This article originally appeared in the April 1997 issue of OUT
“In one period I decided photography was sick,” recalls the artist Zoe Leonard, a private, 35-year-old New Yorker now sitting in her Lower East Side studio, sewing a zipper into a banana peel. “It was about just watching, having no stake. Later I realized that watching is participating. That there's really something to being a witness.”
She’s referring to the general drift of her work: the haunting memorial objects she makes by sewing up the skins of dried fruit, now on display at Miami’s Museum of Contemporary Art in a show titled Strange Fruit; the 82 prints that comprise the lesbian Fae Richards Photo Archive. Conceived for a film by Cheryl Dunye, the Archive goes on view in March at the 1997 Whitney Biennial, and will be published by Artspace Books.
For this self-taught photographer, making art is “like taking a walk—you get ideas and follow them.” Leonard comes upon what the world discards and distills both its larger meaning and an affecting, wistful beauty—much like her own. Raised by a largely absent working mother, she dropped out of high school at 15, borrowed a camera, and "always had film in the fridge.”
After showing at an East VIllage gallery in the booming 1980s, Leonard committed herself to AIDS activism with the same energy she gave her art. By 1993, as a result of her inclusion in that year’s Biennial in New York and her association with a blue-chip gallerist, 20 shows were offered her around the world. That’s when she walked away. The AIDS crisis had changed everything.
Leonard took off for India with a friend. Two of the last three years she has spent alone in the isolated Yukon bush, returning periodically to New York, printing her photos, and making Strange Fruit, which she describes as “how pathetic the attempt to put things back together is, but also how beautiful.”
At last November’s Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, Cheryl Dunye’s film Watermelon Woman was voted more popular than Secrets and Lies. In March, it will grace the Whitney Biennial in New York and begin an art-house run in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities.
Made on a shoestring in Philadelphia, Dunye’s hometown, the terrific serio-comedy sets the director’s concern with the representation of black women in movies against what she calls “the power dynamics” of an interracial love affair conducted by Cheryl, a struggling black lesbian filmmaker (played by the affable Dunye), and a privileged white woman (Go Fish’s Guinevere Turner). Central to the story is Cheryl’s search for the buried biography of a fictional '40s Hollywood star, the lesbian Fae Richards. Dunye based Richards on her own real-life heroines–Josephine Baker, Butterfly McQueen, and Ma Rainey– while her onscreen relationship contains elements of her partnership with co-producer Alexandra Juhasz. “Truth is fiction and fiction is truth,” Dunye relates from her home in Pomona, California. “I like to blur the line because I want people to think. Gays and lesbians of color constantly have to negotiate who we are: to the color community, to the gay community, and then in our own personal narratives. It’s not about a single identity thing we go through. It’s about a plurality.”