documenting 30 years of lesbian t-shirts

Tomorrow night, at Wolfgang Tillmans's Berlin exhibition space, @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y's Kelly Rakowski presents photographs of all the t-shirts she found at the Lesbian Herstory Archive.

by Emily Manning
11 November 2016, 10:40pm

If you've spent any time on Instagram ever, you've likely encountered at least one woman, infant, or dog wearing a "Future is Female" t-shirt. These ubiquitous slogan shirts are recreations of a t-shirt from 1972, made for Labyris Books, the first women's bookstore in New York City. Independent retail space, studio, and community center Otherwild reissued the tee after seeing a photograph of it, taken in 1975 by Liza Cowan of her then-girlfriend, musician Alix Dobkin, wearing it. Otherwild discovered this photograph on @h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y, an archive of lesbian history and culture that's not only developed a cult following but also created a community around celebrating, engaging with, and remembering our past.

Kelly Rakowski's (@h_e_r_s_t_o_r_y's founder and curator) keen eye for excellent t-shirts doesn't end with the wildly popular collaboration. Tomorrow night, Rakowski will present a photography installation that documents 88 lesbian and feminist t-shirts at Between Bridges, Wolfgang Tillmans's non-profit art space in Berlin. Some of the shirts are funny, some of them are punk, all of them are crucial.

"The Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn has an incredible collection of lesbian and feminist t-shirts from the 70s, 80s, and 90s," Rakowski told us via email. "Each shirt has been photocopied and cataloged in binders at the archives. I've gone to the archives and have taken photos of the photocopies and shared them on HERSTORY."

Rakowski's posts caught the attention of Brooklyn-based artist Becca Albee, who invited her to curate a selection from the archive's collection to be displayed at Between Bridges. The photography installation is being presented for one night only, debuted in tandem with a screening of Lizzie Borden's 1983 film Born in Flames in an event organized by filmmaker Michael Amstad and artist Marte Eknæs. The documentary-style science-fiction film depicts a future New York City governed by a socialist democracy. Its policies, however, "prove to be as inflexible and bigoted as those in capitalist times," the exhibition's release reads; women from all backgrounds continue to endure sexism, harassment, classism, and racism. So they come together and form a truly radical revolution.

Albee will give an introduction to the Born in Flames screening that promises to touch on her personal encounters with the film in the 1990s, when Albee was actively involved in the seminal Pacific Northwest punk community. Living in Olympia, Washington, she co-founded the band Excuse 17 with Carrie Brownstein and CJ Phillips. "Born in Flames was a source of influence in the context of feminist discourse, collaboration, non-traditional education, riot grrrl emergence, and activism," the event's release reads.

In the days leading up to and following the election, Tillmans has continued to use his Instagram to share information, encourage dialogue, and, like many of us Stateside, to mourn. But it seems the German photographer is feeling energized about tomorrow; earlier today, he shared one of Rakowski's images (of a shirt that says "women do it better"). And, as everyone who followed his tireless campaign to promote European unity in the run up to the Brexit referendum knows, Tillmans is no stranger to the political power of t-shirts. "They are really incredible works of art, and so inspiring," says Rakowski.

'Born in Flames' and The Lesbian Herstory Archive t-shirt exhibition open November 12, 2016 at Between Bridges in Berlin. More information here


Text Emily Manning

T shirts
wolfgang tillmans
born in flames
Between Bridges
becca albee
kelly rakowski
lesbian herstory archive
marte eknæs
michael amstad