Artist Tiona Nekia McClodden on her exhibition honoring revered queer filmmaker Barbara Hammer
For the inaugural exhibition in its new space, Company Gallery mounted the first solo exhibition in New York devoted to feminist filmmaker Barbara Hammer since her death in 2019. Entitled “Tell me there is a lesbian forever … “, the show is hosted by artist and filmmaker Tiona Nekia McClodden, who delved deep into Hammer’s archives to collect videos, photos, and drawings from the first decades of her practice starting in the late 1960s, when she went out as a lesbian, rode a motorbike with a Super-8 camera, and started making her experimental films, such as Dyketactic in 1974.
The exhibit, which also features a range of material from Hammer’s papers (love letters, diaristic poems, and his copy of an FBI report on the mid-century lesbian rights group, the Daughters of Bilitis), does the work of building a queer community, forging emotional bonds. through time and across generations. McClodden’s insightful presentation of Hammer’s early work examines a much-loved figure from new angles, emphasizing its relevance to young gay men.
Recently, we spoke to McClodden about Hammer’s 1972 BMW Motorcycle, queer biography, and conservation as a desire-driven practice.
Your only work of art in the series is a BMW motorcycle from 1972 that you restored, the same model Barbara rode in the 1970s. This piece appears to be the conceptual heart of the exhibit and speaks to so many themes. that you drew in Barbara’s work: biography, memory, sensuality, romanticism. How does the bike reflect your own relationship with Barbara, both as a person and as an artist from a previous generation?
It’s really cool to be able to talk about it, because I don’t think people understand that Barbara and I haven’t had a long relationship. The first time I met her was in 2018, and at that time she was dying. Before that, going back to 2002 in Atlanta when I was trying to be a filmmaker, I knew his work.
I used to go to Outwrite Bookstore, the LGBT cafe, and they had a lesbian magazine section—Diva, Friend. These magazines were the way I knew there were lesbian filmmakers and there were only a few filmmakers included like Barbara, Cheryl Dunye, Michelle Parkerson. But Barbara was special because she was experimental.
When I was working on the series, the first thing that came to me was the bike. There was always one image of Barbara that stuck with me: a photo of her on the road in Baja, Calif., Wearing leather on that bike. I wanted the bike to kind of be that responsible partner, because it felt like something that was an extension of Barbara’s physical being, it had such an intimate interaction with her body. I decided to highlight this thing which is very physical, very sexy. I decided I wanted it to be this mirror and be reflective, something that would always capture what was around it.
I see a real emphasis on queer biography with the materials you included – not in the traditional sense of glorifying the artist, but of giving a sense of the intertwining of social circumstances, sexuality, and artistic practice. The first works you include are from the year Barbara left her husband and established herself as a lesbian, traveling across the country on a motorcycle. How did you try to present his biography through these objects?
Using the archival documents, I wanted to get into his head. I thought it was a good way to counter the hypersexualized narrative around his work. I selected those things which were actually very difficult texts. She’s dealing with her coming out, but there are also those repetitive overt-type poems where she says, “This is what I want, this is what I want, this is what I want.
In these texts from her archives, she expresses much of her anxieties at the idea of being perceived as this type of deviant person. And I felt very comfortable including these personal and diaristic texts because Barbara was the one who prepared her archives before they were sent to the Beinecke Library at Yale.
One of the things I love is the way you insisted on blurring the line between “art” and “ephemeral” or between gallery and archives. For example, you framed a copy that Barbara had of the FBI’s Daughters of Bilitis report, or one of her transparencies. It looks like you are asking the viewer to think carefully about what is a work versus what is not. What prompted your decision to do this?
It comes from my own practice of looking at ideas around biomythography and memory. While preparing for the show, I always wanted to stay true to my own interests. Here I am, this black dyke, looking at this very white woman, so there has to be a place where I deal with this through my subjectivity and the things I know that allow a different reading of a person.
With Barbara’s show, I really wanted to deal with blurring the line between archive and art, as a lot of her practice deals with issues around documentaries. Sometimes there is more fiction in there than you might think.
Regarding the FBI’s Daughters of Bilitis report, in particular, I immediately thought, “This is happening in a frame.” Immediately I thought of it as a work of art. I saw it as part of the mission of his practice. The FBI report was just as real or fictional as some of the documentaries she made.
In the text of the exhibition, you talk about Barbara’s love letters that come to you through the person you love. As a doctoral student at Yale, your partner was able to visit the University Library on your behalf when it was closed to the public during COVID. There’s a photo in the display case at the bottom of his hands sorting through the archives. Do you see the commissariat as a work loaded with desire, defined by emotional ties?
I think for me it’s because it has to be. I want to make sure people understand that this is an artist taking care of this because, quite frankly, the police station is a pretty violent position. It’s really about cutting. You could really twist someone’s shit. But the police station is always a matter of desire. Like when I did the Julius Eastman show in the Kitchen, it was almost crazy, but that was what this job demanded – it’s obsessive.
Barbara’s work had a more romantic feel. Because of this, I was dependent on my fiancé like I had never done before. I could have had someone else at Yale visit the archives for me, but I wanted her to do it and I said, “I need you to do this because I love you.” . It’s about that lesbian identity. I trust what you will find attractive in the archives.
The second day she was there, she told me that I had to report this very intense letter to Barbara from this woman named Corky who said, “Tell me there is a lesbian forever.” She burst out laughing because the letter was so intense, but I knew then that had to be the title of the show.
And this photo of his hands in the archives has become something very true. That’s the effect of this show, this kind of engagement with another woman. She took care of me in real time. It was a time for me to treat my love, this way, where this woman was also talking about her love in this letter.
How does the show’s title speak to how the younger generations of queer people interpret, embrace, and / or reject elements of past communities? Lesbian (as well as dyke) were such important words to Barbara’s practice and the time she worked, but they aren’t necessarily favored today. What is your own relationship with these terms?
I am a black dyke. It’s a word I’ve always come back to. I think one of the things Barbara and I have in common is that there have been some complicated situations in our respective lives and practices where there has been this forced antiquity of the idea of lesbian or dyke. I find it dangerous because it is a constantly evolving identity. So my thing with the show was to show Barbara this woman who was constantly questioning her identity.
I wanted the show to attract an intergenerational crowd. There are older lesbians who feel like they can’t fit into certain spaces because they will be seen as obsolete by the younger ones. Because I’m 40 – I’m not too old yet and I’m not that young either – I felt like I could do this middle ground thing where there’s a place for everyone. And it came to light at the opening because so many people came from all the spectrum of identity, age, everything.
My goal has always been to figure out how to bridge the past and present and to show that it’s not about looking back or moving forward. It’s more looking side by side and that’s really what it was for me.
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