Performance artist Silky Shoemaker opens the doors to queer culture's lost past with her gay wax museum
"I have a crew of awesome dyke carpenters coming into town from around the country," says Silky Shoemaker with a wry smile; reveling in the delicious truth of a stereotype at once confirmed and subverted, "and I have full faith in their abilities."
Those hammer-wielding lesbians will be literally raising the walls on an ambitious artistic project 10-plus years in the making: the world's first gay wax museum, a multi-artist installation curated by Shoemaker. I recall her telling me with earnest excitement about her idea for creating a gay wax museum nearly a decade ago. I'm not alone in remembering this; in 2007, New Mexico-based painter and curator Harmony Hammond wrote of Shoemaker's "campy, excessive sensibility," and excitedly lauded her "scheme of creating the world's first gay wax museum."
"The funny thing is," says Shoemaker, "the project hasn't really evolved or changed much in 10 years; it's only now that I have the opportunity to realize it." Equal parts pedagogy and party, Shoemaker's installation will debut opening night of upstart film and arts festival, OUTsider. She describes it as consisting of human-scaled dioramas, each inhabiting a 5'x5' footprint, depicting lost and overlooked moments of queer history (see "On Display"). Yet there's a catch: The figures in Shoemaker's museum aren't necessarily made of wax. "Each artist has chosen the materials they want to work with," says Shoemaker, "but wax is important conceptually; just the other day I was talking to Kay Turner [Girls in the Nose co-founder and Brooklyn folklorist], and she was talking about wax as a distinctly queer medium. It's trans and fluid; it has ritualistic and sacred uses. I like that." Wax's pliability, its ability to be molded, melted, and remade informs the politics behind Shoemaker's project as well as her storied history in Austin's queer communities.
Shoemaker's meaningful, if sometimes quiet, hand is evident in many of the permutations of Austin's queer public culture since 2005; she was a co-founder of Camp Camp as well as GayBiGayGay and QueerBomb! Organizing fellow queer artists under the ethos of D.I.Together (instead of DIY) has been a central artistic tenet for Shoemaker and is crucial to the success of her upcoming installation. In the months leading up to OUTsider, Shoemaker made contact with artists who have tackled queer history in their work and also put out an open call to artists via a dedicated project website. Shoemaker plans to compensate artists for their contributions with a minimum of $500. "If there's anything that I feel is missing, it's that there aren't many artists of color represented," says Shoemaker. "That's a real failing. But I hope that will change as the project continues to grow."
Curran Nault, OUTsider artistic director, says Shoemaker's wax museum "was the very first thing I decided to program. As such, it represents the beating heart of OUTsider." Indeed, the project will be the sustained note in OUTsider's jaunty program of local and national queer acts. Installed in the lobby of Salvage Vanguard Theater, where many of OUTsider's events will take place, "Silky's gay wax museum," Nault says, "is such a brilliant concept that conjures all sorts of fantastical queer possibilities and forgotten queer histories."
A consistent concern in Shoemaker's practice has been to draw attention to the necessity of memorializing overlooked moments and figures from queer history. During GayBiGayGay in 2013, Shoemaker worked alongside screenprinter Sym Coronado (aka Sym Prole, Merci Killingspree) so that folks could silkscreen queer figures such as Divine, Cookie Mueller, Queen Latifah, and E.T. in drag (yes, that E.T.) onto a variety of GayBiGayGay swag. Similarly, in preparation for an early iteration of QueerBomb!, Shoemaker constructed a number of cardboard cut-outs of oft-forgotten queer figures such as Sylvia Rivera, Stonewall rioter and founder of the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries.
"Gay ghosts" such as Rivera or Haitian-born poet Assotto Saint show up in many of Shoemaker's projects and will make appearances in the gay wax museum. "Personally these are the people and the moments that interest and inspire me as a human," says Shoemaker. "So many of these people and events were purposefully excluded from history, because they don't fit into the narrative dominant storytellers wish to tell. Because they are queerly gendered, dirty, sexy, and ugly."
In the days leading up to the gay wax museum's debut, it's not difficult to imagine what to expect from Shoemaker's new venture. A festive focus on non-canonical moments of gay history, all housed within a makeshift structure – the visible product of the combined brain and muscle power of dozens of queer people. Considering the installation, Shoemaker says, "it makes me realize there's so much I don't know. So many stories. Once you start scratching the surface, there's always more."
Shoemaker hopes this is the first of many iterations of the gay wax museum. Each, no doubt, will bring out an entourage of queers to help raise the walls.
The Gay Wax Museum will be on view Feb. 18-22 at Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd. Hours are: Wed., Feb. 18, 8:15-10pm (grand unveiling and party); Thu., Feb. 19, 1:30-3:30pm, 9-11pm; Fri., Feb. 20, 1-4:30pm; Sat., Feb. 21, 11am-1:30pm, 3:30-5:30pm, 7-8:30pm; and Sun., Feb. 22, 6:30-8:30pm
The Gay Wax Museum grand unveiling and party on Wed., Feb. 18, will be free to OUTsider badge holders and, space permitting, those who purchase $10 tickets at the door. All other times, the Gay Wax Museum will be free to badge holders, with all others allowed entry for a suggested donation of $5-$10 (no one refused entry due to lack of funds).