Mighty Real/Queer Detroit art exhibition is a 'community defining ourselves'

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

As a gay teen who came out in the late 1970s, Detroit artist Patrick Burton struggled to find any art or books that reflected his own life. So he went in search of them.

He'd take the bus to the Detroit Public Library's main branch, reading poets and authors from the Harlem Renaissance period. He eventually found a short story, one of the first pieces of Black queer literature, from the 1920s by Richard Bruce Nugent. It was just the beginning.

"I must've read that short story over and over and over," remembers Burton. "It was just so new to me to find this idea in words that reflected my own life."

Now, Burton is shining a light on queer identity, art and culture — and hoping young gay people will see themselves reflected — as curator and artistic director of a massive new exhibit that opens this week in galleries across Detroit and some suburbs.

Mieyoshi Ragernoir's "Fever" will be included in this month's Mighty Real/Queer Detroit art exhibition. Ragernoir is figurative painter and mixed media installation artist.

The Mighty Real/Queer Detroit exhibition, which is billing itself as the largest exhibition ever of works by LGBTQ+ Detroit artists, is being held simultaneously at 17 local galleries for the entire month of June, featuring more than 700 pieces of art by roughly 150 emerging, established, as well as deceased LGBTQ+ Detroit artists. The exhibit is being put on in partnership with Detroit's Office of Art, Culture and Entrepreneurship.

"It's a community defining ourselves," said Burton. "When you think about, it was just over 50 years ago that there was the Stonewall uprising (in New York). I just think there's a lot of work still to be done. This exhibition is a beginning here and we wanted to do it big and we wanted to make sure it got the right attention. The only way to do that was to not just do one gallery."

The exhibition, three years in the making, was supposed to debut in 2020 but then COVID hit and organizers decided to push it back not just to 2021 but this year to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Motor City Pride. Motor City Pride, Michigan's largest Pride event, traces its beginning to a march in downtown Detroit in 1972.

S. Kay Young's "FISH" will be part of a group exhibition at M. Contemporary Art in Ferndale as part of the Mighty Real/Queer Detroit exhibition.

This will be the "go-to cultural hallmark for this 50th anniversary," said Burton. "Usually Pride is about parades and parties and usually quite often culture is left out. So we thought this would be the time."

The exhibition will focus on the visual arts with themed exhibits at the 17 galleries. Galleries include Galerie Camille, N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, Playground Detroit, Scarab Club, Detroit Artists Market, and the Anton Art Center in Mt. Clemens among others. But there also will be other programming, including poetry, performance art, spoken word, cinema and music, said Burton. An artist reception will be held at Menjo's Thursday.

"To understand the people, you have to understand their culture," said Burton. "This project is presenting queer artists, or humanizing us, in a new way. We're not often represented. We're often sexualized and we're not thought of us as full beings who live life and create art. This is about offering a queer culture and expanding minds and hearts." 

Bakpak Durden, a multi-disciplinary, queer hyperrealistic artist based in Detroit, is one of the featured artists in Mighty Real/Queer Detroit art exhibition. Pictured is Durden's "HopeLess."

Dalia Reyes, curator and director of contemporary art at Detroit's Galerie Camille, said they're thrilled to be a part of such a "historic" and "essential" exhibition.

“Being able to present to the public special works from 25 of the 150 participating artists is an honor and we hope that this event will be a catalyst for continuous progress within the LGBTQ+ communities here in Detroit," said Reyes. "Art is a unifying force, and this is a wonderful example of that.”

The art will span from 1945 through now. Burton said they chose 1945 as a starting point because it marks the year of the first pieces he "uncovered" by Detroit painter LeRoy Foster. A lot of queer art and work was hidden away, he said. Fifteen paintings by Foster, all on loan from a private collector, will be displayed at Collected Detroit.

"The work that we have from LeRoy Foster, can you imagine being Black and queer in 1945?" said Burton, who noted that drawings from a small sketchbook that belonged to Foster also will be on display at Galerie Camille. "These things were hidden away. It's just recent that there's an interest in queer art."

Artist Matthew Papa, who grew up in Inkster and Canton but now lives in New York, will have several pieces exhibited in five venues as part of the exhibition. His surreal images, which started with a trip he took with his partner and friends to upstate New York after lockdown ended in 2020, delve into the freedom of nature but how unpredictable it can be.

Artist Matthew Papa, a Metro Detroit native who now lives in New York, will several works featured in the Mighty Real/Queer Detroit exhibition.

"All the conflicting feelings and crazy dreams the pandemic brought forth were channeled into somewhat surreal images," said Papa. 

Ultimately, Mighty Real/Queer Detroit organizers hope this month's exhibition is the start of a biannual event to conserve and preserve queer art. And for younger members of the LGBTQ+ community it's offering a reflection of a community, said Burton.

"This is an art exhibit, it's a historic exhibit," said Burton. "It's really about uncovering oral histories and stories and queer Detroit life in this exhibition."


Mighty Real/Queer Detroit art exhibition

17 galleries featuring more than 700 pieces of art by roughly 150 LGBTQ+ artists.

Artwork spanning from 1945 to now.

A free shuttle will run from 5-9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, covering all the featured galleries except David Klein Gallery in Birmingham and Anton Art Center in Mt. Clemens. Pickup and drop off location is at 201 E. Kirby Street, Detroit. Parking for shuttle is at 5401 Brush Street.

Go to https://mrqd.org/ for details about featured galleries, artists and programming.