Walt Whitman's poem “To a Stranger” is an ode to an outline, a poem addressed to an imaginary other that is so vivid in the mind’s eye one forgets they’re a dream. His work is a masterpiece of longing, a lifetime of shared intimacy mapped across a fleeting look.
But one wonders what shape “Stranger” would have taken if Whitman, a gay man, had a language to describe his love in both poetic and political terms. If he had lived into the 21st century and had the means of expression we possess today, would he have written from such a melancholy distance? If he had witnessed all of the ways queer love can be lost—to AIDS, drugs, violence, neglect—would he risk hurt to embrace the world?
Taking its title from the final verse of “To a Stranger,” SF Camerawork's I am to see to it that I do not lose you finds Orestes Gonzalez and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto taking on Whitman’s spirit, while honoring and recognizing great loss. The imagined others they pine for aren’t romantic partners, but fellow queers who have fallen and been forgotten, whose presences are dearly missed and whose voices yearn to be heard. [Ed. note: This show is curated by frequent KQED Arts contributor Roula Seikaly.]
It’s a show concerned with queer time—how one accounts for the present without a clear line to the past, how one builds a future from a murky and muddled now. And while I am to see can sometimes want too much, it remains a remarkable showcase of two artists holding out their arms to shepherd their subjects from the fringes back into the fabric of history.
Of the two bodies of work on display, Orestes Gonzalez’s narrative photo series Julio’s House most fully engages with the spirit of Whitman’s abstract longing. Documenting his late uncle’s home in the wake of his passing, Gonzalez creates an intimate portrait through the possessions of a man who is no longer there.
As Gonzalez mentions in the show notes, Julio was not a particularly present figure in his early life. A gay man in the ’50s and ’60s, the flashy lifestyle Julio lead was viewed with mistrust by Gonzalez’s traditional Cuban parents. Approaching his uncle’s home decades later, Julio’s House becomes a glorious complication to all he’d ever known.
Gonzalez’s photographs are noisy and rich, capturing the “Hialeah Baroque”-style Julio favored in all of its kitschy glory. In one image, sunlight peers through a screen door setting the flat’s elaborate flocked wallpaper ablaze with waves of gold and blue. In another, a titanic crystal lamp holds its own beside a floor-length vase spilling over with fake flowers. Here Gonzalez’s work reminds of the late Larry Sultan, a photographer who understood interiors to be the painted backdrops for our most human moments.
But where Sultan employed a mix of documentary and staging, Gonzalez’s work puts subject firmly over style. The series was taken over the course of a single day, in natural light, Julio’s affairs completely untouched. What becomes clear with these photos is that the visual wealth of Gonzalez’s work is not an affectation, but a vivid portrait of Julio himself.
Gonzalez chronicles Julio’s genuine heroism in the show’s accompanying text and in doing so underscores everything absent from his flamboyant home—the generosity, work ethic and quiet dignity that silk flowers and gilt statues fall short of capturing. Julio is a compelling figure that can never fully be known, but with Gonzalez’s remarkable eye can be fully loved and appreciated.
Where Gonzalez chronicles a past slipping out of history, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Tomorrow We Will Inherit the Earth memorializes lives slipping out of the present—the victims of crisis conditions that have persisted against queers and people of color for decades. Imagining a world where the struggle for “queer rights and recognition has been fought to an apocalyptic end,” Bhutto embroiders black and white screen-printed imagery into dazzlingly pretty, jarringly militaristic tapestries and wall hangings.
In Tomorrow, Bhutto fights back against oblivion with a show of weaponized crafts. Foregrounding Pakistani wrestlers, athletes he has returned to their mythic roles as heroes in South Asian myth, Bhutto drapes, stitches and embroiders the armor for soldiers in the war to right history. Working with cheap, pre-sequined fabric meant for decorating shrines, Bhutto mixes the sacred and profane to gorgeous, often quite funny effect.
Bhutto’s work is a call to imagination rather than arms. His best work is on pieces like Floral Bazooka that find him simultaneously defusing a gun of its macho spirit, and imposing his own queerness into it with every thread. It's in these moments that Bhutto both meets and outpaces Whitman, using the poetics of his craft to speak his truth and press it. Queerness is too rich to be held in a passing glance and too important to be lost to the world's blind eye.
'I am to see to it that I do not lose you' is on view at SF Camerawork through Jan. 12, 2019. Details here.