Lola Flash Has Got Some Stories to Tell

This article is part of Hyperallergics 2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

In 1989, photographer Lola Flash sat on the other side of the lens for what would become one of the decade’s most iconic images. Flash, who uses she/they pronouns, kisses fellow artist Julie Tolentino in a poster of three queer couples and the phrase “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do,” a campaign launched by AIDS artist-activist collective Gran Fury. The image was distributed in a mass-mailing and plastered on buses and billboards.

Flash was already deeply involved in the AIDS activism movement through her work with ACT UP, and while the photographer has served as a pillar in their community since the 1980’s, they’ve only gained acceptance into the museum and gallery world in recent years. This was intentional, they told Hyperallergic over the phone. Below is a condensed version of a conversation that delved into the parental joy of becoming a mentor, finding love, and dawning a space helmet to think about ancestors.

Hyperallergic: Can you speak about your entrance into the New York City art world? Did you feel accepted there, and how has your feeling of acceptance changed throughout the decades?

Lola Flash: I got to the city in the mid-’80s. I met a mural artist named Arnie Charnick, who did a lot of murals in the East Village. I had gone to art school and thought museums and galleries were the way to go, but Arnie was really against that. Since he had murals all over, he thought he didn’t need to be in galleries, and it was before graffiti or similar public art was shown in museums.

I wanted to be like him, so I didn’t want to show my work in museums. I felt that museums were about white walls, White people on the walls, and White audiences. It wasn’t appealing to me and it didn’t seem like a place I belonged. So for years, I didn’t want acceptance from the art world. I wanted the opposite, to be honest. In some ways, I wanted to be like one of those artists who dies and their artwork is found under the bed. It wasn’t about notoriety or fame or me: it was about creating an archive of my dear community.

It wasn’t until I turned 60 that I decided I wanted to make it happen for myself in the art world. I had seen a Kerry James Marshall show at The Met, and it changed my thoughts on showing my work. The audience was still mostly White, but there were some Black people there, too. Those spaces have gotten better. People were really looking at the work, and one girl was crying.

It made me think, “Maybe the world is ready to see my work.” I reached out to MoMA and said, “You need to give me a studio visit”. That was the beginning of my life now. Once MoMA buys your work, the Whitney wants to buy it, too. It hasn’t been a landfall, but there’s definitely been a change in the way people greet me and accept me.

H: Have you been able to cultivate relationships with younger artists who are now seeing your work?

LF: Yes. It’s one of the really beautiful things that I never thought would happen to me. I’m the newly elected president of the board at Queer Arts. I’m super proud to be a part of it, and one of our most stellar programs is our queer mentorship program. The founder Ira Sachs was very aware that our generation, and generations to come, lost a lot of mentors because of AIDS, he created this organization to fill that space.

Felli Maynard is one of my mentees. They’re an amazing artist. They bring as much to the table as I do, and it’s been a beautiful relationship that I can’t imagine living without. I’m so proud of them, just like a parent would be. I’ve had young people come to me with tears in their eyes thanking me for making work that lets them see themselves. I really cherish each of those moments.

H: Did you have mentors yourself? Who do you see as your peers now?

LF: As for peers, Zanele Muholi is at the top of my list. As for mentors and other peers, the Black photographer Anthony Barboza was one of the first people I learned about when I was in college. Then Gordon Parks, Carrie Mae Weems, Pamela Sneed, Michelle Agins, Naima Green, Amy Sherald, Simone Leigh, Ajamu X, and many more. And Joan E. Biron (JEB) — we’re together in a group show. We have so much fun. We’ve been doing the same thing — focusing on the lesbian community — but in different parts of the world.

The show is incredible because, first of all, it shows that lesbians have been here for a long time and come in all shapes and sizes in bodies that are differently abled. We’ve documented those people, and I think that’s really important. When I see queer famous stars, I sometimes wonder if they think about all the pioneers like ourselves who made it possible for them to be out and proud. When I was a young lesbian in the ’80s, so many of my friends were still in the closet.

It’s so important for women, and in particular Black women and queer women, to continue pushing the next generation forward because of the patriarchy. Queer men photographers have been showing since the ’70s and ’80s, but as far as I can see, they haven’t always said, “Come on over.” But I see that women are doing that.

I have a lot of things to be thankful for. My family has always been proud of me and they’re happy that I’m happy as a lesbian. They have never told me to grow my hair long like the rest of my cousins. They’ve always been supportive. It’s the reason I’m able to continue doing this work, even when it isn’t received in a way that I like; I have a lot of family and friends that I can fall back on when I just need like a little push to get back up and keep doing my thing.

H: What was it like to create your SALT and LEGENDS series?

LF: Legends is a tribute to older queer folks in our community. Some are actually on view now at Howl! Gallery. The journey has been very cathartic. I’ve been thinking of people like myself who didn’t have queer role models, so I started photographing them. We didn’t have any of the things young people have now, like PREP commercials and guys kissing on TV. It’s funny because almost everybody in that series doesn’t think they’re a legend.

It continues SALT, which is dedicated to my mom and my grandma because I never really took proper beautiful photographs of them with my 4×5 camera. You can’t go backward and can only go forward, so I’m looking at women who are over 70. Sometimes I sit on the bus and think to myself, “I wonder what that woman did.” I know I surely have some stories to tell.

I think about the fact that these women, who were considered so vital when they were young, turned 25 or 30 and sort of got thrown out to pasture. I wanted to remind them of their beauty. When someone comes in front of my camera, they know that I think they’re beautiful. For two hours of their day, they can realize their beauty and project it. I’m going to start it back up again this summer.

For us Black people and queer people, particularly Black people, it’s as if we have a target on our back. It’s a lot to be a Black person in America and to still be alive and have a sense of pride, and it’s something one can only do that if they have their community around them. There’s a real lack of older Black queer mentors in my life, so if anyone’s out there reading, I could be your mentee for a little bit.

H: What does Pride Month mean to you?

LF: It’s the month when I truly feel whole. It makes me fantasize about how different my life would be if queers were the majority.

It gives me the feeling of what it might be if the world was gay rather than straight. Can you imagine this being the norm? It would just be so amazing to be able to just walk around holding hands with your girlfriend wherever you want to, kissing wherever you want to kiss.

H: Do you have a favorite photograph?

LF: Probably the photograph of me and Julie from the Kissing Doesn’t Kill campaign. It’s such an iconic image now, but we didn’t realize that in 1989 when we modeled for it. Sometimes it honestly doesn’t feel like me, because we’re such symbols. But it does make me happy that they chose us. We were so engrossed in ACT UP. We’re still friends; Julie’s one my family members now. I also have a picture of my great grandfather that’s also pretty amazing. He’s with Booker T. Washington and Madame C. J. Walker.

H: What are you working on now?

LF: I always work on a lot of things at the same time, but I’m continuing my Afrofuturism series Syzygy. I started the series in Woodstock, and because there aren’t a lot of Black people there, I realized that I needed to be the protagonist. It’s been fun to learn from my friends who are performance artists and think about my ancestors.

It’s a story I weave when I’m thinking about the past, but I’m also thinking about the present. I’m wearing a prison uniform, thinking about all the people who look like me who are incarcerated. Then the helmet speaks to the future. I’ve also been doing a lot of grant writing, because I really want to go to Senegal to just really retrace my ancestors’ footsteps. I think it will help add a sense of authenticity to the series.

In many ways, the series contains all of the themes I’ve worked on so far — racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, White supremacy, etc. You can study art and have your notes and research, but at the end of the day, there’s some kind of magic that slips in. Maybe it’s the ancestors. I am sitting on their shoulders big time.

I suppose I’d also like to put out there that I’m engaged now to Marcia Griffiths. I hated the whole idea of us becoming like straight people and getting married. But when you find your one, you want to make it permanent. I always tell the young people, “Never say never.”

H: Who proposed?

LF: I did. I had a crush on her in the ’90s when I was in London, then she came to my show there in 2019. I thought, “Oh, here’s that girl I had a crush on.” That’s how it began. It’s kind of sweet.

I just feel so blessed to have had this long life. I see my friends dealing with illnesses, and I’m still pretty healthy. It’s a blessing. When you get to my age, you’ll think, “Oh, that’s what Lola was talking about.” Don’t rush it because it’s definitely not something you want to be thinking about until you get to that age. It’s a wasted effort. If I have one message for the young folks out there, it is to live in the present. Obviously, prepare for the future, but don’t go crazy about it.

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