Acting as a mirror to one’s self or to society as a whole, a work of art is a manifestation of environment, beliefs and experiences, or a juncture of all three. Thus, art is unavoidably an expression, as well as an exploration, of the constructs and characteristics that inform individuality, whether the message is intentionally encoded by the artist or decoded by the spectator. Throughout its history, art has proven to be an effective tool of communication by giving a voice to diverse groups and communities across the planet.
It is through such artistic creations that the nuances of intersectional identities can be explored. When it comes to the queer and transgender communities, however, their own history and art is often overlooked by the mainstream. Particularly, predominant narratives are historically known for diminishing or completely expunging the contributions of trans and queer people of color. This narrative of erasure within the artistic community is what inspired the creation of the Queer/Trans People of Color (QTPoC) Art Initiative, which held its first ever reception on the evening of Wednesday, Feb. 8, in the LGBTQ Center.
As the creator of the initiative, Spencer Garcia ’18 explained, “The QTPoC Art Initiative provides queer and trans students of color with a space to display and celebrate their creative projects.”
They continued, “Many art spaces within and outside of Vassar ignore and actively devalue the artistic contributions of queer and trans people of color. The QTPoC Art Initiative recognizes the importance of these creative works, and strives to center them within the larger artistic conversation at Vassar.”
Garcia was inspired to develop the QTPoC Art Initiative in the spring of 2016 after taking a class taught by the Consortium for Faculty Diversity Postdoctoral Fellow Elías Krell entitled, “Race, Anti/Colonialisms, and Queering Music Performance.” Predominantly composed of queer and trans people of color, the class participants created several visual, music and performance art pieces throughout the semester. Referring to the class as an “affirming experience,” Garcia was inspired to create another space on campus where the art of queer and trans people of color could be celebrated. Also stemming from comments from the LGBTQ Center staff that the majority of artwork in the Center does not reflect current queer community needs and wants, the cozy space seemed to be the perfect venue. After discussing the initiative with the Director for the Campus Life LGBTQ Center and Women’s Center Jodie Castanza, the idea was proposed and was met with great support from the rest of the staff.
“The LGBTQ Center staff are in frequent discussions about how to assure the Center is the most affirming space it can be,” said Castanza in an email. “To us, this meant changing the art on the walls to reflect the works of Vassar students who are queer and/or trans people of color. This not only changes the ‘feel’ of the Center, but also is an opportunity for students to showcase their works in a specific space, in a specific way.”
Anyone identified as QTPoC interested in showcasing their artwork was encouraged to submit an artwork portfolio to the Initiative. The submissions were then reviewed and selected by a group consensus of all LGBTQ Center staff. In heavy collaboration with the artist, Garcia is responsible for planning current and future exhibitions and opening receptions.
In its first exhibit, the QTPoC Art Initiative decided to showcase the work of Hien Nguyen ’20, who took a serious interest in art during his senior year of high school. Since then, he has been perfecting his painting and observation skills in the hopes of becoming a professional installation artist. The work on display reflects this goal, with the exhibit including Nguyen’s most recent works, many of them practice sketches of places familiar to Vassar students, such as the Old Bookstore study space.
“My artworks right now are nowhere near the levels I want them to be and I understand that as a student artist,” explained Nguyen. “I simply aim for people to look and think, whatever they take away will be what they take away. I specifically did not write an artist statement to be read because of this. The message is subliminal and a monologue of my progression as an artist and as a queer person.”
The intimate exhibit also includes a few painted works, such as a piece called “Enséñame a volar, mi mariposa hermosa,” which Nguyen describes as his most favorite work due to its representation of his coming out and self-acceptance. Nguyen’s art will continue to be on view through Mar. 8.
In a casual opening reception, the Vassar community was encouraged to stop by to see Nguyen’s artwork, have some light refreshments and meet the artist, showcasing what can be expected from QTPoC artists in the future. Besides celebrating Nguyen’s work, the event encouraged the Vassar community to be reminded of the Center as a place for gathering and as a resource for Vassar’s queer and transgender community.
Currently, the QTPoC Art Initiative has two more exhibits planned for this semester, with opening receptions on Mar. 8 and Apr. 12. While the exact nature of these receptions has not yet been made concrete, they may include live performances, music or film screenings.
While lack of representation and the appropriation of queer and trans people of color’s culture are still ongoing issues, initiatives such as these are taking a step in the right direction by simply providing an outlet to celebrate and showcase people’s voices, a factor which the QTPoC Art Initiative intends to promote in the future.
Nguyen reflected on this issue and on his hopes for the future. “The western art world’s constant exchange of ideas and dialogues often neglect people of color, especially queer people of color,” he expressed. “This initiative gives people like me a hope that my voice, daring and defying (of stereotypes), also will be heard—perhaps only amongst friends for now, but I do think the world one day might just listen intently.”