As we approach the mid-term elections, I am fearful. Out of curiosity, I reviewed The New Times polling in real-time: 2018 Midterm Election results and I was left speechless. The race is tighter than ever and will require all to get out and vote.
As an African-American openly gay man, I am deeply emotional and affected by the changes this Administration. My life and reality have been directly impacted by the realities of social oppression. At 46, this year will be my first year voting in the mid-term elections, a sad fact, but one I accept; never thought it mattered. However, after voting in the last Presidential election, I was positive we weren’t in any danger of Trump becoming President especially off the heels of President Obama. We all know how that turned out!
Thus far instead of making “America Great Again,” Trump is doing his best to strip away the rights of many and in my opinion make discrimination, hate, and racism acceptable once again. It’s scary to think that equality, freedom, and justice for all is in jeopardy. How can that be? This is the land of the free!
Artists like Ron Amato are using their talent and exercising the right to freedom of expression to address difficult realities. Through his photography, he ultimately touches and reaches people in a way that politicians and academics can’t do. ‘Gays in Trumpland’ is symbolic, powerful, and impactful. We all have a voice, and the only way to protect our rights and our future is by using that voice. However, your voice can not be heard unless you get out and vote.
The following information was sourced from artist Ron Amato’s official website (http://www.ronamato.com), published by Popular Publicity: Ron Amato’s artist statement and an interview about his Gay In Trumpland series.
You, like many Americans, have been and continue to be assaulted by Trump and his administration on a daily basis. Fears that gay men (and myriad minorities) thought were long gone are now raging. What first inspired this series? A need to do something?
I, like many others, was in disbelief the day after election day in 2016. I kept thinking some irregularity in voting would be discovered and the result would be reversed. As a native New Yorker, I have always known exactly who Donald Trump is. I saw who he was surrounding himself with and the constituency he was courting.
As a Gay man, I became frightened that the civil rights gains the LGBTQ community had fought so hard for, might be in danger of being reversed. I felt helpless. I am first and foremost an artist. I took to the studio to express myself. As with most of my long-term projects, I sketched out an idea around the concept of being denied the basic right of loving and sexual fulfillment.
Using Mike Pence’s history of anti LGBTQ actions as an indication, I came to the conclusion that Pence and his ilk didn’t just want to send us back into the closet, they wanted to eradicate homosexuality. I then set out to visually communicate this by not allowing the men in the photographs to connect. To thwart the fulfillment of their sexuality, if you will.
When did the idea to incorporate a shroud come about—or was it there from the beginning?
The fabric was pretty much my first idea of a vehicle to keep the men apart. I thought of it as a membrane that couldn’t be breached. I shopped for the right fabric. It was a bit of a challenge. It had to be the right weight, have a certain amount of transparency and cling to the body in a specific way.
After looking in a number of fabric stores (I work in the garment district of NYC), I found what I was looking for in a small shop in Borough Park Brooklyn. I bought the entire bolt. After a few shoots, the fabric was ripped and getting kind of ragged. I tried to get more and couldn’t find it again. I walked around with a swatch in my wallet for months with no success. I tried other fabrics but none had the qualities of the original. I carefully laundered the fabric between shoots and babied it so it would last!
Were there discarded ideas for this series and if so, what were they?
There were no discarded ideas. However, the project evolved over the course of a year and a half. Part of that evolution is discard ideas within the concept that just didn’t work in reality. But there was also new discoveries over that time and new directions to go in.
The subjects of this series–and all of your photographs–are a diverse group of handsome, fit, grown men clearly in touch with their bodies, sexuality, and sensuality. What did you look for when casting the models?
Diversity has always been a priority in my casting. Not only racial diversity but age, social status, and lifestyle diversity as well. When the work was exhibited in Provincetown earlier this year, eight of the men in the photographs came to the opening. We went out to dinner after and were sitting at a table that was street side on Commercial St. Someone came by and commented on how diverse we were as a group. I have to say, I took great pride in that. I was responsible for assembling this group of men. Watching them break bread around this table was ultimately what all my work is about.
Your work is a frank expression of gay masculinity, sexuality, bonding, and exclusivity. Do you feel it is important for gay men to have “safe places” that are male only? Do you feel that there exists a special bond, fragile alchemy that can only exist in gay male only spaces?
Periodically being in a space that is only occupied by Gay men is important to me. I can’t speak for all Gay men. I suspect it is important to most. When you grow up in spaces that feel like you are on the outside, being in that exclusive space can be very powerful. There is a bond that is inclusive of sexuality but is also about being men. I for one didn’t have that bonding experience with men through things like sports. So it fulfills my desire for male bonding on multiple levels.
I think straight people take for granted those ways that they gather in a subset. “Girls Night Out” is a common phrase in our vernacular. I would imagine that bonding experience serves a very specific need in women. I think we all need those kinds of affirmative and supportive groups from time to time.
This is one of the reasons I spend so much time in Provincetown. There is a big controversy brewing there because it has become a destination for bridal parties. While I don’t advocate denying anyone entry into Gay establishments, I also don’t think Gay men should change their behavior in the presence of women.
You’ve said that Rene Magritte’s paintings Les Amants I and Les Amants II (The Lovers I, The Lovers II) were influential in the conceptualizing of this series. In your photographs, as in Magritte’s paintings, the shrouds appear to mute gay men’s freedom to relate sexuality, to fearlessly connect. Is this a fair assessment of the series?
I had a minor obsession with Rene Magritte in college. I did a research paper on him for a surrealism class. I was always haunted by the story of him seeing his mother’s lifeless body dredged from the river with her nightgown over her heard. This story is now thought not to have happened. However, it was often cited as his inspiration for the paintings Les Amants I and Les Amants II (The Lovers I, The Lovers II). Maybe the story is why these paintings spoke so strongly to me. They have stayed in my mind all these years and definitely influenced this project.
My Gay In Trumpland series tackles a number of different concepts, all using the fabric as a visual metaphor. The fabric serves foremost as a membrane between men which cannot be penetrated. In many of the photographs, the men are portrayed in the throes of sexual ecstasy. However, they are prevented from making a true connection. Portraying arousal was important to drive this point. Therefore some of the men are erect beneath the fabric.
The fabric also serves as a way to obliterate identity. Faces are covered so we lose our individuality and therefore our humanity. When you dehumanize people, it is easy to discriminate against them. I have a serious problem with the criticism of identity politics. In my view, all politics is about identity, and if it isn’t, it should be. Everyone, EVERYONE, votes based on their identity. To deny that is to be disingenuous.
There is also a spiritual nature to many of the images. Beside the Magritte images, some of the GIT images evoke the Shroud of Turin. The doctrine of Jesus Christ details the story of a man persecuted and ultimately put to death. While I am not comparing LGBTQ people to Jesus, the images portray a level of persecution and figurative death. There is one image in particular that echoes a Pieta. That was the last image I made for the series and it is very purposeful. It portrays, not only suffering, but also the support and nurturing of another person. There is a “ghostly” quality to many of the figures in the images. Many have described them as haunting.
In a number of my images, the fabric resembles a noose. The United States of America has an ugly side to its history which includes the lynching of African-Americans. There is a little bit of a nod to the dark history in these images as a reminder of how hate can manifest. There are increasing incidents of hate crimes being reported since this administration took office.
Themes of confinement and restriction run through many of your collections. “Armor” is similar to “Gay In Trumpland,” in its use of fabric (along with rope) to obscure and bound sensuously lit bodies. “The Box,” also constrains, but in deeply intimate, positive, introspective way, forcing us into the intimacy many gay men so often fear. How do these three series differ?
The biggest difference is that Armor and GIT are reactive and The Box is reflective. Armor and GIT are reacting to something societal. The Box reflects on my journey as a Gay man. That said, it all centers around my identity as a Gay man. I’m really not sure why all three project have an element of confinement and restriction. It is not by design. I could hypothesize about feeling restrained by society… blah, blah, blah. But I think it might be dangerous to explore this too deeply. Right now it’s working for me.
Your photography is unapologetically gay. Do you care if straight people get it or not?
I learned a long time ago to just make work that is authentic to my experience and it will find an audience. I always hope to touch people and make them think a little. I can’t control who those people are, so ultimately, I don’t really care if they are straight people or not. I will say that many straight people were really moved but The Box. That was incredibly gratifying.
What bothers me more is to be willfully misunderstood or misrepresented. While GIT has been overwhelmingly positively received, negative reaction from some in the LGBTQ community has been mystifying. I knew it would be controversial and some would question its relevance, but never expected it from those who are being negatively affected by this administration’s policies.
Credit: All Images © Ron Amato 2018