LAURA WASHINGTON: ‘Dress codes’ exhibit opens door on ‘who they are’

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Dress Codes (2017). Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

What does a lesbian look like?

She is dressed in crisp, black and white racing stripes, flanked by a wall of psychedelic images.She blows out of the frame.

She is donned in a white baseball cap.She gives a punky nod, shirt collar stands defiantly around a slim neck.

Her eagle-bald head, framed by gold hoop earrings, beckons you with bedroom eyes.

They are all lesbians.Black lesbians.


I wasn’t prepared for the stunning 20-inch by 30-inch photographs of six black lesbians now showing at The Art Institute. But there they were, demanding I see them in new ways.

The exhibit’s accompanying text quotes the artist, the celebrated South African photographer Zanele Muholi.She asks:

“What does a lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialized, and classed selves in rich and diverse ways?I wanted the viewer to ask herself — is this lesbian more authentic than that lesbian because one wears a tie and the other not? Is this a man or a woman, or a transman? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?”

I asked:Are they who you think they are?

Muholi’s portraits are part of a larger exhibit: “Dress Codes: Portrait Photographs from the Collection.”

The Art Institute gleaned photographs it owns from Zanele Muholi’s “Faces and Phases” series. Since 2006, Muholi, a celebrated South African photographer, has been creating “a visual history of black lesbians in South Africa,” said Michal Raz-Russo, the Ruttenberg Associate Curator of Photography at the Art Institute.

“The question (Muholi) was posing was, ‘how do you make visible an oppressed group within a much larger oppressed group?’ ” Raz-Russo said in an interview.

Muholi considers herself both an activist and artist and pursues her work as social commentary.

Her lesbian photographs represent a wide range. Some women are masculine in appearance, others more feminine, Raz-Russo said. “A lot of these women have been victims of a range of crimes and have been assaulted in many ways.”

The African continent owns a long, sordid history of heinous discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people. In Africa, homophobia has licensed to black people to hate their own.

America is hardly immune.In February, a 24-year-old transgender woman, Tiara Richmond, also known as Keke Collier, was murdered on Chicago’s South Side.Nationally, 23 transgender people lost their lives to violence in 2017, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ civil rights group.

The starkly elegant portraits depict black women dressed in “traditionally male” attire. In a cap, sweater vest, long tie, a pair of Levis, they pose proudly, unapologetically.

“The whole idea was to look at dress as one door that opens” said Raz-Russo, on “who they are.”

We project our own biases on those different from us.The greater the difference, the bigger the bias.

I know many black lesbians.I have often wondered why many (though not all) tend to dress “mannish.”

Maybe, because they want to. It’s not a code. It’s who they are.

“Dress Codes,” showing throughApril 22, presents five series of photographs, spanning the 1870s to the present.

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