Queer Futures and Colonial Pasts: Robert Mapplethorpe and Samuel Delany Imagine New York City

Friday, January 3, 2020: 4:10 PM
Regent Room (New York Hilton)
Pete Sigal, Duke University
Two artists from radically different vantage points developed a historical understanding of New York City by envisioning a past enmeshed in colonialism and slavery. Using that past, the artists imagined a queer future—a utopianism of sexual radicalism and racial and class crossings—that emanated from their own sex lives, and particularly their sexual experiences in the gay leather scene (the Mineshaft and other leather bars), the milieu of Times Square pornographic theaters, and scenes of interracial sexual encounters in 1970s and 1980s New York City. This paper analyzes the use of colonialism and slavery (the author is a colonial historian), and the ways that these two concepts do particular kinds of analytical work for both Delany and Mapplethorpe: in both cases, by (problematically) allowing colonial pasts and slave systems to interact with an ethnography of the city, the artists develop a queer future. This paper asks what happens when we use “trash,” a category omnipresent in the works of Mapplethorpe and Delany, to examine the photographer and writer together. “Queer Futures” situates a variety of Mapplethorpe’s lesser known photographs and personal papers alongside the well-known Portfolios X and Z, relating this work to Delany’s novels, The Mad Man and Flight from Nevèrÿon, as well as his collection of essays, Times Square Red/Times Square Blue and a series of interviews that the author has completed with Delany. By contextualizing these works with documents related to sexualized gay communities in 1970s and 80s New York City (particularly advertisements promoting gay bars, clubs, and parties), this paper argues that the two artists develop a compelling queer analysis that points toward a future defined by trash, detritus, and excess as signs of the queer: these categories allow the individual to use history to cope with pleasure and trauma in a postmodern world.
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