Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Viewers imagine past
through international archive


Granny Lee, a.k.a. "Queen of the Disco," was born Leonard Christian du Plooy in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1919. An image of her will be on display at Migrating Archives at the GLBT History Museum. (Photo: Courtesy Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action)
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A gallery at the GLBT History Museum will soon forge international connections and offer a glimpse into the ways queer lives from the past are honored in archives around the world, including a photograph of a deceased South African drag queen and a poster for an SM play about dykes in London.

E.G. Crichton, the curator of Migrating Archives , which opens February 1, said that sometimes the absence of something is as important – and sometimes more important – than what is there.

There will be no physical human liaison between these disparate 11 organizations from as far away as Belgium and the Philippines, and instead incomplete replicated archives from LGBT peoples' lives around the world will adorn the exhibit.

Crichton isn't creating the work in the exhibit. Instead, she asked the organizations to contribute archives of their own choice and to record a video to accompany their selections, which would later become part of Crichton's exhibit and work of art, Migrating Archives .

"People started asking me, 'How are you an artist?'" said Crichton, an art professor at UC Santa Cruz since 1994 and an interdisciplinary artist who has been working as a "social catalyzer."

This methodology, largely formed in the 1990s, can transform even a dinner party into a piece of art, and what is seen is as compelling as what is not known about these arcane subjects in the exhibit.

How did the South African drag queen by the name of Granny Lee, who was a black man named Leonard Christian du Plooy with a skin disease that made him look white, pass as a white woman in Johannesburg's apartheid society?

A poster with a black woman pulling a white woman by a leash reads "Sin Dykes: a Play for the 1990s," which opened January 1998 and featured a cast mostly of women, according to the National Theatre's Black Plays Archive.

"Dykers are out of the closet. Black dykes openly do SM, dykes openly sleep with gay men. There is dialogue, debate and outrage, and no one is listening anymore," a synopsis on the Black Plays Archive website says.

The image was submitted by rukus Federation in London, which commissions black LGBT artists.

Meanwhile, a page submitted by the National Archive of London from 1892 reads, "Unnatural Offence Cases." What was the "indecent assault" on a "male person" committed by Thomas Burnes on May 19, 1891 that called for 18 months in jail?

These unknowns create a void that begs to be filled by Crichton.

"I want archives to move and bend and to add life to them," said Crichton.

The exhibit follows years of travel, during which she accumulated contacts and archives during exhibitions in Amsterdam and Manila, Philippines, which she later interpreted by creating stories or artwork from.

The interpretation of these archives sometimes even utilizes "gaydar," a sensitivity that the lesbian feminist author Tirza True Latimer said informs the practices of an LGBT historian to engage in "poetic intervention, speculative reenactment, story-telling, and fantasy."

In Crichton s 1999 framed photograph series "Quasi Lapis," a tombstone belonging to "Mary," possibly photographed during Crichton's obsession with Puritan cemeteries in New Hampshire, is altered to read "Wait for me always in love all ways" from her lover "Priscilla."

"I think my passion for creating histories stems from my family having secrets, like homophobia and mental illnesses. I grew up feeling like a detective seeking out secrets," Crichton said.

These incomplete archives, brimming with secrets, provoke Crichton to create narratives as artist in residence of the GLBT History Museum since 2008.

In 2009, she matched visitors at the GLBT History Museum to its trove of personal histories. The result, "Lineage: Matchmaking in the Archive," shows stark resemblances and personal connections.

For example, Tina Takemoto, a queer fourth-generation Japanese American artist, writer and professor based in San Francisco, stood before a projected image of Jiro Onuma, a "dandyish gay bachelor" who was held in an internment camp in Topaz, Utah.

They both wear suits in the image and bear a striking resemblance.

"Jiro Onuma is my gay Japanese American role model, queer accomplice, and friend," Takemoto wrote of the deceased internee that possibly maintained his gay fantasies alive in camp by subscribing to Earle Liederman's Physical Culture School through mail.

These serendipitous connections motivate Crichton's work.

"It's as though the people who will be portrayed are themselves virtual delegates to our city and our time," Crichton said in a statement. "Some of the individuals included are famous, and others are ordinary people whose artifacts were found or donated after they died. One or two remain anonymous, reflecting the fate of so many LGBT people whose names have disappeared from history."


Migrating Archives opens Friday, February 1 with a public reception from 6 to 8 p.m. at the GLBT History Museum, 4127 18th Street in San Francisco. The exhibit runs through May.

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