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Queer Art Workers Reflect: Cheryl R. Riley Thinks Queer Artists “Should Not be Ghettoized”

LGBTQ Pride month is now. Every day in June, we are celebrating the community by featuring one queer art worker and asking them to reflect on what this moment means to them.

Artist and art advisor Cheryl R. Riley (all images courtesy Cheryl R. Riley, photo by Jonathan Andre Beckles)

The month of June is a time to celebrate LGBTQ communities. It’s a moment to reflect on the rich history and culture of the queer community, as well as more recent advances made in the realm of civil liberties. This year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, many queer individuals are navigating greater risks to their health, safety, and livelihoods.

Cognizant of the need to stay connected and elevate queer voices amid uncertainty, Hyperallergic is commemorating Pride Month by featuring one queer art worker per day on our website and asking them to reflect on what this time means to them. If you identify as a queer art worker, we’d love to hear from you. Click here to learn more about how to participate. 

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What’s your name?

Cheryl R. Riley

Where are you based currently? 

Jersey City, NJ’s Powerhouse Art District

Jewelry designed by Cheryl R. Riley

Describe who you are and what you do.

I am a visual artist, furniture designer, and my side gig is working as an Art Advisor with a focus on artists of the Black African diaspora. The latter role is part of my lifelong mission to elevate these artists, which I began doing in 1990 due to my experiences serving on the executive boards of the first site-specific artist residency in the US — Capp Street Project — as well as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Arts & Design (formerly The American Craft Museum) and the American Craft Council. Sitting in on Selection Committees, attending the fairs, there was an absence of peoples of African descent—considered or represented in the selection pools. My suggestions that they be included were met with surprise as it had clearly never occurred to the other board members that there was a lack and, I believe, when they did consider race their feeling was that having me on the board was enough.

My art is concerned with similarities between seemingly disparate cultures through the lens of memory, history, iconography, rituals, attire, implements and symbols. I am currently working on two-sculpture series dealing with aspiration, transcendence, staging, and representation. I have also created a glyphs-based language of a fictional matriarchal society that has no word or concept for war (in every war, women and children experience the highest mortality rates), rape, or domination. I was inspired by the writings of James Baldwin — who like myself, was an out gay person — to create a series of sculptures as 3-D representations of his novels and essays. My ongoing Sculptures in the Form of Necklaces explore the foods associated with the African-American soul food, incorporating oxtail and marrow bones along with beads or other objects not [typically] associated with wearable art.

Tell us about your greatest achievement or something you’ve done lately that you’re proud of.

Artistically, my greatest achievement is having my work in two Smithsonian Museum collections. I am also proud that artists of the African Diaspora are thriving and sought after, and that many who are the art stars of today, like Hank Willis Thomas, were helped in their emerging stages by actions I took to support, advocate for, advise on, and purchase or sell their work of before they had gallery representation, as well as after that point.

Artworks by Cheryl R. Riley

Favorite ways to celebrate your queerness and community?

I had be “out” and proud from the moment I realized I was queer and have been an example to many closeted gay and lesbian people [I know].

What’s been top of mind for you lately?

I’m sad that racism, sexism, and homophobia still are so prevalent in our society.

Talk to us about your immediate queer community/support systems. (Feel free to shout out other folks or organizations you think are doing important work.)

My queer community/support system also includes heterosexual friends, as well as my LGBTQ cohorts. I was blessed to be accepted as a lesbian by all to whom I am close with, from my earliest understanding of my sexual preference. To this day, my immediate social groups include people of all ethnicities, races, ages, socio-economic groups, and sexual preferences.

Cheryl R. Riley, “Purple Ceramic Meditation Glyph” (2019), Afghan Amber bead with tulip stamen insert

How are you celebrating Pride Month this time around?

Unlike every year since 1992, when this community has celebrated with a march and party in Ashbury Park on the first weekend in June for New Jersey’s annual statewide Pride Celebration, we have postponed this year’s celebration to coincide with National Coming Out Day on Sunday, October 11. Like so many others, we will have ZOOM celebrations, songs and cocktails on Pride Day with friends across the country and state.

Are there ways you think queer artists and art workers could be better supported?

Their work should be considered along with all artists on the merit of the quality of work. They should be included in shows where their sexual orientation is only one aspect of who they are. And they should not be ghettoized into to only addressing their queerness in their artwork — just as artists of African descent should not have to always refer to their race in their art. Their art can be landscapes, abstract, minimalist, or whatever they choose as [their form of] expression of their full self.

In the communities that you’re part of, what are you hoping to see shift in the future?

Acceptance of difference but not of oppression, negation, or inequality.

What’s the first thing you’re planning to do when it feels safer to physically gather again?

Have a cocktail/dinner party at home with many friends.

Enjoying this series? Check out other entries here.

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