Juliana Huxtable Comes to Swarthmore

by Tessa Hannigan

Juliana Huxtable, a distinguished queer artist, writer and performer, came to Swarthmore’s campus on Friday, November 10th. She spoke at 4pm to a gathering of Swarthmore students, faculty and staff and then, starting at 10pm, DJed a night at Olde Club.

Blake Oetting 18’ and Liz Whipple 18’ invited Huxtable to campus through use of the Sager Fund. The fund was created in 1973 by Richard Sager to offer students an opportunity to invite to campus a renowned speaker or performer who represents and serves needs of LGBTQ+ people. Oetting and Whipple applied for the grant last spring with the explicit intention of inviting Huxtable to speak and perform after discovering her poignant expressivity across multiple mediums in 2015. Oetting says he hopes that “those who attend the lecture are able to learn from an artist who approaches political agency, queerness, the internet, and identity in a rigorously theoretical manner.”

At 4pm on Friday, Huxtable entered the LPAC cinema dressed in a light army green jacket, elaborate grey pants and black boots; her presence was known. After an introduction from Oetting she began her presentation by offering a brief background of herself. Speaking about her upbringing, she noted the presence of the black church in her life when she was young. In the past few years, she noted that her work has been increasingly influenced by Southern black religion, specifically liberation theology. Liberation theology uses the Old Testament of the Bible as a way of understanding liberation of African peoples and the African Diasporic experience. Through liberation theology as well as other theoretical discourse, Huxtable reframes histories, religions and racialized and sexualized stereotypes to communicate and reveal radical, counter culture realities.

Huxtable is an artist, writer, model and DJ whose work is on the cutting edge of contemporary, queer, political art.  A black trans woman who grew up in Brian-College Station, Texas, she became fascinated with and later used liberation theology as a major influence in her art as a black woman. She attended Bard College and was one of about ten graduating POC, graduating with a degree in Gender and Sexuality Studies and Literature. After college, Huxtable worked as a legal assistant for ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. Throughout her time there, she engaged with creative writing as an outlet for her thoughts, emotions, critiques, as she felt frustrated with the majorly white, liberal environment her coworkers and management created. When she left this job, she began to engage even more deeply with her art in the forms of nightlife fashion, self-portraiture and more writing. She struggled with questions about gender and sexuality throughout her early life and has taken this deep into her work as an artist. She actively challenges strict categories of gender and sexuality through the use of rigorous theory embedded in deeply creative art forms that involve writing, painting, photography, self-portraiture, music/rhythm and video. Exploring personal agency within the politicization of diverse identities and through playing with the thought process of conspiracy and paranoia as a way to get to a “place of nothingness” with her art, her work has since been featured in New York City’s New Museum, Super Chief Gallery, and at the Museum of Modern Art. Huxtable is also the author of two books as well as a co-founder of the queer and trans women weekly night-life collective, Shock Value, in New York City.

After speaking about her younger life and education Huxtable described her first ventures into the nightlife of New York City, adventures that began shortly after she left her job at ACLU. She reflects that dressing up to go out “was a productive place for [her] to think through some of the questions, theoretical questions, that [she] would later deal with.” Night life also offered her an element of collaboration. “It’s one of these places where the relationship between the cultural producer and the cultural consumer collapses a little bit.”

Huxtable explained that, during this time, through elaborate outfits and explorations of fashion, she was able to access different aspects of her identity, leading to an expansion of her creative self. She began doing spoken word, low key, and adding musical rhythm to the texts she wrote and thus producing recordings.

Huxtable soon spoke again about liberation theology. She presented pictures of her paintings that embrace the style of inconspicuous southern dining room art work while still portraying  Black Panther ideas, radicalism and depictions of Black Jesus.  

By “reading the persecution of Christ as the persecution of black people,” these works allow freedom to live and to be seen in the body of a black man. Later on, Huxtable would do work that challenged the centrality of black men’s bodies as the black body politic by "queering" black Jesus.

Huxtable expanded her horizons shortly after Trump was elected. Exploring political realities and the existence and non-existence of personal agency, Huxtable engaged with the idea of protest and change. She notes the hopelessness and satire that many encounter after realizing that “the traditional representational models are failing". She asked the question
So how do you, as an individual, access a reality of agency?” These thoughts led Huxtable “to approach the stigmatized realm of conspiracy theory as a productive way to think through our political realm.” She subsequently created a video piece called “A split during laughter at the Rally.” The name was inspired by a moment of laughter Huxtable experienced with a friend in a post Trump election rally, “although we felt this urgent need to be there at the same time it felt like this absurd and ineffectual way to protest.” The piece explores political action in the face of a radical lack of agency, and a satirical juxtaposition of idealism and cynicism. In her work, Huxtable is framing questioning an idea of “distrust, paranoia, and a conspiratorial frame of mind as a potential force of political alliance forming and community making.”

Huxtable also explored these themes through a project called “The War on Proof” which is a series of images, inclusive of text, that engages with trust and distrust, fear of the loss of true evidence in a “debate of images,” akin to what she refers to as “symbolic warfare.” These images write and rewrite histories that inform each individual’s access to knowledge as well as to agency. This series includes themes of racism, ecofeminism, race and ‘masculine femininity,’ and political control over our bodies through hormone secretion into waterways. Huxtable refers to this sort of chemical control of gender as the creation of ‘invisible chattel.’ The images she presents are unapologetic and deeply engaged in contextual truths and non-conformity. Huxtable explains each of them with an acute description of their theoretical meaning and grounding.

At the end of her presentation, Huxtable opened up the room for questions. When asked about the relationship between her art and her work as a DJ, Huxtable noted that DJing allows her a level of financial security that her art may not. The subsequent question engaged with her relationship with collaborative work, something which she notes has changed over time. Engaging deeply in the nightlife of NYC allowed her to form relationships that lead to more and more collaboration. The last question asked how she handles writer's block. Huxtable reported that she often only writes when she wants to, and that sometimes it is important to "give in" to writer’s block. She noted, however, that free writing exercises as well as reading theory (because of the effect it has on her mind) is generative for her. She also keeps a dream journal in which she accesses for source material.

Come 10pm, folks began to gather in Olde Club to listen and dance to Huxtable’s DJ talent from NYC. The night was alive with a diverse group of attendees; a multitude of Swatties came  to attend throughout the night. Her music and her presence was deeply appreciated.

Excited for her DJ performance, Oetting reported that “I think I can speak for both of us (Whipple 18’) when I say we feel as though queerness and nightlife often don't coincide in ways we feel satisfying on this campus and Juliana struck us as a DJ that would fill that gap.”

Huxtable proved him right. “I am so so pleased with how the visit went. I saw both students and faculty and staff at the lecture, which was really important. The event in Olde Club was amazing and everything we hoped for.” Shout out to Richard Sager, “I hope students in the future apply for and utilize the amazing Sager Grant.