By Aminta Kilawan Narine, Esq.
Queer Caribbeans of New York City (NYC) opened on September 7, 2019 at NYC’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center (The Center) and is on view through October 13, 2019.
The exhibit commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in Greenwich Village, and is the first-ever multimedia historical retrospective showcase of the racial and cultural intersections of Caribbean LGBTQ rights activists.
The Center has been a home and resource for NYC’s LGBT community and visitors of NYC since it was founded in 1983. As the host site of Queer Caribbeans of NYC, the Center’s mission to celebrate diversity and advocate for justice was uplifted through the stories, portraits and artifacts belonging to queer Caribbean activists and artists in NYC’s history.
The opening reception of the exhibit coincided with the 2019 New York Caribbean Carnival week and the 52nd Annual West Indian Day Parade. Among attendees were NYC Public Advocate Jumaanee Williams, who is of Caribbean heritage, as well as Council Member Daniel Dromm, and Matthew McMorrow, Senior Advisor of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Community Affairs Unit. There were musical and dance performances by Sundari – The Indian Goddess, Florence Price with accompanying vocals by Dr. Malcolm J. Merriweather, and classical ballet and modern dance performer Gregory Manning II. At least 150 people were in attendance.
A few days after it opened, I visited the Center to view the exhibit and was pleasantly greeted by the aroma of freshly brewed coffee from the Center’s resident coffee shop. A warm receptionist directed me to go up one flight of a spiral staircase. I was already feeling emotional upon seeing the portrait of my friend, fellow community organizer, founder of the Caribbean Equality Project and a curator of the exhibit, Mohamed Q. Amin, bedecked in a sherwani fit for a prince in a portrait at the head of the staircase, alongside curator Kadeem Robinson, a Jamaican immigrant and staff person to the Public Advocate. I recalled the first time I met Amin, after his brother Mohamed A. Amin (also known as International Dancer Zaman) was brutally attacked at a local bar in our neighborhood while being called homophobic slurs. Shortly thereafter, we collectively organized a “peace rally” with fellow community-based organizations to send a message to the neighborhood that hate would not be tolerated.
The exhibit felt like an affirmation of the peace we sought to create after that incident. Our community has come a long way since then, with many young activists birthing a culture-shifting movement.
As I walked around the first of the two floors of the exhibit, I was moved to see the breadth of the trailblazing queer Caribbeans in NYC, including the stunning Tobagonian star of “Pose”, Dominique Jackson; Trinidad-born activist Colin Robinson, the co-founder of “Big Truck,” a tradition of Caribbean LGBTQ representation at the NYC Pride Marches dating back to the late 90’s; Bajan trans-activist and co-founder of CK Life, Kim Watson; founder of Chutney Pride, Tina Arniotis, and of course, the founder and Executive Director of Caribbean Equality Project (CEP), Amin, a native of Guyana. To my good fortune, Amin was at the Center working the day I visited so I was able to get a personal tour from one of the curators.
Organizations who played critical roles in broader LGBTQ liberation movements of NYC were featured, including Caribbean Pride, Sistas of Caribbean Ancestry (SOCA), Curry Club NYC, Chutney Pride, Urban N’ Out, the Gay Caribbean USA Pageant, and CEP.
Among the artifacts, the most eye-catching were the life-sized fashion displays depicting Indian cultural wear including Amin’s 2019 World Pride outfit, Sundari – The Indian Goddess’ first ever dance costume, affectionately donated by her sister Bibi Amin, and International Dancer Zaman’s outfit depicting the Hindu deity Krishna, who is often worshipped as one with Radha – merging male and female energy. A few steps away was an ode to Kushmani Pratima Doobay, a rising pandita (Hindu priestess) who officiates monthly satsanghs (sacred gatherings) for Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus. Amin mentioned that he wanted to highlight the importance of community partnerships established by CEP. This was effectively done by featuring Doobay’s work in Sadhana next to a bedazzling rainbow Lakshmi piece made by CEP. Amin said that the Lakshmi was originally used for a Diwali Motorcade in Richmond Hill, Queens and now solely resurrects for Sadhana satsanghs held in partnership with CEP. The exhibit also featured additional Indo-Caribbean portraits, including Kenrick Ross of Urban N’ Out and Damon Dolabaille, a NYC Department of Education and CUNY educator. All the portraits in the exhibit, visually gripping and thoughtfully executed with props, were captured by Masheka Joseph of Akehsam Productions. Joseph is also responsible for CEP’s iconic logo, a yellow hummingbird with rainbow colored wings, which Amin mentioned depicts queer liberation and freedom.
The entire exhibit has thus far been positively received. Richard Morales, Manager of Community Partnerships at the Center who was deeply involved in the exhibit’s installation, indicated that “visitors love the costumes, the portraits, and seeing people smiling back at them as they walk by.” Morales mentioned that overall the show is fantastic. Among the many art exhibits which commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, Morales was personally moved by Queer Caribbeans of NYC because it is the first and only show that focuses on the queer Caribbean community specifically. The Center’s Executive Director Glennda Testone stated that “the incredible images, spectacular items of clothing and powerful narratives featured on The Center’s walls and in our halls are a reminder to all who walk through our doors that we exist to serve the entire LGBTQ community and our many intersecting identities.”
Of particular note in the exhibit is the intersectionality celebrated between Afro- and Indo-Caribbeans. A photo from a Pride Parade years past shows Afro-Caribbean CEP members dressed in traditional sarees. Other notable artifacts included pages from a Carib-Pride edition dated to the Summer of 1999, featuring a fun crossword puzzle and an article on violence against queer Caribbeans which was cited as reflecting “the reality of homophobia existing and perpetuated in Caribbean cultures” juxtaposed with the “truly diverse nature of these nations which make up a large percentage of New York City’s residents.”
Once the exhibit closes, it will not be the end of the show. Amin mentioned that every item will be housed in the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives at CUNY’s LaGuardia Community College, in a free and publically accessible database, for generations to come. Queer Caribbeans of NYC was made possible through the support of The Center, the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, the New York City Council, through the office of Daniel Dromm, the Queens Memory at Queens Public Library, and NAWS Central Queens.
The LGBT Center of NYC is located at 208 West 13th Street, New York NY 10011 and is open from 9AM to 10PM except on Sundays, when it closes at 9pm. Queer Caribbeans of NYC runs through October 13.