PHILADELPHIA — The process of finding oneself in an archive can be slow and confounding. Searching for political affinities, moments of resonant joy, rage, or mourning can sometimes feel fractured or out of reach. At the same time, the archive offers glimmers of a world still coming into focus and the realization that we are a part of something larger. Selections from the Archives, organized by Rami George at Philadelphia’s William Way LGBT Community Center, presents a mosaic of Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ communities from 1960 through 2000 that incites feelings of kinship and intimacy. Through the material we see the conditions of how history is made, what stories are told, and the intersectional communities we are a part of across time.
George is both a curator of the archive and an artist making interventions. Intent on blurring that boundary, they consider the exhibition itself as a kind of artwork, a poetic space that opens new modes for seeing and feeling history. Images of everyday moments, political demonstrations, and excerpts of print media from Philadelphia’s LGBTQ communities are spread around the galleries. Original archival material and reproductions sit side by side, picturing couples embracing and drag queens gracefully posing right next to bundles of protest signage reading “Defund the Fund” and “Lived with AIDS, Killed by Cuts.” A neighboring excerpt from TransSisters: The Journal of Transexual Feminism (1995) expresses an urgent poetic and full-bodied call to advocate for trans people’s right to thrive — to “laugh, cry, love” — and seems inspired by Zoe Leonard’s famous “I Want a Dyke for President” (1992).
George’s approach is part historical remediation, part aesthetic: formal arrangements and scale emphasize a unique visual vernacular. This duality opens up multiple entry points to the exhibition while retaining a distinct point of view with specific, even if subtle, creative strategies. Small original photographs register as tender snapshots among friends, while photo collages in works on paper and video formats remind the viewer there is an artistic process to how the show is organized.
The potency of George’s arrangements is further revealed in a wall of small photographs from the now-defunct local alternative magazine Au Courant (1982–96). The enveloping installation suggests the forensic seriality of an index and the warmth of a personal photo album. Here, deeply intersectional political histories come to the fore alongside extremely intimate moments and domestic scenes. Protests for abortion rights and access, transgender and disability rights, and anti-police and antiwar sentiments become part of a unified queer visual context aligning these political stances. George tethers these disparate events to today’s political discourse, a reminder that the past is always with us.
The exhibition’s most poignant works are perhaps the videos where George’s body becomes present while they rummage through the archive. They convey the intimacy of time spent with materials as George cradles photos and albums, their lithe arms and legs making appearances in different positions. One emotional piece documents them flipping through a scrapbook belonging to Bill Way, a founder of the community center. Chronicling Way’s adult years, the album shifts in tone at the point when he was first diagnosed with AIDS. After several “get well” cards the remaining pages go blank while George continues flipping through, leaving viewers with an abrupt sense of loss.
The local LGBTQ+ history represented here narrates an ongoing international concern for bodily care and freedom by showing how George’s own body has tended to this archive. Even the gallery, a multi-use community center, contributes a sense of liveness to the exhibition by inviting people to identify familiar faces in the photos, directly contributing to the archive’s historical record. The artistic significance of the exhibition emerges in the act of living with an archive, moving through it, inhabiting it for a time. Perhaps most importantly, experiencing the archive through George’s poetic interventions acknowledges the care it takes to grapple with history.
Selections from the Archives continues at the William Way LGBT Community Center (1315 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through February 23. The exhibition was curated by Rami George.