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After Pulse: In Orlando, everybody is an artist

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IN downtown Orlando on June 12th 2017, a homeless man sat on a sheet of cardboard making roses from sabal palm leaves. Introducing himself as Dave the Rose Man, he gave the palm flowers to those passers-by marking the first anniversary of the shooting at the Pulse nightclub. “For anyone in a t-shirt for Pulse,” he said, handing out another, one of hundreds he made during the day.

Dave usually makes some money designing tattoos, but on that day he wanted to show his compassion for the 49 people who died in the largest mass shooting in modern American history—including the friend he lost. “You couldn’t make him straight more than you could make me gay,” said Dave, chewing from a pizza slice.

A year ago, Orlando felt dark and angry: the tragedy of so many young lives lost hung in the air. Today, the enduring instinct to create something meaningful out of the horror has taken over, and the streets are washed in the colours of the rainbow. Street murals depict multi-coloured birds in flight (pictured, below). Musicians sing what could become folk songs in Orlando’s history: one, by Sugar City, is called “World of Love”. Roberta Blick sewed a quilt and Nancy Rosardo collected messages of hope to adorn it. Thomas Thorspecken turned his monthly drawing class over to his students who, together, produced portraits of the 49 victims—they now hang in the Orange County Historical Centre. On June 11th, Curtis Meyer, a local poet, bound onto the stage at the public library to give a reading. He believes that “everyone in this city is a poet”. 

Many in Orlando are still mourning, but choosing to channel that grief into art, music and literature. Culture has always helped people to make sense of loss, and to feel that the dead are being commemorated. Here the artistic response is themed around love and unity—and is being produced by citizens of all sexual orientations and genders—to point out that hateful terrorist attacks will not sow division. Instead, the rainbow art particularly reflects the progress that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) groups have made in America. The movement successfully framed same-sex marriage as an equal right, using the motto “love is love” as an answer to those critics that deem homosexual relationships “unnatural” in some way. When the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 2015 to block same-sex couples from marrying, millions of people joined in the celebrations of their new-found rights: 25m Facebook users added a rainbow filter to their profile picture. The White House bathed its facade in multi-coloured lights.

The rainbow has become the branded merchandise of the modern LGBT movement, a symbol that allows anyone to pledge their support for the freedoms of others. It fulfils an important public role. But it is important that the rainbow exists alongside the art produced by LGBT people themselves, for a blunt political symbol should not drown out the authentic stories underpinning its creation. Queer art has always challenged social norms and represented the diversity of sexual and romantic experience. Some concentrated on making gay people visible on their own terms: David Hockney’s “Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy” (1968) depicts the couple together and apart, as was the case in their open relationship. Alison Bechdel draws modern lesbians going about their daily lives. Others have focused on sex and shocks, such as Robert Mapplethorpe whose photographs depicted fetishes as beautiful as well as extreme. Some, such as Keith Haring, used loud slogans such as “Silence=Death” to call for political action on the AIDS crisis.

There is plenty of political queer art still around today, but perhaps it relies on the record reach of the rainbow to find audiences. In Orlando, at the public library’s free music and poetry session, alongside the verses of love came Eddie Figures. The local spoken word artist used his spot to raise more difficult issues. As “a proud Latino poet”, Figures read, “we’re used to not being acknowledged unless it has to do with immigration or racism…at times it feels like my culture is invisible, as if we’re treated as ghosts…this world will always barely acknowledge us, that’s what it means to be Latino in America.” 

His theme is picked up in the work of Chika, a young rapper from Alabama, who used Pride Month as a peg to rewrite Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You”. Her work is challenging, but that is her point. Queer art is difficult art, striving to challenge discrimination and to continue representing minority sex and romantic lives in all their diversity. A broad majority may wish to stand alongside a marginalised or minority group by proclaiming generic messages such as “love is love”, but there still needs to be space for artists to tell the specific stories that underpin that message.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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