Exhibit of Doo Dah Parade protest photos feels at home in this era

Photos taken by Carolyn Speranza during a 1990 anti-censorship demonstration resonate anew in the current political and social landscape. The images are currently on display at Short North Tavern.
Carla Peterson, then assistant performing arts director at the Wexner Center, marches during an anti-censorship demonstration at the 1990 Doo Dah Parade.
Carla Peterson, then assistant performing arts director at the Wexner Center, marches during an anti-censorship demonstration at the 1990 Doo Dah Parade.Carolyn P. Speranza

When Carolyn Speranza decided to photograph the 1990 Doo Dah Parade – an event that doubled as a protest against the wave of anti-art censorship sweeping the country at the time – she had no idea the images would resonate so strongly more than three decades later.

Speranza, who had recently completed graduate studies at Ohio State University, said she was drawn to attend the parade by the protest, which was sparked and led by local arts educators and students, a number of whom had connections to the newborn Wexner Arts Center, which had been founded a year earlier.

“I showed up because this was a demonstration of the larger arts community and art students and people who care about the arts, and at a pivotal moment when freedom of expression was under attack,” said Speranza, whose pictures can be viewed in Parade as a Protest Artform: Photographs of Doo Dah 1990, now on display at Short North Tavern. (The exhibit corresponds with the 40th annual Doo Dah Parade, which takes place in the Short North on Tuesday, July 4.) “Now, did I have any idea at the time the pictures [would resonate decades later]? No. How would I?”

In recent years, however, the Pittsburgh-based Speranza started to see a connection between the current political and social climates and how she felt in the runup to the 1990 demonstration, particularly as Republican legislatures in states like Florida have moved to ban certain books from school libraries, a majority of which are by and about Black, Brown and queer people.

“Like, really? Really? We’re censoring books now? In 2023, we’re censoring what children can read?” said Speranza, whose artistic practice continues to explore the line between arts and activism. “It’s a very similar tactic to what we saw in the past, where they’re targeting people who are queer and dead, or people who are queer and under an age where they can really stand for themselves, like trans kids and their parents. But it’s all about, ‘Let’s target the people who are different. Let’s make people afraid.’” 

Politicians levied similar attacks against the LGBTQ+ community in 1990, using the AIDS crisis as a means to stoke public fear and leaning into the culture war in an effort to silence queer artists. This included a decision by the National Endowment for the Arts to veto grants to four artists: Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck and Holly Hughes – three of whom were gay and whose work centered their queer identity.

The same year, a local sheriff staged a raid on a Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective at the Contemporary Arts Center of Cincinnati, seeking to indict museum director Dennis Barie on obscenity charges for displaying images created by the openly gay artist. (The touring exhibit, organized by the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania, had previously been targeted by right-wing politicians, with the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. canceling a planned showing under pressure months prior.)

“[Former Senator] Jesse Helms and whoever his colleagues were over there on the Christian right, were showing completely out of context photos from the Mapplethorpe exhibit in the United States Senate and saying, ‘This is evil and we are funding this,’” Speranza said of the exhibit, which was in part funded by the NEA. “And in very close proximity to this, Robert Mapplethorpe had died of AIDS. … The anti-censorship demonstration [at Doo Dah] happened like a year after Corcoran, and just after the [obscenity indictment] in Cincinnati. And what happened was the arts community in Columbus galvanized, and it was led by mostly women from some of the key arts organizations.”

The Censor-Ship makes its way through the Short North during the 1990 Doo Dah Parade.
The Censor-Ship makes its way through the Short North during the 1990 Doo Dah Parade.Carolyn P. Speranza

A number of these women appear in photographs taken during the parade by Speranza, including Lorrie Dirkse, then managing editor of Dialogue Magazine and a founding member of the Freedom Coalition, which organized the protest, and Carla Peterson, then assistant performing arts director at the Wexner Center, who can be seen in a photo wearing cones over her breasts, a “Save the NEA” pin affixed to her shirt.

Speranza said the protest fomented within a Columbus arts scene that had deep activist roots, recalling a series of challenging exhibitions staged at Ohio State in the years leading to the parade, including one centered on immigration rights and another that explored the issue of rape. “And all of these exhibitions came out of the University Gallery at Ohio State, and they all had multiple components that included public conversations, conferences, films, artist talks,” Speranza said. “And this created really fertile ground for when the people of Columbus got together and said, ‘How are we going to respond to what’s happening with the NEA? How are we going to respond to what’s happening in Cincinnati?’”

Beyond drawing attention to that era, Speranza said she hopes the photo exhibit can be instructive, particularly living at a time when a new generation of right-wing politicians and culture warriors are drawing from the same playbook once employed by their predecessors. 

“What happened in 1990 and what is happening now, it’s not the same, but it’s a very similar political endeavor in that it's going after people who are different. And right now, they’re going after people who are trans, people who are nonbinary, people whose queer expression is not easily definable. And they’re using attacks on artwork to do it, and bans on books,” Speranza said. “So, I’m like, let’s bring this conversation back. Let’s bring artistic activism back. It's out there. Let's bring it back to Columbus.”

Related Stories

No stories found.
Matter News