Imperial Court exhibit opens at Oakland museum

  • by Michael Nugent
  • Wednesday April 5, 2017
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Familiar symbols �" queered and reoriented through playful, political, and subversive creative practices �" are featured in the Oakland Museum of California's new exhibition "Over the Top: Math Bass and the Imperial Court SF."

The exhibition features new paintings and sculpture by perception-bending trans artist Bass and regalia from the Imperial Court.

"What an amazing exhibit, we never thought it would happen. There have been many attempts to create an exhibit, but it never worked out. Then the Oakland Museum approached us out of the blue to create this," said Donna Sachet, Bay Area Reporter society columnist and a former Imperial Court empress.

Christina Linden, the exhibition curator, said, "We're honored to present the first-ever exhibit about the Imperial Court. The court took symbols of imperialism and queered them, making them their own. We were moved by the legacy and family they created, how they defined their own title and family in order to survive."

Founded in 1965 by the late activist and drag performer Jose Sarria, who was known as Empress I the Widow Norton, the Imperial Court is a charitable organization that hosts coronation balls and many other live events to raise money for causes, including hunger and HIV/AIDS.

"Over the Top" features various Imperial Court artifacts, including robes, crowns, pins, scepters, and portraits of the court's past emperors and empresses. The court has re-oriented familiar symbols and given them new meanings; in this empire, items that traditionally signified monarchy and subjugation are now used to convey gay liberation, nonconformity, and personal freedom, according to a news release.

"Our goal with this exhibition is to show how symbols can be re-contextualized to create new shared meaning within LGBTQ communities," explained Linden. "And this feels like a timely moment to feature this show, given the peril faced at this moment by LGBTQ people in this country, especially trans and gender-nonconforming people. Their right to self-determination is at serious risk. As a museum, we strive to bring together people from different worlds and spark conversations, and 'Over the Top' is all about creating a welcoming space for sharing ideas."

Linden's bold vision was to pair Bass' work �" most of which was created just for this exhibition �" with regalia from the Imperial Court of San Francisco.

"Math Bass' art also flips symbols and creates their own meaning," said Linden.

Bass, who identifies as a queer, transgender woman, is artistically fascinated with ambiguity.

"It isn't the mission of the work, but this queerness is coming through. I am queer, and I have resisted a lot of costumes and posturing that I was supposed to do in my life," Bass said during a media preview event March 31. "It doesn't come naturally to me to fit inside any predetermined box."

This union allows for a teasing out of re-contextualized meanings. "What do the paintings mean in a unique context? Questions of identity are explored," said Linden.

John Carrillo, a gay man and the current chair of the Imperial Council of San Francisco, explained the process of electing the yearly court.

"The emperor and empress are elected by a public vote, open to anyone from San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties," he said. "We have polling stations in the Castro, Project Openhand's building on Polk, and in South of Market."

"Each year it's a new emperor and empress. They have a shotgun marriage that night," he quipped.

A separate court exists in Alameda County and there are 59 total across the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Sarria would personally grant each new court until his death in 2013 at the age of 90.

By combining the work of an LGBT artist with the court, the museum is seeking to engage broader communities, incorporating both people interested in contemporary art and the court to be part of art in a new way.

This exhibit also represents a new focus on LGBT art at the Oakland Museum.

"While we have a rich legacy of LGBT artists in the collection, this is probably the first LGBT exhibit at the Oakland Museum," said Linden.

The museum is planning a larger LGBT exhibit for 2019, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots.


"Over the Top: Math Bass and the Imperial Court SF" will be on view at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street, through July 23.