Artists target anti-LGBTQ+ legislation in ‘Knock Down, Drag Out’

The expansive art show, which opens at Wild Goose on Friday, June 9, lands at a time when the political and cultural climates have become increasingly dangerous for the trans and queer communities.
Flyer for "Knock Down, Drag Out"
Flyer for "Knock Down, Drag Out"Courtesy Wild Goose Creative

Curators Madalynn Conkle and Julia Barrett started to kick around ideas for a Pride-themed art show last summer. But the concept didn't jell until January, when the pair connected with artist Niko Taylor, who helped co-curate “Knock Down, Drag Out,” which opens at Wild Goose Creative on Friday, June 9.

“When we sat down, I was like, ‘If we’re going to do something for Pride, we really need to talk about how queer people are in danger, and how trans people are in danger right now,’” said Taylor, who joined Conkle and Barrett for an early June interview at the Franklinton art gallery. “These laws are a problem for our community, and maybe art can break open that dialogue.”

In recent months, the political climate has only worsened for the most vulnerable members of the LGBTQ+ community both across the country and in the state. Nazis and right-wing hate groups have become a regular presence at drag events, most recently attracting national attention when members of the Nazi group Blood Tribe posted up outside of Land-Grant Brewing Company, just blocks from Wild Goose. And at the Statehouse, Republicans have continued to advance discriminatory laws, with the Buckeye Flame reporting that Republicans on Tuesday amended House Bill 8 – the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” – into more explicitly anti-LGBTQ+ legislation. H.B. 8 is just one of six bills targeting the LGBTQ+ community currently advancing through the Ohio Statehouse, with legislation aimed at everything from restricting trans health care to reshaping the education system.

“Knock Down, Drag Out,” which features 90+ pieces of art from more than 25 artists, along with opening night sets from drag performers and the wrestling group Art Clash, among others, confronts this ugly reality head-on. In one triptych, artist Kayla Lewis unfurls the human cost of this current wave of anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, quite literally connecting the lawmakers to the community members impacted, lines extending from their pens through a multiplying series of bodies. Other artists, such as Mary Ann Crago, adapted their art to the moment, with Crago pivoting to add a pencil and sharpener to her piece, inviting visitors to add their own reflections on the current climate to the surrounding wall space.

“These laws are meant to scare people, and they increase suicide risk and deny access to health care – it’s a whole big thing,” said Taylor, who grew up a pastor’s kid in Fort Worth, Texas. “But hopefully, representation will inspire other queer artists and other queer people, and let them know, 'You are needed. We love you. We see you. And we have a space for you.' And hopefully that will inspire empathy in other people and in other groups, even if some will never get there.”

All three curators said they viewed Pride and Pride-affiliated events as going through a needed revitalization – one kicked off locally in 2017 when a group of majority-Black protesters stepped into the streets at Stonewall Columbus Pride, temporarily pausing the parade. The group, members of which became known as the Black Pride 4, aimed to raise awareness of the lack of space afforded Black and Brown members of the LQBTQ+ community at Pride events – and in particular its trans members – and to raise awareness of the 14 trans women of color who had been murdered in the United States up to that point in 2017. 

“For me, Pride has definitely changed from when I was a baby bisexual woman to who I am now,” Barrett said. “When I first went to Pride, I wasn’t even out yet ... and it was like, ‘Oh, this is so fun! This is all about having fun!’ … And now we’re seeing [legislators] get rid of so many rights for trans folks and queer folks, and Pride is turning back to where it started as a riot, to when it was revolutionary."

Barrett said this more radical shift began to take root in the art world in 2016, coinciding with the rise of former President Donald Trump, who embraced the persecution of marginalized groups as a means of stoking support among his base. “And we started to see a lot of artwork become politicized,” Barrett said. “Even back then, the artists were saying, ‘Hey, just so you know, in the future we need to look out for this and this and this in our Pride community.’ … And we knew this because artists are also very engaged in activism and politics.”

While a bulk of the pieces in “Knock Down, Drag Out” take a more charged stance, there are other submissions meant to capture the courage and humanity sometimes lost in a community whose existence has become increasingly politicized.

“It’s really difficult, because I was just born this way, as anyone else was. But then I’m also an artist, so am I forced to talk about these things? And if I’m making art, is it all trans art?” Taylor said. “Some queer artists want to talk about their stories. And some don’t want to at all, and they just want to be an artist. With [this exhibit], we wanted to welcome artists, like, 'If you want to talk about these issues, you can. Or if you just want to come be celebrated as a queer person, you can.' Both are equally valid.”

Correction: A quote initially attributed to Madalynn Conkle was actually made by Julia Barrett. Matter News regrets the error.

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