On Selfhood: Young Lesbians


On Selfhood: Young Lesbians
Co-curated by Maia McDonald, Srishti and Olivia Newsome
Feb. 8, 2023 – June 30, 2024


On Selfhood: Young Lesbians assembles art works, ephemera, and oral histories from 36 marginalized urban lesbians, ages 18-25. Installed as a multidisciplinary exhibition grounded in personal collections and an interactive collage, On Selfhood. McDonald’s and Newsome’s curatorial statement was simply signed “Olivia, Maia, Srishti,” — no surnames. I read this decision as a continuation of refusal, the same refusal that The Lesbian Herstory Archives is also organized around: using first names only to disavow the grip of patriarchal ownership that all formal names inherently carry by legal default.

“Lesbians spend their lives searching for each other and building their lives together. Communities have been primary sources and instructional guides to living lesbian lives. Marginalized lesbians perpetually evolve their methods of finding and maintaining communities that nurture their multiple identities.” —the curators

The group exhibition takes place throughout three floors of The Center, with participants’ archives available for research at the third floor’s research room. The artworks are arranged by themes: “Identity and the Self,” “Love, Sex, Desire,” “Transness and Gender,” and “Friendship and Community.” The show features photography, collage, drawings, paintings, illustrations, poems, written texts, zines, stage plays, fan fiction, audio diaries, journals, Tumblr posts, T-shirts, and song lyrics by and about lesbians and their experiences. Through this multi-layered and textural assembly, the material intimacy of a lesbian future is seen and accessed.

Nina, “Moonrise” (2023)

In a photograph by Nina, “Moonrise,” a group of lesbians gathers on a beach at night. Most of them gaze back at the camera with a shared sense of joy, while a couple of them close their eyes and stay within while remaining in a shared embrace. The opened canister of film in Carson’s Still Life II and Clem organize, humorously, an array of some tools for play and self-realization. Karishma’s Get Tested, a linocut print in which an androgynous-femme figure appears dressed in half a shirt dress and an overalls suit, shows us how younger generations are portrayed in mainstream media, and the misconceptions about their experiences. The interactive collage on the third floor, near the entrance to the archives room, is an enchanted spread of emotions, dreams, joys, and some unavoidable laments about what it means to be a lesbian in contemporary society.

On Selfhood arrives at a time when lesbians are actively counteracting decades of lesbian bar closures. According to historian Greggor Mattson, the US had 15 documented Lesbian bars before the pandemic in 2019, an abysmally low number compared to 200 documented spaces in 1980. By contrast, gay men’s bars during the same dates decreased from 1200+ to 200+. The exhibit also tackles this question from the perspective of young people who aren’t allowed at bars anyway, asking: what spaces of assembly can young lesbians today look forward to?

Carson, “Still Life II” (2023).

On Selfhood affirms an inclusive lesbian present through a “real-time community centered collection that pushes the boundaries of what is historically significant,” the curators explained in their introductory statement. The curators asked participants to situate lesbianism in relation to other, multiple identities they embody as lesbians and how are they forming community at home, online, and elsewhere. That elsewhere includes raves, parties, live music, and other communal spaces. The curators make it clear that for lesbians, and any Queer female/fem presenting person, “sexuality and romance rarely belongs to them—it has been capitalized and resold.” Seeing how a younger generation navigates what feels like a ceaselessly toxic paradigm is highly illuminating.

This exhibition focuses on lesbian voices that the dominant lesbian canon previously ignored or silenced, including Black, trans, nonbinary, and gender nonconforming people, without excluding lesbian identities with existing mainstream recognition. At a point marked by disappearing spaces for assembly, and an increasing will to not use labels, this exhibition shows us how labels can be critical to community building. On Selfhood also applies the framework of intersectionality to an exhibition format, and leads us somewhere in a distant horizon, waiting for a softer futurity to catch up.

A digital website of the exhibition, On Selfhood: Young Lesbians Within the Margins still showcases the works from all 42 participants in the project, whereas the exhibition only includes 36.


Patricia Silva is a Lisbon-born, New York City-based photographer, video artist, and writer. Their writings on photography and visual culture have been published in Dodge & Burn: Decolonizing Photography, ICP Perspective, Cult Bytes, Daylight, Memories Can’t Wait: Conversations on Accessing History and Archives Through Artistic Practices, and Queering the Collection. Their photographic work has been published in The New York Times, Diva UK, Out Magazine, The Advocate, and Der Grief. Their short films have screened at the British Film Institute, England; Anthology Film Archives, USA; MIT List Visual Arts Center, USA; Glasgow Art Center, Scotland; IFC Theater, USA; Cervantes Institute, Brazil; among more.


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