Motor City Pride turns 50: More than 600 works by LGBTQ+ artists on display through June

The largest exhibition of works by LGBTQ+ Detroit artists is on display this month to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Motor City Pride festival, but for Matthew Papa, it's a little bittersweet. While the participating artist says it's exciting to be in the "monumental show", which takes place simultaneously across 17 galleries, there's still work to be done.

"Achieving marriage equality in 2015 was a level of progress I never expected to see in my lifetime, but since then we’ve seen a frightening backlash against the transgender community with the aim of erasing diverse voices and lives," says Papa. "It's a reminder that we need to stay vigilant and continue to fight until everyone in our community can live with freedom and dignity."

The exhibition, and public programming, is curated to connect with all audiences, creating public space and attention to queer art and life, from 1945 to the present.

"Fever" by Mieyoshi RagernoirMighty Real/Queer Detroit (a nonprofit committed to promoting positive and meaningful images of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community through artistic and intellectual means) has partnered with the City of Detroit Office of Arts, Culture, and Entrepreneurship, to produce the exhibit.

The Ford Foundation is the presenting sponsor of the month-long series that represents a historical deep dive into the diversity of the city's LGBTQ+ community and its longtime allies. The exhibition features both emerging and established queer art, as well as never-before-seen works by artists whose careers were shortened by HIV/AIDS.

"Fish" by S. Kay Young

Participating artist S. Kay Young describes the exhibition as "groundbreaking". "It gives a face and voice to brilliant artists in a time when we need to show love, tolerance and unity. Because, when in the spotlight, we shine."

Organizers say the emergence of queer art as a studied aspect of ‘American’ art has been a relatively new phenomenon — and only recently celebrated. This year it is especially poignant in Detroit, as the city plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first ‘Detroit Pride’ march, held downtown in 1972.

Over the past 77 years, the richness of Detroit queer life, as expressed in art, has developed in unseen ways, says Mighty Real/Queer Detroit Creative Director and Curator Patrick Burton.

Artwork by Tylonn Sawyer

“In the late 1970s, I gathered with a group of rebels, eccentrics, and tender spirits, who found ourselves in a limelight of post-Stonewall ‘gay liberation,’" Burton says. "We were children. We took our first steps on the boulevards of Detroit where we were forced to grow up against the conventional world, which dominated those streets and shunned us – socially stigmatizing, legally criminalizing, physically assaulting. Yet, we found reprieve through building our own spaces, with new faces, who then became friends, and over time, our chosen family."

"Since then, Queer culture has taken root, emerged, endured, and allows space for many different experiences. The varied works presented during Mighty Real/Queer Detroit exhibition are testimony to this legacy, and importantly, future.”

Motor City Pride, an annual LGBQT+ street festival, will be held in Hart Plaza on June 11 this year, and traces its roots back to June 1972 when the first march was held downtown Detroit to protest the homophobic laws. Previously held in Ferndale, Michigan, the festival moved back to Detroit in 2011.

"The Past in Myth" by Carl DemeulenaereBeyond the exhibition, MR/QD will host an online gallery and publish a future catalog with essays by noted writers and historians that will document the exhibited artwork. Mediums of queer talent and expression will fill the month of June, with multiple artist talks, panel discussions, poetry readings, youth art showcase, and live performances by an additional 40 artists.

The grassroots event is being curated and organized by dozens of volunteers, who
collectively have devoted thousands of hours. It will culminate into what MR/QD hopes to be the inaugural kickoff for a future biannual event and as a continuation and preservation of the largest showcase of queer art in the United States.

On the Calendar:

Thursday, June 2 | Kickoff Reception 
8:00-10:00 p.m. artist reception; 10:00-2:00 a.m. celebration, 928 W McNichols, Detroit 

Friday, June 3 | Openings 
5:00-9:00 p.m. Cass Cafe, College for Creative Studies, Detroit Artists Market, Galerie Camille,  N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, Playground Detroit, Scarab Club 

Saturday, June 4 | Openings 
2:00-4:00 p.m.  Anton Art Center 
11:00-6:00 p.m. Log Cabin at Palmer Park, Mint Artists Guild 
2:00-7:00 p.m. David Klein Gallery (Birmingham) 
5:00-9:00 p.m. Affirmations Center, Hatch Art, M Contemporary Art, Norwest Gallery, Oloman Cafe + Gallery, Public Pool 

Sunday, June 5 | Openings, Tea Dance 
2:00-6:00 p.m. 
Collected Detroit (2439 Fourth Street), Metropolitan Museum of Design Detroit.

Tuesday, June 7 | Artist Talk with Stephanie Crawford 
7:00 p.m. at Scarab Club  

Saturday, June 11 | Performance by Vagner Whitehead 
3:00 p.m. at Detroit Artist Market (DAM) 

Wednesday, June 15 | Poetry, Music, & Performance with Cherry Wood,  Meg Foley, Stephanie Glazier, and Jess Julian 
6:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. at Galerie Camille 

Wednesday, June 22 | Juneteenth Poetry Reading with Tommy Blount,  Deidre D.S.Sense Smith, Mars Marhall, and Lester Rambus 
6:00 p.m. at Scarab Club 

Saturday, June 25 | Artist Talks 
2:00 p.m. at Hatch Detroit

Saturday, June 25 | ‘Trade Center’ Film Screening & Panel Discussion with  Billy Miller, Tim Retzloff 
4:00 p.m. at N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art 

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at [email protected]