Debmalya Ray Choudhuri, The Gaze, 2021

From June 1, 2023, until September 10, Greenwich Village’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center—commonly known as “The Center”—is playing host to an art exhibit, Divine Queerness: Forms and Tools: Methods of Healing. And while I’m always a sucker for a good New York City art show, it was the thesis of this exhibit curated by Colombian-American artist Gabriel G. Torres that really struck me: the queer imagination as a mechanism for healing. 

For St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose spirituality led to the founding of the Jesuits and continues to inspire parishes, schools, and universities, such as Fordham, imagination was the starting point for everything. It was daydreaming about different paths that he might take in his own life that freed Ignatius from ideas that were holding him back. And he spent the rest of his life teaching other people how to use their own imaginations to let God speak to them about their deepest desires. 

For queer people, too, the imagination has so often been a path to freedom and truth. Just as with Ignatius, it is our imaginations that help us to understand who God made us to be. 

But we carry within our minds the burdens of our experiences, too. In our present-day circumstance, too, we hear so many political and religious leaders trying to get us to imagine queerness as something shameful or predatory. 

And moving through the Divine Queerness exhibit, I was struck by how much of the work refers in one way or another to experiences of suffering. Photographer Benjamin Eichert presents a series of four photos representing his own journey to try and overcome the trauma of abuse that he’s suffered. A number of Debmalya Ray Choudhuri’s photographs depict a subject hidden behind a sheer cloth. While the fabric in two of the images is covered in stars, like something a child might wrap around themselves and dream of wonders, here the subject seems almost trapped within the sheet. 

In a series of three photos, artist Lola Flash presents their subject in an astronaut’s jumpsuit—again, an image that usually inspires the imagination. But in one photo the subject pulls at the throat of their helmet, their hands handcuffed together. In another, the handcuffs are unlocked, but the subject is still trapped in the helmet. 

Lola Flash, Afro Gothic, 2019

In Flash’s third work, the subject stands holding a stick in the backyard of a house. Entitled Afro Gothic, the photo is a clear echo of Grant Wood’s famous American Gothic. But where the farmer and his wife in that portrait stared out at us, here the face of the subject in the photo is largely hidden by the helmet’s sun visor. As a result they seem alien and out of place within their environment. And rather than appearing forbidding like the farmer and his wife, the astronaut seems more insecure and submissive, as though by referencing American Gothic they’re trying to fit in, to assure the audience they’re safe and just like them. Looking at the photo, I am reminded of my own fierce desires to seem normal, and the futility of that longing.  

Dauris Martinez’s collage boxes—keepsake-like containers filled with tiny strips of typed words like “yearningly” or “a magical, a wonderfully brilliant light” amidst photographs of birds, flowers, and human bodies—are gorgeous, the colors and images like an embodiment of the new life we know in springtime. But the third of four boxes, entitled Bluebird/Work is Not Finished, features a headless human body clearly trapped between the walls of its box, trying to step forward but with nowhere to go. Its presence interrogates the meaning of the other boxes: are they glimpses of the extravagance and fertility of the queer imagination, or of the way in which the beauty and possibility of who we are is kept locked away? 

Darius Martinez, Service/Experience, 2022 (Image credit: Jim McDermott)

None of this is what I was expecting from an exhibit about the queer imagination as a source of healing. And yet, at some point I began to wonder if that wasn’t in fact the point, if these works weren’t in fact meant to be mirrors to help people to see the ways in which they may be trapped, with the hope that it will help them to make new choices, that out of their frustration or sadness will come an insistence that they must be free. 

The last of Martinez’s boxes, entitled Service/Experience, opens up rather than out. Within the container once again are the lovely flowers and birds of the prior boxes. But here for the first time the human body we’d seen in the other pieces is in the process of standing up and walking out of the box. A hummingbird flies before the person, as though promising that there is beauty and life to be found beyond the beautiful closets that we’ve crafted for ourselves. 

Oftentimes we think of healing in the biological sense of something that was sick or wounded getting better. A return to the status quo. But that is simply not how things work when it comes to human experience. The effects of life experiences don’t “disappear” or “go away.” They’re things that we carry. 

That can mean burdens that we labor under forever. But the artists of Divine Queerness suggest there is another way forward. As St. Ignatius himself experienced, our histories in conversation with our imaginations can provoke us to see and cast off the stories that hold us down, to transform our prisons into trampolines and escape into the unknown.

Jim McDermott is a freelance writer based in New York City.