‘Being queer is amazing’: LGBTQ+ artists take the stage at this year’s Art Basel Miami

This year’s Art Basel Miami brings queer openness and potential to Florida, despite the best efforts of those who govern the state to do the exact opposite. In 2022, Florida became an epicenter of anti-LGBTQ+ hate legislation, with Governor Ron DeSantis and his Republican allies infamously passing a “Don’t Say Gay” law, virtually erasing LGBTQ+ identities throughout the state’s K-12 educational system. DeSantis also recently made it illegal to give transgender youth lifesaving gender-affirming medical care, and blocked trans people of any age from accessing such medical care via state health insurance.

Against this climate of state-sponsored hatred toward LGBTQ+ individuals, Art Basel Miami flaunts a vibrant, diverse group of queer artists. Envisioning alternatives to dominant ideas about religion, relationships, capitalism and gender, these artists embrace their personal stories and their queerness to fuel innovation.

Argentinian Carlos Herrera is a great example: reclaiming the religious and pastoral traditions central to his upbringing in the Santa Fe province of Argentina, Herrera uses Catholic iconography to explore the link between religion and queer sexuality. His booth at Art Basel Miami includes a minimalist bed that doubles as a representation of the stigmata of St Francis de Assisi. Another startling piece covers a wall of his booth in gigantic spider figurines hauling up lengths of bone and skull.

Installation view of Carlos Herrera’s work at Art Basel Miami. Photograph: Art Basel Miami

“In the gay community there are many, many religious people,” said Herrera, as interpreted by his gallerist Mora Bacal. “Religion and art are like a dual relationship that has allowed me to explore my own identity. Questions of sex, religion and death run through all of my process and my work.”

Similarly, Mexican artist Frieda Toranzo Jaeger works with what she calls “semiological vandalism” – by which she “vandalizes” dominant images and thus injects new, subversive meaning into them. Car engines have lately predominated her work, as she sees them as representative of the massive systems that govern the world. At Art Basel Miami, Toranzo Jaeger is exhibiting an image of a car engine deconstructed into the form of a flower, shot through with braided thread. By turning a car engine into a flower adorned with braids, she injects her queerness and womanhood into a traditionally patriarchal structure.

Frieda Toranzo Jaeger, La intersección entre la sangre y la máquina, 2022. Photograph: Courtesy the artist and Arcadia Missa

“I wanted to see what would happen to the meaning of these symbols if I as a queer woman stepped in and owned them,” she said. “What would happen if I gave myself the agency to do so. Being queer is amazing, and I don’t want an identity that’s just reduced to consumption. I love what José Esteban Muñoz says in Cruising Utopia, that queerness is something that we will never be, we will always be becoming queer.”

Queer performance artist rafa esparza takes on cars and cruising in a very different way: straddling intersectional aspects of his identity, he brings out the resonances between different kinds of cruising – gay cruising and low-rider cars – by turning himself into a low-rider vehicle and inviting select members of his community to jump on for a ride. “Gay cruising happens in a park,” he said. “It’s these very intimate sex acts that happen despite there always being the possibility of being seen. When you’re cruising in a car, you’re inside of a car in this very intimate space, yet you’re hopping around in hydraulics creating a spectacle, so you’re hypervisible.”

In addition to being a very playful way to draw out new ways of seeing familiar concepts, esparza also sees his performance as intentionally subverting dominant ideas that tend to shut out queer, non-white identities.

“My relationship to the culture has informed what this project looks like,” he said. “I’m thinking about time and technology, but grounding it in a conversation that wants to be less about dominant white hetero culture, and more about my own culture.”

Installation view of Oren Pinhassi’s work at Art Basel Miami. Photograph: Courtesy of Edel Assanti and photo by Mikhail Mishin

Respecting the unique forms of queer culture is also important to Oren Pinhassi, who works with queer spaces. As recently seen with the mass shooting of patrons at Club Q in Colorado Springs, safe spaces are integral to queer communities, and Pinhassi uses their value and potential as a central metaphor in his art. He sees queer spaces as areas where things don’t sit exactly right, where individuals can become porous and vulnerable in ways that aren’t possible in heteronormative spaces. In this space of becoming, Pinhassi makes art.

“Queerness has to do with staying in the uncomfortable or ambiguous spaces,” he said. “It’s almost like a sacred state of being that could provide new structures, if we’re able to stay in these uncomfortable, ambiguous spaces. I’m interested in providing structures that are slower, kinder and more vulnerable.”

Reflecting that search for a more open space, Pinhassi has brought to Art Basel Miami sculptures made out of sand, a material, he notes, that is adaptable, “being this and that, versus this or that”. Pinhassi values the sense of precarity that sand injects into his work, and he also appreciates how the material brings in a note of mourning – a central theme of his art – as it reminds us of our ultimate fate to return to the Earth.

Installation view of Leslie Martinez’s work at Art Basel Miami. Photograph: Art Basel Miami

Trans artist Leslie Martinez has also explored ambiguous spaces – living in Texas and managing the border between the US and Mexico as both a trans person and a Latinx individual. Pondering questions inherent to borders, their paintings at Art Basel Miami search out a space between fragmentation and wholeness, what they describe as invoking “notions of continental drift, Pangea, cosmic formations and explosions”. Intentionally open-ended, the colors and textures in Martinez’s work are vibrant and entrancing, drawing in viewers and inviting them to use their senses in unfamiliar ways: “I want people to be able to touch with their eyes and see with their fingertips,” Martinez said.

While they have been excited to share their work at the art fair, the queer artists at Art Basel Miami were very aware of the contradiction of celebrating queerness in a state that has literally made mentioning the existence of queer people a crime. Referencing the “Don’t Say Gay” law, esparza struck a personal note: “I knew that I was gay when I was in the first grade. Shit, if people were more encouraged to talk about that and have those conversations in safe places like school, I think I would have had a very different upbringing.”

Martinez channeled the chords of resilience and determination common to this group of artists, saying: “To be here in Florida at a time that is so fraught and so violent to us, there’s nothing more important than to be here with it. What DeSantis is doing is this constant pushing out and erasing, so to come in is an act that is based in connection and love. All we want is to be alive and for our humanity to be recognized and not be erased.”

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Veronica Esposito