An International Biennial Devoted to Queer Artists Is Coming to Detroit

The artists come from as far as Beijing, and the show stretches across a dozen venues.

Linda Simpson, Christy, Daisy (1993). Courtesy of the artist.

The Motor City is the venue for an expansive exhibition of queer artists taking place this summer, timed to Pride Month. “I’ll Be Your Mirror: Reflections of the Contemporary Queer” is curated by Detroit artist and high school art teacher Patrick Burton. Its title echoes that of a classic Velvet Underground song to suggest a relationship between art and the viewer, as well as, Burton said, “the importance of visibility and affirmation.”

“In many respects, we see art as activism, and it’s really important to respond to the many anti-LGBTQ+ bills that are being advanced right now,” said Burton. “When you want to understand a people, you look at its culture. It’s the same for queer people. It’s in June for a reason, to offer an alternative to parties and parades and drag shows, to help viewers to understand who we are.”

The letters F, G, G, T on a colorful background

John Criscitello, FGGT (2021). Courtesy of the artist.

The sprawling show includes more than 800 works spread across 12 venues by 170 artists, including well-known contemporary figures like Eve Fowler, Hillary Harkness, Lyle Ashton Harris, Clarity Haynes, and Wayne Koestenbaum, as well as some historical practitioners such as Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden and George Platt Lynes.

This is the biennial’s second edition; the first, which was devoted entirely to Detroit artists, was similarly curated by Burton and also took place over the course of Pride Month. This time, the scope is international, with artists from as far as Beijing. The nonprofit organization that’s putting on the show, Mighty Real/Queer Detroit, is made up of just a handful of people, all with day jobs, who are volunteering their time, Burton said.

Unconventionally for biennial exhibitions, the work is openly for sale; all proceeds go to the artists. The organization’s website includes links to every artist’s website.

A cloth artwork that reads "delightful are the things we can't have"

Jessica Whitbread, Delightful Are the Things We Can’t Have (2014). Courtesy of the artist.

The exhibition also includes a June 6 film program at the Detroit Institute of Arts, curated by Adam Baran. He was the producer of the well-received 2019 documentary Circus of Books, about a pair of Los Angeles parents who unintentionally became major distributors of gay pornography.

Opening festivities will take place over a three-day weekend starting Friday, May 31; venues in different parts of the city have coordinated to open their exhibitions on the same evening. 

The foregrounding of queer artists is at the same moment taking place, as it happens, on one of the art world’s best-known platforms, the Venice Biennale, where curator Adriano Pedrosa’s central exhibition, “Foreigners Everywhere,” has placed an emphasis on Indigenous, queer, and Outsider artists, through the lens of the foreigner. 

Burton isn’t sure that it’s a coincidence, in view of the wave of anti-LGBTQ+ activism that he sees.

“I just think everyone’s in synch,” Burton said, “because we know what’s happening.”

“I’ll Be Your Mirror: Reflections of the Contemporary Queer” is on view from May 31–June 30 at 12 venues throughout Detroit: Anton Art Center, Carr Center, CCS-Center Galleries, Detroit Artists Market, Detroit Contemporary, Elaine Jacob Gallery, Galerie Camille, Hannan Center, Hatch Art, Irwin House, Scarab Club, and Swords Into Plowshares.

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