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A new Tulsa arts exhibit celebrates queer culture in Oklahoma and beyond

The Center for Queer Prairie Studies

A new exhibit at the Tulsa Artist Fellowship's Flagship public project space highlights the history and contributions of 2SLGBTQ+ people in Oklahoma and beyond. It's called the Center for Queer Prairie Studies, curated by Tulsa Artist Fellow Karl Jones.

Opening night started with a fashion show. People dressed up in clothes that riffed on the musical Oklahoma! – basically their take on Curly and Judd as they strutted down the streets of the Tulsa Arts District. Some wore bright red, while others were in drag.

The Center for Queer Prairie Studies is a rotating exhibit that will feature video, painting, sculpture, performance and photography. It will be up through May 5 and will include public programs to create conversation around some of the work and ideas in the show.

It's a collective that includes other artists from Tuls activists and thinkers. The goal is to highlight and celebrate cultural contributions of 2SLGBTQ+ people from the prairie, including Oklahoma.

Jones, a curator and multidisciplinary artist, co-created Goff Fest with collaborator Britni Harris. Goff Fest is a citywide festival in Tulsa dedicated to showing the work of architect Bruce Goff, who was one of the designers of Tulsa’s famous Boston Avenue Methodist Church. Goff was a prolific architect who designed more than 500 buildings throughout the Midwest and chaired the University of Oklahoma's school of architecture. He was also queer.

The show Tulsa Artist Fellowship's space comes at a pivotal moment. State legislatures — including Oklahoma's — are considering banning drag shows for minors and gender-affirming care for people under the age of 18.

Jones says this is the plight of 2SLGBTQ+ people throughout history — others wanting to regulate and control how people live their lives. That, he says, is represented in the artists he is showcasing.

"Some of the paintings in the show are from 20, 30, 40 years ago, and they represent a time when drag was considered illegal," Jones said. "And so people did that in the privacy of their own homes. And we're sort of re imagining a world where that might happen again. It's scary and terrifying."

The work of Lynn Riggs is also featured in the show. Riggs was a playwright, poet and screenwriter and queer Cherokee man who grew up on the Cherokee Nation reservation in the early part of the 20th century. He wrote Green Grow the Lilacs – the story that the musical Oklahoma is based on. Jones says the Center for Queer Prairie Studies gives visibility to artists who are in the Midwest and made enormous contributions to American culture-like Riggs.

"Writers who were writing before WWII who were gay, they had to code switch, right…. you think of Tennessee Williams, who was writing queer characters as hetero-normative characters," Jones said. "A lot of people thought that Lynn Riggs in writing Green Grow the Lilacs and Oklahoma that the character Judd, even though he was a straight white man, was how he saw himself-this outsider who was unfairly treated not only as a tribal citizen but as a gay man."

This is the essence of what the exhibit is trying to do, celebrating the parts of yourself that sometimes you have to hide.

The Center for Queer Prairie Studies will be up through May 5 at the Tulsa Artist Fellowship Flagship Space located in the arts district of Tulsa. For more information, visit the artist fellowship’s website.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
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