PRINT September 2021


Mahmoud Khaled, Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man (detail), 2017, mixed media. Installation view, Ark Kültür, Istanbul.

IF YOU HAPPENED to drop by Istanbul’s Ark Kültür in autumn 2017, you may have noticed a curious plaque near the entrance featuring a spare, stylized drawing of a man covering his face with his hand. The image announced the villa’s temporary designation as the Unknown Crying Man Museum. Inside, visitors were guided by an audio tour in Turkish and English through rooms filled with household items (furniture, books, art) meaningfully assembled to provide a glimpse into the world of a fictional queer Egyptian man living in Turkey. Though this unnamed protagonist was described in the audio tour—written by Egyptian artist Mahmoud Khaled, who constructed this museum within a museum for the Fifteenth Istanbul Biennial—as a “private and enigmatic person,” the figure of the crying man was immediately recognizable to anyone familiar with the May 2001 Queen Boat incident, in which fifty-two gay men were arrested for attending a floating discotheque on the Nile, charged with “habitual debauchery” and “obscene behavior,” beaten while in jail, and subsequently shamed during widely publicized trials that amounted to a referendum on LGBTQIA+ rights in Egypt. During their court appearances, the men mostly covered their bowed heads with white fabric, and the image of a face buried in a hand became a visual shorthand for the Cairo Fifty-Two. This motif was repeated and resignified throughout Khaled’s installation, emblazoned on a mirror at the start of the tour and on souvenir paper cups available for perusal, though not for purchase, at the gift shop.

Mahmoud Khaled, Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man (detail), 2017, mixed media. Installation view, Ark Kültür, Istanbul.

The work, titled Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man, contains many of the institutional trappings common to both art and natural-history museums, including the audio guide, the gift shop, and precise lighting and display practices. Yet the generic nature of most of the items on view, which by themselves tell us very little, and the T-shirts in the store sporting the motto I WANT YOU TO KNOW THAT I AM HIDING SOMETHING FROM YOU suggest that Khaled is drawing equally on a different, decidedly queer lineage, one in which objects suggest hidden histories, codes, and secrets but also refuse to fully give up those stories. The artist cannily presents a Wunderkammer of sorts, a small vitrine filled with enigmatic cropped landscape photographs that gesture to other, possibly more expansive horizons. A foundational precursor to the modern museum, the cabinet of curiosities—curated for and by “learned” white European gentleman eager to showcase artifacts often violently or unethically removed from colonized territories—lays bare how the system of collecting is fundamentally racist, patriarchal, classist, and extractive. As a social device keyed to Western conventions that drew distinctions between the civilized and the uncivilized, the normal and the freaky or strange, the cabinet of curiosities is also implicitly heterosexist, as is its progeniture, the collecting museum. The Unknown Crying Man Museum introduces a number of parallax views through its clever pairings and displacements. Most obviously, Turkish and Egyptian genealogies related to the policing of queer desire are tacitly compared; Khaled’s piece illuminates how prisons and museums function as authoritative sites of repression and control but at the same time are capable of holding queer stories and intimacies that can never be fully legible to, or containable by, the carceral state.

Mahmoud Khaled, Proposal for a House Museum of an Unknown Crying Man (detail), 2017, mixed media. Installation view, Ark Kültür, Istanbul.

A similar dynamic, in which the museum is utilized by an artist as an instrument capable simultaneously of discipline, coerced revelation, and strategic opacity, is activated in Chris E. Vargas’s Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA), founded in 2013. Across his work, Vargas is interested in queering hegemonic regimes, reinventing them as liberatory rather than confining; for instance, his feature-length film Criminal Queers (2015), codirected with trans theorist and activist Eric A. Stanley, casts a humorous eye on the serious topic of prison abolition and transforms a prison-break narrative into a campy trans/queer rebellion. Vargas initially incarnated MOTHA as a poster declaring that this museum was COMING SOON! But the physical arrival of the institution was never the point: Though there have been some iterations with actual objects on display, notably in the Oakland Museum of California’s 2019 exhibition “Queer California: Untold Stories,” the “forever under construction” (that is to say, largely immaterial, ephemeral, and unconsolidated) MOTHA is better understood as a conceptual project that lives not in a building but in people’s heads as a space of fantasy and projection.

Vargas, like Khaled, landed on the charged term museum for a reason: its almost alchemical ability to transmute marginal narratives, particularly queer and trans narratives, into something that passes for official history.

View of “Queer California: Untold Stories,” 2019, Oakland Museum of California. From MOTHA’s exhibition series “Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects,” 2015–19. Photo: Palmer Rose.

Vargas, like Khaled, landed on the charged term museum for a reason: its almost alchemical ability to transmute marginal narratives, particularly queer and trans narratives, into something that passes for official history. In an early example, influential CalArts teacher Millie Wilson enlisted the word for “The Museum of Lesbian Dreams,” begun in 1989, an iterative feminist installation series intent on finding pleasures within midcentury sexology’s medicalization of the female body that slyly appropriates vitrines and plaques. Gathering objects, whether mundane or extraordinary, under the rubric of a “museum” grants them immediate legitimacy, giving shape to the queer gossip, whispers, and fragile residue of gender-nonconforming lives that have been erased from textbooks. Vargas told me in a recent interview that he wanted to “leverage the word museum and the cultural capital that comes along with it” to critique the cachet it generates, but also to claim a share of that cachet. MOTHA has been known to assist emerging trans artists who need lines on their CVs by offering residencies that, depending on your perspective, are just as real, or just as invented, as any other. In its early years, the project prompted a fair amount of category confusion. Vargas received emails from people hoping to visit a building that did not exist and was asked by a bank to host a gallery tour connected to (the increasingly corporatized) Pride Month.

Frank Simon, The Queen, 1968, 16 mm, color, sound, 68 minutes. Crystal LaBeija.

MOTHA is emphatically dedicated to telling trans, nonbinary, and nonconforming stories through objects that center Black and Latinx lives, and in its installation at the Oakland Museum, it featured disco legend Sylvester’s jacket among many other artifacts loaned from local institutions such as San Francisco’s GLBT Historical Society. The only things on display that Vargas actually owned were mugs commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot and a pair of high heels formerly belonging to Miss Major, the Stonewall veteran, sex-worker advocate, prison-abolition activist, and founding executive director of the Transgender Gender-Variant & Intersex Justice Project (the heels were donated by her assistant).Vargas is now creating a MOTHA-related book, Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects, playing with the format of similar tomes by the Smithsonian and the British Museum that peg sweeping histories to assortments of stuff. But for Vargas, many of the stories of trans culture that need to be told are also impossible to crystallize in objects alone, and so his book will include not only material items but also immaterial affect-related entries, such as one devoted to the rage of Crystal LaBeija as captured in the 1968 drag documentary The Queen (“I have a right to show my color, darling. . . . I am beautiful and I know I’m beautiful”).

Hiram Maristany, poster for “We Are El Museo del Barrio: First Anniversary,” ca. 1972.

Creating personal museums has long been a conceit for artists interested in probing how dominant discourses are codified: Some seize on the form to launch multifaceted assaults on the imbrication of museum display, economics, and systems of classification, à la first-generation institutional critique as epitomized by Marcel Broodthaers. But in the late 1960s and early ’70s, just as (white, Belgian) Broodthaers was touring his Musée d’Art Moderne, Département des Aigles (Museum of Modern Art, Department of Eagles), 1968–72, artists of color like Raphael Montañez Ortiz, who was central to the founding of New York’s El Museo del Barrio in 1969, were grappling with the question of how museums might be reclaimed as a resource for community building and creative production that had been neglected by mainstream institutions. The tension between repudiating the museum altogether and wielding it knowingly as a device of visibility is activated in one of the most important examples of a queer/trans artist–imagined museum, Giuseppe Campuzano’s Museo Travesti del Perú, created in 2004. Campuzano gathered records of those who, before and after the brutalities of colonization, defied the enforced European two-gender binary. Searching for these traces in both factual and fictional accounts, Campuzano conceived of a nomadic museum that would insist on trans/queer/androgynous and Indigenous/mixed-race subjectivities—generously documenting, for instance, Indigenous cultures that had a multiplicity of genders and sexualities. Some of the heterodox archives the artist marshaled are decidedly unheroic, such as press clippings of arrests, but when mingled with fantastical drawings, photographs, and handcrafted items in a bright-pink kiosk, they provide evidence of stubborn resistance and flamboyant self-determination in the face of state-sanctioned heteropatriarchy.

Millie Wilson, Lee’s Locker: MD/MO/MW, 1994, mixed media. Installation view, Santa Monica Museum of Art, California. From “The Museum of Lesbian Dreams,” 1989–95.

First appearing as an intervention at Lima’s Site Museum of the Battle of Miraflores, Campuzano’s mobile museum restlessly and continuously shifted its location. As curator Miguel A. Lopéz elegantly theorizes,

This mobile condition also refers to several other transits and movements: the movement of the masses in a mutant round trip between the provinces and the capital (the cholos and mestizos exploding social hierarchies and reorganising modes of living and feeling the territory), and those distinct forms of migration through other invisible subjects whose life is permanently between life and death: the HIV-positive, the undocumented immigrants, the intersex. The museum’s portable condition, its ability to parasitize any scenario—from public squares, street markets and neighborhood fairs to college conferences—has also allowed it to raise questions to the subject of orthodox activism, pushing in an amorphous and elusive political subject.

Campuzano turns to the history-making machine of the museum, puncturing it, Lopéz argues, with myth and the imagined in order to counter its own two most destructive fictions: that its images are transparent and that its apparatus is neutral.

In a moment ringing with calls to reevaluate the entire premise of museums, or to abandon them altogether, it is worth noting how many queer and trans artists have in the past few decades proposed new kinds of institutions.

Campuzano’s work on assembling a trans archive in Peru was prescient, and more recent initiatives in Latin America speak to the political urgency of such alternative histories—for instance, El Archivo de la Memoria Trans Argentina, founded in 2013 by María Belén Correa (and discussed in the Summer 2021 issue of this magazine). Correa’s initiative retains the word archive rather than using the arguably more polemical term museum. For as these examples demonstrate, something happens when artists deliberately choose to refer to their work with queer archives—whether made up or factual—not as archives, libraries, or study centers, but as museums. A subtle realignment occurs. Think, too, of Melinda Hunt’s Traveling Cloud Museum, 2014, a searchable online repository of the names of those who were buried anonymously on New York’s Hart Island (the world’s largest taxpayer-funded cemetery), a resting place for enslaved people, paupers, and early casualties of HIV/AIDS. Her terminology affiliates this set of records with a museum, raising the question: Is the museum ultimately an accounting mechanism, a database? Or is it a graveyard, filled with the residue of persecuted and undervalued bodies?

Press clipping from Giuseppe Campuzano’s “Identikit Project: Series Transvestite Archive,” 2004–13.

In a moment ringing with clarion calls to reevaluate the entire premise of museums, or, more radically, to abandon them altogether, it is worth noting how many queer and trans artists have in the past few decades proposed new kinds of (temporary, unrealized, experimental, minoritarian) institutions. Each of these examples animates a different conception of the queer/trans museum: For Wilson, a recontextualization of clinical material uncovers lesbian erotics; for Khaled, a real act of homophobic injustice is refracted through the prism of an invented person; for Vargas, physical objects are conjured into relation; for Campuzano, mobile displays that imbricate fact and fiction put pressure on how nations construct their own histories. All these projects mobilize, and destabilize, what André Malraux described as the leveling inherent in a “museum without walls” by using acts of queer fabulation. In so doing, they recognize that the museum organizes history not only through objects but through the eloquent space between objects—the gaps within which interpretation takes place. When those gaps are penetrated and held open, other stories creep in.

Mary Popin, Buenos Aires, 1973. From María Belén Correa’s El Archivo de la Memoria Trans Argentina, 2013–.

Critically, such insurgent museums require much less money to run than brick-and-mortar outfits and therefore have no need to pander to funding agencies or to supplicate wealthy board members. For subjects whose identities have been forcibly removed from national histories, surveilled with hostility by the state, and strategically concealed as a means of survival, what, if anything, might the museum offer as a conceptual tool for thinking memory differently? Artists like Campuzano, Khaled, Vargas, and Wilson recruit the language of the museum precisely because they grasp the immense power that word holds. The museum is a regulating apparatus, one that enforces family structures, polices cultural norms, and confers privilege. Significantly, it also possesses the capacity to make worlds out of fragments—a tactic queer and trans people have become adept at. Hence there is something especially fitting about a museum that is inhabited, and exploded, by queer and trans artists. The colonial ideologies that led to the encyclopedic collecting museum are impossible to rally behind, as are the blood monies of trustees that prop up workplace hierarchies. In the end, the queer, transient, artist-imagined, speculative museum might be the only one worth saving.

Julia Bryan-Wilson is the Doris and Clarence Malo professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley, and an adjunct curator at the Museu de Arte de São Paulo.