Radical Acts

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Catherine Opie. Dyke. 1993 287

Chromogenic print, 40 × 30" (101.6 × 76.2 cm). Committee on Photography Fund and gift of Agnes Gund. © 2024 Catherine Opie, courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

Ava Messina: Hi, my name is Ava Messina. I'm 18 and I'm an artist and I’m here with --

Kerry Downey: Kerry Downey, and I’m also an artist. And I was once a dyke.

Ava Messina: And I am a dyke.

Kerry Downey: So let’s talk about this piece that we’re looking at Catherine Opie's 1993 photograph, Dyke. It's, it's like a bust. It's a head and shoulders and it's got this luscious background, this blue, this pattern and it draws me in immediately. I'm looking at the textures the skin, the stubble, the earrings. And then the place where I would focus in on the face, instead I'm just given the back of the head and then I'm left with my focus being on the word “Dyke.”

For you Ava, I'm just curious, how do you relate to it?

Ava Messina: When people would call me dyke when I was like 14, I was so embarrassed, and I was like, this is not me. And I just hated the way it made me feel, because I wasn't comfortable with myself yet and it fucking hurts, you know, to hear that one before you're ready to use that word to associate with yourself.

But now, I'm so at peace with who I am, it's just another part of me. Now, dyke, to me is such a word of, like, empowerment.

Kerry Downey: So what do you think about this act of taking that word, and like, directly putting it on the body through a tattoo?

Ava Messina: If I saw someone like this walking away from me with this tattoo on the back of their neck. I would be like, damn like she's badass.

Kerry Downey: Right, I know something that has been important for Catherine Opie is this question of who gets to represent what, and so, in the 90s, it was really important for her to kind of take back this word, but also take back the representations of like the leather community in San Francisco, and wanting to portray her friend - this woman's name is actually Steakhouse. Pretty cool name.

Ava Messina: Yeah.

Kerry Downey: I love knowing that Opie's friends with Steakhouse, and that they're in this community that plays with the body, with pleasure, with pain, with the materiality of the body. And I think something inside this photograph too is about this tension between what's visible what's invisible. And when we look at each other's bodies and skins and tattoos and genders and sexualities, we may get a word that tries to sum that up, like dyke or queer, but also these words very much fall short of who we really are in the complexities of us as people. So I feel like this photograph, too, is like telling us “like you can't know me, you don't know shit.”