Artist Lola Flash Delves Far Beyond the Visual Surface

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Photographer Lola Flash burst onto the ’80s art scene with a dedicated purpose—to change the social landscape through her art. Her advocacy was a key voice for awareness groups ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and Art Positive—she even appeared in Gran Fury’s “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” campaign to promote HIV/AIDS education. In the decades since, the LGTBQ causes that spurred Flash’s beginnings have remained central to her work. Her photographs reveal the people behind the labels, and she shows them fully with compassion and honest reflection. “Conventional images of black and gay cultures are often false representations, where beauty rarely exists,” the artist tells CR. “All visuals need to represent the whole human beings in front of us.” With her emotionally-evocative, detail-driven photographs, that is exactly what the artist does.

Since childhood, photography has been Flash’s way of seeing and documenting the world around her, and to this day, she still takes pictures at every opportunity. Born in Montclair, New Jersey in 1962, she studied at Maryland Institute College of Art and later, London College of Printing. Through her art, Flash challenges stereotypes and reframes social conversations. She depicts lives from the margins for greater inclusivity—and her life’s work has focused on creating broader, more equal visibility.

Here, the photographer speaks with CR about what she hopes people discover within her images, how art can empower all communities, and why we need visions of equality now as much as ever.

Much of your work is centered on new ways of seeing. How has this concept become a framework for your art?
“For all of us, what we see is what we know. We see what we have been taught by our families, friends, and the media. The issue is that often we are looking but not seeing. We are bombarded with contrasting ideas of the way people look and what that means. For me personally, Grace Jones has been a big influence—how she wears her hair and her clothes. I also wear my hair short but with that, I usually wear a button down to look more formal. It’s a way of switching codes that people of color, queer folk, basically marginalized people, will change how they look, so that people don’t really ‘see’ them. What’s important is peering through that, and appreciating the purer version of what images show you. That’s why I concentrate on the communities that I do—to show us on a higher ground. When you look at my work, I want you to put aside what you have been trained to think and see the pure beauty in the images.”

Over 40 years, your art has explored themes across gender, race, and aging. Which series best symbolize your advocacy?
“My new work considering Afrofuturism seems very timely. I am a bit of a sociologist and I want to know what these ideas mean around the globe. For example, in mySALT’ series [focused on women over 70], I asked similarly-themed questions to all the models. In Trinidad, one woman I spoke with said that she had never experienced racism until moving to America. It is interesting how all the ‘isms’ play out vastly in society. Over the past few months, I have created a new body of work, a self-portrait project focusing on our current time. In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis is parallel to the AIDS crisis, and it triggers a lot of the feelings I had as an activist in the ‘80s. Often, my communities end up being disproportionately affected, so these moments remind me—and all of us who are critical of society—about the lack of equity throughout history and the continued need for change.”

Your work is known for confronting cultural taboos. How has your art helped increase understanding and acceptance for the LGTBQ community?
“My cross-color work from the ‘80s shifted the colors in photographs. I changed black people to white, white people to black, and warm skies to cool. Through this technique, I was digging deeper for references and definitions of color. I was able to get a lot of people to participate in my portrait projects because I explained that with the processing, no one would recognize them in the photos. At the time, I didn’t realize how that engaged people and enabled them to show their sexualities more openly. Only in hindsight did I realize that with those photos, I was morphing stereotypes by visualizing fairer ways to see the world.”

In recent years, your art has become widely recognized. How would you describe your journey as an artist?
“In 2018, I had a show at Pen + Brush gallery, and afterwards, there was a bit of a whirlwind about my work. The exhibition revived my cross-colors series again and it helped me see the connections across the years of my work, spanning different content, subjects, and styles of composition. It was a real eye opener because it was very different than working and having all of these ideas, basically in my head, but not knowing how my photographs affected others. In the beginning, my art was just about making my models feel good. I thought I would be one of those artists where people would find out about my work long after I was gone. Now I see myself more like a modern-day Harriet Tubman—I need to bring everyone forward with me. I care about helping communities that have been broken for so, so long. If my work can inspire someone or give them self-worth, that means ‘mission accomplished.’”

You have spoken about this time in your career as “finally gaining a seat at the table.” What does this moment of affirmation mean to you?
“It feels really good to have my work acknowledged. It has made me stand a little taller because I realize that people want to hear what I have to say. It has helped me figure out who I am, that I am fine just as I am, and that I don’t ever have to feel less than. The magic of being an artist is having the freedom to create. It gives me hope that I can give a platform to those folks who are not yet in a place to speak for themselves. I would hope to inspire other people like myself to carry the torch and tell their stories because we all have earned the right to share our own legacies.”

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