’ unique and powerful contributions,” shares On Our Backs curator, Alexis Heller.
Never before have these works and interlaced histories been presented together, and in the current political climate, their exposure takes on a new urgency. The 2018 passage of the FOSTA/SESTA law, holding website publishers responsible if ads for consensual sex work are found on their site, directly threatens sex workers’ livelihoods, safety and survival. On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work honors the ongoing labor of LGBTQ sex workers at the forefront of the fight for liberation, and the ways in which art and allied community have helped sustain them.
Sex worker activists Ceyenne Doroshow, Carol Leigh, and Yin Q served as Advisors for On Our Backs: The Revolutionary Art of Queer Sex Work.
About the Curator Alexis Heller is a social worker, storyteller, and advocate who has worked to empower LGBTQ youth in settings such as foster care, shelters, drop-in centers, and schools. Harm reduction with queer youth sex workers is a focus of her research and practice, and the MAC AIDS Fund awarded a grant supporting an HIV-prevention, peer education program she designed in collaboration with young people who were exchanging sex for gain. Alexis began a curatorial practice in 2012 centered on marginalized LGBTQ histories. She has organized a number of exhibitions at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, including TESTIMONY: A Living Exhibition of Queer Youth, Queers in Exile: The Unforgotten Legacies of LGBTQ Homeless Youth, and After Our Bodies Meet: From Resistance to Potentiality, as well as (SIGNAL) at Smack Mellon in Brooklyn.
About the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art Created by our founders to preserve LGBTQ identity and build community, the Leslie-Lohman Museum acts as a cultural hub by aspiring to reclaim scholarship from a queer perspective, to provide a training ground for queer artists and cultural workers, and to examine the juxtaposition between art and social justice in ways that provoke thought and dialogue.
The Museum is the only dedicated art museum in the world to exhibit and preserve artwork that speaks about the LGBTQ experience. Our roots trace back to 1969 when Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman held an exhibit of gay artists for the first time in their SoHo loft. Throughout the 1970s, they continued to collect and exhibit gay artists while supporting the SoHo art community. During the AIDS pandemic of the 1980s, the collection continued to grow as they rescued the work of dying artists from families who, out of shame or ignorance, wanted to destroy it. This led to the formation of the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation in 1987. In recognition of its importance in the collection and preservation of LGBTQ history, the organization was accredited as a museum in 2016. With a collection of over 30,000 objects, the Museum hosts six major exhibitions annually, offers several public programs throughout the year, publishes an arts newsletter, and maintains a research library of over 3,000 volumes. The Museum embraces the rich creative history of the LGBTQ art community by educating, informing, inspiring, entertaining, and challenging all who enter its doors.
Located at 26 Wooster Street in the SoHo neighborhood of New York City. Admission is a suggested donation of $10. Open Wed–Sun, 12–6 pm, and Thurs, 12–8 pm. The Museum is a nonprofit organization and is exempt from taxation under section 501(c)3 of the IRS Code. LeslieLohman.org