In 1978 a young artist named Gilbert Baker (1951–2017) created a flag to represent the LGBTQ community at that year’s San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade. Over the subsequent 40 years, the rainbow flag has become an internationally recognized symbol of the LGBTQ community and an icon of contemporary design. In 2017, shortly after Baker’s death, his estate selected the GLBT Historical Society to preserve his personal archives, artwork and memorabilia.
These precious materials are at the heart of a new exhibition, “Performance, Protest and Politics: The Art of Gilbert Baker,” opening November 1 at the GLBT Historical Society Museum. Co-curated by Jeremy Prince, who has overseen many exhibitions at the museum, and Joanna Black, the archivist who oversaw the donation of the Gilbert Baker Collection, the exhibition positions the rainbow flag as a starting point for exploring Baker’s artistic endeavors, showcasing how Baker deployed his talents in service of his activism. History Happens interviewed Prince and Black to discuss their curatorial approach to the exhibition.
How has the concept for this exhibition evolved since the GLBT Historical Society received the Gilbert Baker Collection two years ago?Prince: It was always intended to explore Baker’s life and artistry beyond the rainbow flag, including his drag personas. But the more Joanna and I explored the treasures in the collection, the more amazed we were by the sheer depth and breadth of his artistic output. From his “Pink Jesus” persona to the recreated concentration-camp prisoner uniforms, Baker’s artistic oeuvre was shocking, provocative and expressed his opposition to the injustice he witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s. That’s what led us to focus the theme of the exhibition on art and performance as protest.
Black: As I arranged the transfer of the collection to the society’s archives, I sorted through exquisite costumes, large-scale paintings, silk-screened posters and bedazzled footwear, but also protest banners, fliers and provocative photographs. I came away deeply moved and knew that we had to share this aspect of Baker’s life with the public.
One constant of the exhibition has been to provide a sense of Baker’s artistic range and his unique personality. But it wasn’t until later in the process that Jeremy and I decided to incorporate quotes from Baker’s posthumously published memoir, Rainbow Warrior, into the curation. It’s comparatively rare to be able to include an artist’s own words alongside examples of their work; Baker tells his own story, and the exhibition helps bring those words to life.
What aspects of Baker’s artwork do you think viewers will find surprising?Prince: I think they’ll be struck by the facets of Baker’s personality — artist, provocateur, diva. And they’ll be impressed by his achievements: Designing and overseeing construction of the two original flags for the 1978 San Francisco Gay Freedom Day parade was a groundbreaking accomplishment, but sewing a mile-long flag — and later a 1.25-mile-long flag — is recordbreaking.
Black: I think viewers will be most surprised by aspects of Baker’s drag personas. For example, “Pink Jesus” is pretty shocking, and Baker ownedthat persona entirely. He crashed the 1990 Pride Parade nearly naked, covered in hot-pink body paint and carrying a giant cross — now that’s a statement! And it wasn’t out of vanity. He was always guided by the desire to press for social and political change.
What do you hope visitors will take away from the exhibition?Prince: Exploring the history of the rainbow flag and contextualizing it really underlines its significance. This is an American story about a gay boy from Kansas who designed a wildly successful symbol — and then spent his life deploying his artistic talents as a weapon to fight for rights, equality and dignity against institutions actively trying to erode them.
Black: I hope viewers bear witness to what a multifaceted, complex, passionate and compassionate human being Baker was. His struggle to exist and live his truth openly is universal. Without the courage of artists like Gilbert Baker, we’d all be living in a less free society than we do.
NOTE: “Performance, Protest and Politics” is on display at the GLBT Historical Society Museum through March 8, 2020.
Charles Beal is a lifelong social activist and an award-winning art director for film and television. He was a close friend of Gilber Baker.