‘Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows’: How Cleveland’s FRONT International public art exhibition embraces LGBTQ+ artists and audiences

All summer long, FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art will host a sprawling, free, public contemporary art exhibition

At his home in Berlin, Germany, Prem Krishnamurthy sits opposite a bright window.

Over Zoom, he recites a couplet from a 1957 poem by Langston Hughes:

“Oh, God of dust and rainbows, help us see

That without dust the rainbow would not be.”

For the last 15 years, Krishnamurthy has worked as an artist, writer, lecturer and independent curator.

Out loud, he speaks Hughes’ words with careful affection.

“I was just so struck by the way it captured the inseparability of joy and suffering,” he says. “There’s something ephemeral, even just in the image of the rainbow.”

The artistic director behind the 2022 edition of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art, Krishnamurthy titled the exhibition with Hughes’ words — embracing a duality of experience that holds particular resonance for queer artists and audiences across Northeast Ohio and beyond.

‘An agent of change’

Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows is the second iteration of FRONT — a sprawling, free, contemporary public art exhibition that takes place in dozens of venues across Cleveland, Akron and Oberlin every three years.

This year, the show runs from July 16 through October 2 (July 14-15 are preview days), and features works by more than 100 regional, national and international artists — each with some thematic link to the healing and transformative power of art, both as a daily practice and as an agent of larger social, cultural and political change.

In Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood, Transformer Station will serve as the FRONT PNC Exhibition Hub

A contemporary museum space in a repurposed 1924 railroad substation, the venue is the launch point for the entire exhibition — providing important context and information before attendees fan out to experience performances, events and installations across Northeast Ohio.

In Cleveland, Jukebox will house episodes of Paradise — a silent, 16-mm film series, narrated via subtitles that “follows several characters employed as bartenders by an ominously absent boss.”

Created by artists Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff, the series is filmed in their Berlin establishment, TV Bar — a space that has sparked much curatorial inspiration for Krishnamurthy.

Performances, commissions and installations will also appear at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the Cleveland Public Library, the Syrian Cultural Garden, the Cleveland Clinic BioRepository and in Akron’s historic Quaker Square.

‘The regions past and present scars’

FRONT’s curatorial statement points directly to the complicated relationship between healing and place: “The exhibition bears witness to the region’s past and present scars,” it reads. “Yet alongside interlocking public and personal crises, healing is contemporary Cleveland’s biggest industry.”

Visiting Northeast Ohio during the curatorial process, Krishnamurthy noticed the juxtaposition right away.

“We drove for five minutes and passed 18 churches or houses of worship,” he says — pointing to spaces where people seek healing, community and connection outside of official institutions like hospitals or doctor’s offices.

Though there are several world-renowned hospital systems based throughout the region, Northeast Ohioans still suffer deep social, emotional, physical and economic wounds that Krishnamurthy says can’t be healed by institutionalized Western medicine alone.

In Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows, artists explore new ways to fill the gap — experimenting with the healing and transformative nature of music, movement, craft, color and shared experience in curious and creative ways.

Artists Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff’s “Paradise,” which will run at both Jukebox and The Feve as part of the 2022 edition of FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art. (Photo courtesy of FRONT)
Queer artists reimagine healing

Because LGBTQ+ people so often experience the pain of violence and alienation alongside the deep fulfillment of living authentically, queer artists are in a unique position to interrogate and reimagine what it means to heal.

Particularly within the context of the AIDS epidemic, traditional institutions of healing are not always safe for LGBTQ+ people.

When patients living with HIV and AIDS were turned away from hospitals and funeral homes, queer communities became creative and resourceful — experimenting with intimate and communal types of healing and caregiving and building networks of kinship and support outside traditional social structures like marriages and nuclear families.

‘The queerness is foundational’

To reimagine processes of healing, transdisciplinary artist and writer Every Ocean Hughes first examined the process of death:

“My first best friend died when I was nine years old — my second when I was fifteen,” Hughes says. “Then I lost some friends after that in high school. So, when I was a young person, I was experiencing this loss and death and grief that I had no tools to help deal with, especially in the early 80s.”

Raised in a legacy of death work, Hughes began to interrogate the social rituals around death and dying after participating in the death of their grandmother — creating work that encourages audiences to reclaim the process of dying, away from institutions that have historically harmed LGBTQ+ people.

Their work Help the Dead — set for a live performance as part of FRONT in September 2022 — grapples with the complexities of queerness, grief, caregiving and personal determination.

In a 12-minute excerpt, members of the audience sit in a wide circle, surrounding performers Colin Self and Geo Wyeth.

In this carefully crafted space, constructed entirely by queer artists, it is impossible to turn away — from suffering, from death and from one another.

Instead of recoiling, Hughes leans toward death in an active choice to reimagine not only how we die, but how we choose to live.

New perspectives 

“There’s a crisis of community because people are retreating, but art can gather us and connect us,” Krishnamurthy says. “Artmaking takes focus, will, desire — but also dialogue”

It’s precisely those connections and conversations Krishnamurthy plans to foster throughout the exhibition — whether through intimate and intense works like Hughes’, or through the unbridled queer joy of legendary Cleveland drag artist and trans activist Dr. Lady J.

“Art helps you get closer to things that are difficult,” Krishnamurthy says. So on an individual level, I hope people leave with  a sense of agency through the individual practice of art.”

To explain his hopes for Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows, Krishnamurthy reads a passage from Kae Tempest’s book-length essay “On Connection.”

He pauses — clearly moved by the award-winning, non-binary artists’ meditation on queer life, creativity and authentic connection.

“FRONT is really an experience for everyone,” he says. “That’s how I feel and that’s what I hope: that FRONT is a space where all people can come to engage with the work and get to know one another.”

Ignite Action:

  • FRONT 2022: Oh, Gods of Dust and Rainbows runs from July 16 through October 2nd in more than 30 locations across Northeast Ohio. For a full schedule of events, performances and installations, click here.
  • For more information about the FRONT PNC Exhibition Hub at Transformer Station, click here.
  • For details about FRONT’s free Opening Weekend Block Party (featuring food, games and live music), click here.
  • Check out the podcast The Pod of Dust and Rainbows, featuring hosted and produced by Dr. Lady J & Kenyon Farrow. Listen by going here

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