‘Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall’ elevates local art scene

an artwork depicting a woman with blonde/black hair and red lipstick.

Image: runlittlewhitegirl by David Antonio Cruz

ANNOUNCEMENT: Last call! The “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall” ends on Saturday, Oct. 30.

It was a hot Friday night in New York City in 1969. Across from Christopher Park in Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Inn bar, a haven for drag queens and crossdressers, was packed with the usual crowd. Like many gay bars at that time in New York, the bar was operated illegally by the mob. Around 1 a.m. that Saturday morning, eight undercover officers entered intending to close the bar for good.

At the time, it was a crime to “masquerade” as a person of the opposite sex, so the officers immediately targeted drag queens and crossdressers for arrest as the police van pulled up. Outside the bar, according to reports, police were roughing up a lesbian person in handcuffs when the growing crowd had enough and began fighting back.

Throughout the Stonewall riot and the demonstrations during the following six days, a homeless, Black transgender woman, Marsha P. Johnson, began to emerge as the movement’s leader. Stonewall was the beginning of a new era for the LGBTQ+ community regarding civil rights and social advocacy.

Fifty years later, Johnson’s rallying cry, “Nobody promised you tomorrow,” would become the title of a critically acclaimed 2019 art exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum commemorating the Stonewall uprising anniversary.

With the help of a $205,000 grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation, the Center for Creativity and the Arts presented the “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall” exhibition, Aug. 19 through Oct. 30, 2021, at Fresno State’s Phebe Conley Art Gallery. 

Along with the exhibit, a series of events and related exhibits were scheduled to highlight LGTBQ+ culture, art and community in the Central Valley. Fresno City College’s Art Space Gallery held the Constellating Care Networks exhibition and mapping project which highlighted the history and presence of Fresno’s LGBTQ+ community in conversation with the Stonewall exhibit.

On Saturday, Sept. 25, the Phebe Conley Art Gallery Courtyard was transformed into a venue for the “Performances of the Heart: Female and male impersonators, drag performers and artists of Fresno.” The show was hosted by Tiffany Taylor Tate, former empress of the Imperial Dove Court and Imperial Sequoia Empire. The evening featured performances by former Empress Jesse, founder of the Imperial Dove Court and former Emperor El Daña, founder of the Imperial Sequoia Empire.

Then on Thursday, Oct. 21 in the courtyard, queer Afro-Latinx activist and poet Faylita Hicks (she/they) teamed up with Fresno State music professor Benjamin Boone (he, him, his) and his jazz quartet for an evening of never-before-heard music set to Hick’s poetry. Born in South Central California and raised in Central Texas, Hicks uses their intersectional experiences to advocate for ​​Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, asexual, plus (LGBTQIA+) people. Hicks recently released their new album “A New Name for My Love,” available on Spotify, Apple Music, and iTunes. She is the author of HoodWitch and a finalist for the 2020 Lambada Literary Award for Bisexual Poetry.

The impact on Fresno State students who visited the exhibit was captured as nine creative writing students participated in an ekphrastic poetry exercise. They also participated in a reflective video to share their experience.

The exhibition at Fresno State was unique because the Brooklyn Museum exhibit was not a traveling exhibition and was not intended to be seen anywhere else. This required Dr. Cindy Urrutia, director for the Center for Creativity and the Arts, to reach agreements with the owners of each piece of art individually, make shipping arrangements and reassemble the exhibition in the Phebe Conley Art Gallery. In addition to works displayed at the 2019 Brooklyn Museum exhibition, the Center for Creativity and the Arts worked with the Brooklyn Museum to include local and West Coast artists. A catalog of the exhibition will be available through the College of Arts and Humanities.

The result is a unique opportunity for people on the West Coast to see a world-class exhibition that will likely not be assembled again anywhere else.

“At Fresno State, our core values are diversity, distinction and discovery. Without a doubt, ‘Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall’ reflects those values and provides a strong educational platform to learn and be curious about Fresno’s own history and participation in significant cultural legacies such as LGBTQ+ civil advocacy and the Feminist Art Movement,” Urrutia said. “We also believe that this exhibit aligns with the James B. McClatchy organization’s values and goals and has garnished significant interest — attracting visitors from all over California.”

She notes that most artists in the exhibition are of color and their art reflects their personal experiences in the post Stonewall era.

“This is significant because many early discussions on LGBTQ+ have not always included communities of color. Thus, one sees significant intersections of various identity groups within the LGBTQ+ community,” Urrutia said.

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The exhibit was widely covered by local media, including:

“Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 years After Stonewall” was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and curated by Margo Cohen Ristorucci, public programs coordinator; Lindsay C. Harris, teen programs manager, education; Carmen Hermo, associate curator, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art; Allie Rickard, former curatorial assistant, Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art; and Lauren Argentina Zelaya, director, public programs, with assistance from Levi Narine, former teen programs assistant, InterseXtions and special projects, Brooklyn Museum. This presentation was adapted by the Center for Creativity and the Arts at Fresno State.

The Center for Creativity and the Arts’ mission is to engage the public with the arts through dynamic interdisciplinary programming that highlights local topics that have global perspectives. As an institution, the center is committed to contributing to the intellectual, social and artistic life of the University and the Central Valley and seeks to create an environment where the arts function as a catalyst for intellectual and creative conversations that are grounded in the everyday life of the Central Valley.

Founded in 1994, Susan and the late James B. McClatchy envisioned an organization that would address two issue areas important to California: the needs of English learners and the protections of the First Amendment in free speech, freedom of expression and a free press. Since then, the James B. McClatchy Foundation has made grants across its footprint in the Central Valley, and strives to make bold investments for long-lasting impact

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Fresno State College of Arts and Humanities Communication Specialist

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