Haunting chants travel down a corridor in Georgetown, stopping passersby dead in their tracks. Following the trail of voices over speakers chanting, “Do you know the weight of a rainbow,” one’s eyes wander to the 1,200-square-foot twinkling rainbow suspended above the street. It’s hard not to stare up when walking under, but be ready to dodge the families and couples posing for photos underneath the striking art.
Argentinian-American queer artist Stephanie Mercedes’ intention for “The Weight of a Rainbow” — the latest installation to Georgetown BID’s GLOW series — is to celebrate Pride while honoring the LGBTQ+ experience. The jubilant 928 LED-lit lanterns illuminating the rainbow juxtapose the eight vocalists’ somber tone to capture both the joy and painful past of the LGBTQ+ community. We spoke with Mercedes, a former artist fellow at Halcyon, about her new installation and its symbolism.
District Fray: Your work usually revolves around transforming weapons such as bullets and guns into peaceful objects. How does this piece fit into your overall body of work?
Stephanie Mercedes: I’m very interested in creating work that transcends missing violent histories and creates space for mourning, which is essential to my practice as an artist. For this artwork, I wanted to create a large-scale work — a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community, [and] something that reflected [that] a rainbow is a symbol for queer joy and love, and all of the bright and shiny parts of the LGBTQ+ community essential and make us who we are. But part of Pride and the symbolism of a rainbow has to be remembering mourning is important. I think our culture always wants to appropriate these parts of LGBTQ+ culture, but also gloss over the pain that lies underneath and the sacrifices necessary to attain even modest levels of acceptance. The rainbow is this hand wash to our queer ancestors and those who have given their lives for our acceptance. I think that it’s just a kind of paradox. There is so much violence the LGBTQ+ community has had to endure and still endures. I really wanted to create an artwork that in some ways reclaims all of the aspects of a rainbow for the queer community.
The Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 is an instrumental part of your past body of work. Did it influence this piece in any way, and were there any other inspirations from other LGBTQ+ events for this installation?
One of the singers, whose name is Bentrice Jusu, was actually a survivor of the [Pulse] shooting. She’s the singer at the very end of the installation and there’s also one moment in the composition where she has a solo, which echoes throughout the installation. She just has a beautiful, joyous voice that was transformational. I knew when I made this work it would be so meaningful to include her beautiful voice. Her experience is what this work is about. It’s what being part of this community is about. I could think of no one better to sing in this work.
How do you think your LGBTQ+ identity shapes your voice in the local art community as a whole?
I think being queer is just part of my personal experience, so it just comes out in my artwork. The way it affects my relationship to the art community in D.C. is that I tend to gravitate toward collaborating with queer artists or artists who identify as LGBTQ+. It’s a natural extension of my lived experiences and queer friendship, which is essential to cooperation in art making. For instance, we’re going to be choreographing a kiss-in underneath the rainbow, which is a form of protest still used both across the world and in D.C. as a way to protest a lot of homophobic legislation. I’m going to be inviting some of my friends who are also queer and dancers to be dancing in and out of the couple’s video shot.
What are you looking forward to most during D.C. Pride celebrations?
Pride is beautiful and in many ways a reflection of this installation. It’s a space for the queer and LGBTQ+ community where you can feel joy and celebration, but also feel sadness [and] reflect on the suffering the community has had to endure. Last year was really difficult because even though everything was online, it felt like Pride was canceled. It feels like this moment [is] just for our community and us. I’m just excited to be in a space where I can be with my friends and my community, and feel all the feelings that are part of Pride.
Catch “The Weight of the Rainbow” installation in Georgetown now through the foreseeable future. Vocalists featured in the installation include Mercedes, Jusu, Chris Polio, Crys Matthews, Charlotte Richardson-Deppe, Robert “Robbie” Duncan, MaryGrace Ruebens and Imogen-Blue Hinojosa. Lighting design by ASC Lighting Design. Follow Mercedes’ work here and on Instagram @mercedes_theartist.
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