By Janel Rizzo
South Florida Uncovered
Two Miami-based arts organizations recently united to present “Club Jewel Box: A Night of Queer Cinema and Performance,” a one-night art installation celebrating Miami’s queer culture.
The event, held on April 13 inside The Jewel Box on the National YoungArts Foundation campus near Wynwood, celebrated art that pushed the boundaries of homosexuality and eroticism with six avant-garde films and accompanying performances.
Flaming Classics, a local queer arts organization, and local literature and arts nonprofit O, Miami co-hosted the festivities.
Lisa Palley, public relations coordinator for O, Miami, said the event was a night of reclamation of queer spaces that have disappeared in Miami.
“The past and the present [are] all connected,” she said. “This is a way of it all coming together.”
All six films shown shared a common theme of male homosexual exploration and eroticism.
Attendees sat in the courtyard to watch Andy Warhol’s “Blowjob” projected onto the wall of an adjacent building. On either side of the building were showings of James Bidgood’s “Pink Narcissus,” which visualizes a gay male prostitute’s erotic fantasies. Another film, Kenneth Anger’s “Fireworks,” explores homosexual bondage, discipline, dominance and submission (BDSM). At the end of each showing, a poet or a performer showed their act.
Barbara Rubin’s “Christmas on Earth,” Isaac Julien’s “Looking for Langston” and Cleo Übelmann’s “Mano Destra” were also screened.
One poet, Freesia McKee, read four poems about her experiences as a queer woman, politics and social justice. She recently moved to Miami from Milwaukee and said that as the city’s influence on her set in, her poems grew increasingly longer. As her life became more fast-paced, she said she began to appreciate slowness.
“I hope my poetry creates a space for quietness, reflection—for slowing down,” she said. “I think all art is that way, taking time to notice and to see the world.”
McKee said Miami’s queer culture is spread throughout the city and, as she and her partner attend more events, they often see familiar faces.
“Recognizing people in the city makes it feel small, like we have a community,” she said.
Evelyn Diaz, an attendee, said the event had the feel of a community gathering where everyone felt comfortable being themselves.
“It feels like a safe space for the queer community but also welcoming to those who don’t identify as queer,” she said.
Several artists performed inside the building between showings. In one display, a man tied a woman to a post by her limbs and hair. During another, a man covered in powder and red lipstick writhed inside a hollowed mattress with holes cut out for his face and left hand while lip syncing to Brenda Lee’s “I Want to Be Wanted.”
Diaz said she thought the films and performances were bold, thought provoking, creative and challenged what is considered normal.
“We are constantly being fed heteronormativity and don’t cringe when we see it being performed sexually or romantically,” she said, adding that she believes queer art helps normalize homosexuality and remove its stigma.
The Jewel Box, located on the National YoungArts Foundation campus, was named after one of Miami’s earliest queer clubs, Club Jewel Box. The club was owned by Danny Brown and Doc Benner, the first homosexual couple to own a queer club in Miami. They operated the club from 1945 to 1950 before relocating the business to Tampa.
The club’s headlining show, which featured female impersonators, drew audiences of both heterosexual and homosexual attendees. It grew so popular that, after the club closed in Miami, the couple took their performers on a tour around the nation known as The Jewel Box Revue.
At a time when the queer community was repressed, they created a space for queer expression.
Flaming Classics Project Director Trae DeLellis said the event was a way to recreate parts of Miami’s queer history and reinterpret it for future generations.
“[It] was exhilarating for us and we hope it transferred to the audience,” wrote DeLellis, a PhD student at the University of Miami and creative director at the Bill Cosford Cinema. “With every screening, we hope that the audience experiences something unique and new, but more importantly that it propels them to look for more, whether it be queer film, culture or performers.”
Learn more about Club Jewel Box HERE.
For more information on Flaming Classics, click HERE.
To find out more about O, Miami, click HERE.