Prizm News / December 1, 2018 / By Lori Gum
Joy Episalla, Nancy Brooks Brody and Carrie Yamaoka at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York. (Photo by the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art via Facebook)

 

The work of lesbian art collective fierce pussy is as radical and empowering as it was two-plus decades ago.

 

By Lori Gum

1991. New York City. Everyone was sick. Everyone was dying.

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The Pride parade that year was truly an act of resistance. ACT UP had formed in March 1987 and now possessed a powerful voice against the human tragedy that was unfolding in our lives every day. The face of that community resistance was male, and lesbian invisibility was a very real thing.

Our friends, brothers and fathers were dying, too. And we also were fighting to end what appeared to us to be no less than genocide.

So imagine my surprise as a 29-year-old, out lesbian as I walked down the parade route and suddenly noticed that all of the street signs had been changed to the names of lesbian heroines and pioneers. We were here. We’d always been here, and we could be seen, and we were part of this fight.

I’ll never forget the surge of joy that visibility gave to me.

The pride of that moment has stuck with me for 27 years. But it wasn’t until recently that I finally found out who created that empowering act of street art and resistance.

It was fierce pussy.

‘Paste-up Mechanical for the List sticker’, 1993 (Photo by Stephen Takacs)

fierce pussy is a collective of queer women artists formed in New York City in 1991 through their immersion in AIDS activism. The group powerfully brought lesbian visibility directly into the streets as witnessed above.

I was lucky enough to sit down with three of the founding members: Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla and Carrie Yamaoka. Their individual and collective works are showcased—along with the works of founding member Zoe Leonard—at the Columbus College of Art & Design’s Beeler Gallery through March 17 in a gallery show entitled, “fierce pussy amplified.”

First, I enthusiastically thanked them for the Pride street sign action that had moved me so deeply.

They responded with delight, sharing broad, proud smiles and knowing nods. I then asked them about the impetus to start the collective.

(Note: Episalla, Brooks Brody and Yamaoka asked that their replies in this story be collectively quoted as fierce pussy.)

“We were all in ACT UP. We were in the trenches trying to save our friends’ lives. We decided to talk at that time about lesbian visibility. We felt like we were here, working alongside our gay brethren, and we were invisible. It was such a difficult, ravaged, sad and intense time…that maybe there was a collective way to help each other out.

“We started talking about the derogatory terms that lesbians were called. So our first project was a list of those terms. We made three lists and banged them out on the typewriter. So the next time we met, we wheat-pasted. We went out and got it on the streets.”

The lists were simple. And compelling. One poster read, “I am a lezzie butch pervert girlfriend bulldagger sister dyke AND PROUD.” They’re as provocative now as they were then.

“Those words had such a big effect, do have a big effect…, what you are called and what you are named and what you name yourself. It is a way of reclaiming that. Those posters were a shout-out to other queer people. We weren’t trying to talk to straight people with this.”

Being a very large part of the evolution of our community’s language, I asked them if this might not also be said about our reclaiming of the word queer, still a controversial subject in segments of our community.

“Given the moment that we are living in politically that is so beyond being fucked up… this is not a time for us to be divided. … To respect our differences and our diversity because that is what makes us so powerful. Not any one person needs to be any one thing. One of the things we talk about is unity. Let’s have conversations and arguments, but let’s not divide because that is what they want.”

fierce pussy, 2009

Out of all of fierce pussy’s work, their project involving their own baby pictures might be the most affecting and profound. Under these pictures they would append such phrases as “muff-diver,” “lover of women” or “are you a boy or girl?” The juxtaposition of those derogatory statements with childhood innocence and authenticity is gut- wrenching and yet empowering.

How did they come to this idea?

“The way the baby pictures functioned is that anyone could relate. They could find themselves in these pictures, because there is an innocence in those faces. So tender. But the phrases are what you hear at home and in the streets. That little person is still in you now.”

Many additional women artists and activists came and went and participated intermittently in the original collective. In 1994, fierce pussy went on a hiatus, and the group dwindled down to just four. Then in 2008, through independent publisher Printed Matter, they published a book of their collective work. People took a renewed look at fierce pussy through a new lens that was informed by the Bush/Cheney years.

Installation view of fierce pussy room, Beeler gallery. (Photo courtesy of the Columbus College of Art Design)

One of the people who took notice was Maxine Wolf, an original founding member of ACT UP and a dedicated queer rights activist. She suggested the collective create a retrospective at the Lesbian Herstory Archive in New York. “Mining the Archive: fierce pussy” was an overview of their work from the early ’90s, along with works that utilized objects culled from the archive’s collection.

fierce pussy was re-energized, and their Columbus show is a direct descendent of that LHA retrospective.

Not only is the content of the show at CCAD radical, but the curation is undeniably original and true to the dynamic history and fluid evolution of the activist collective. It’s divided into four chapters during the run of the exhibit, and the works change with each new installment.

All four artists have their own careers as gallery artists, and this show will represent the energetic reconfiguring of the individual artists and their collective resistance together. The first chapter was on display through the end of November. Chapter Two runs through Jan. 6. Chapter Three runs from Jan. 18 to Feb. 1, and Chapter Four runs from Feb. 20 through March 17.

“Works will move and shift, and new works will come into the space to kind of give it a dynamic notion of what it means to be living artists who are always responding to conditions of time and the moment,” says curator Jo-ey Tang.

Here’s how fierce pussy responds to this moment:

“We really want people to think about the Supreme Court. That was what the last election was about (in 2016). Because the Supreme Court is what makes laws in this country…and they stick. If we want to go forward…we have to be able to get Supreme Court justices who are going to be fair to help people….and not destroy them.”

“We just want to make a plea. We hope that Ohio people go out and vote, young people go out and vote.”

Vote. How totally radical.

Lori Gum has led a long, very queer life and delights in discovering and sharing the history of our queer community.

 

FIND OUT MORE

“fierce pussy amplified,” the works of Nancy Brooks Brody, Joy Episalla, Zoe Leonard and Carrie Yamaoka, is on display through Sunday, March 17 at the Columbus College of Art & Design’s Beeler Gallery, 60 Cleveland Ave., Columbus, 43215. Visit beelergallery.org/season-one for more.

The gallery is open Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from noon-6 p.m. and on Thursdays from noon-8 p.m

Learn more about fierce pussy, the collective of queer women artists, at fiercepussy.org.