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Queer is Beautiful in Outwin Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery

Portraiture has long been a stand-in for political power — from the paintings of kings and nobles hundreds of years ago, to more recent snapshots taken in the struggle for civil rights. The National Portrait Gallery’s Outwin: American Portraiture Today exhibition, on display through January 2017, in part highlights the fight for LGBTQ+ rights and features five artists worth watching.

The exhibition was sourced from entrants to the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, founded in 2006. The Outwin Competition is open to any artist over the age of 18. While a panel of experts selects the pieces for exhibition, the open submission format results in an unusually diverse group of artists for a major museum exhibition.

Riva Lehrer’s portrait of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel was created on top of an image of Bechdel’s mother drawn by the cartoonist. Lehrer’s Bechdel may be haunted by the apparition of her mother, is crouched, perhaps about to spring up as if loosed from a cage.

Bechdel may not be a household name but she’s a celebrated subject, having won a MacArthur “Genius” Award following publication of her Pulitzer Prize nominated graphic novel (that has since been adapted into an award-winning Broadway show.)

Lehrer’s story is less well known. She was born with spina bifida and wrote, “Disability is the fuel of my work and the engine of my career.” In an interview with Allison Meier in 2013 she said, “Keeping biography with the body matters,” and a lot of the Outwin exhibit does exactly that.

Jess T. Dugan

Jess T. Dugan (Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery)

Photographer Jess T. Dugan’s image shows her standing with arms raised over her head, drawing the viewer’s eye to the hair on her armpits. Her eyes lock with the viewers and she is confident, vulnerable, and strong. Through a successful Kickstarter campaign Dugan recently published a book of photographs. In an interview about her work Dugan said, “I’m part of trans community; I’m not a lesbian and I’m not a gay man but I hang out in those spaces. I think I’m hyper aware of how my identity changes in different contexts.”

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All Come Together: The CooLots

Sometimes you hear about bands that can’t seem to stand each other, that create music through their own frustration and friction. The CooLots isn’t one of those bands. This five-person Washington, D.C-based band clings together on and off stage, and their personal mesh feeds the electricity of their performances. Some people speak with their hands; this group speaks with their whole bodies and, of course, through their music.

The group includes vocalists AwesomeRita, Crys, Dappho, and Huggie, Boomclakon on the drums, Dappho and AwesomeRita on bass, and Huggie additionally on electric. All of the musicians were born and/or raised in the D.C. metropolitan area, and they’re all also artists in more ways than just one. AwesomeRita, for example, works in the visual arts, and Dappho is a poet and radio host.

Almost ten years ago over a period of a few months these friends found each other through a series of coincidences and they’ve been creating their original sound – which they describe as “Rock & Soul” — ever since. Their music is a melting pot of influences including rock, soul, funk, and go-go. It’s raw, and passionate, and they use it as a tool to talk about social injustices, including in the lesbian and African-American communities.

Dappho, bass player and vocalist, said, “We all come together in our different styles of creating,… [and] that’s why I believe folks feel it the way they do because it’s five energies coming together and feelings coming out.”

The band first performed publicly in 2010 and they’re open about the evolution of their sound.

“I think it’s gotten a little more technical,” said vocalist Huggie.

The CooLots is a local band, but they don’t want to be pigeonholed to being just a D.C. band.

AwesomeRita, vocalist and bass player, said, “We love the sound that D.C. produces. We all feel like D.C. has its own original live music style. However, we don’t want to be confined. We’ve worked very, very hard to get away from being classified as a go-go band [just] because we are the birthplace of go-go.”

Dappho added, “We’re not a go-go-band, but we do pay homage, and it’s in us.”

In “Amerikka,” the politically-charged lyrics interrogate and accuse at the same time. “Capitalism is for real. America will make you wanna kill,” yowls the vocalist. In singles like “Chemical,” the lyrics are more romantic, contemplating a relationship not meant to be, with lyrics like, “We were just like moths to open flames … How could we let them win?” There is inevitability to the end of the relationship. In “Doors,” the moody lyrics and vocals echo wailing, making it one of the few songs that encourages you to just sit and listen, rather than get up and dance.

Co-lyricist and vocalist Crys said, “I’m just very inspired by my own life experience. When I write, I try not to just box myself in. I try to also write things that could be perceived or be applicable to other things. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a romantic relationship. It could be a work relationship. It could be a friendship.”

The CooLots have performed all along the East Coast, from Baltimore to Pittsburgh to New York, and here in Washington, D.C., you may have seen them at the Rock and Roll Hotel, the Howard Theater, or any number of other venues along the U Street corridor.

That band will be helping to kick off Capital Pride week Sunday, June 5 with a performance at Hank’s Oyster Bar in Dupont from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.

“We love the opportunity to play in our community,” said Crys, who added, “I love how all people are represented during Capital Pride. It’s not exclusive to one particular identity or one particular race.”

Expect The CooLots’ next album to release between the late summer and early fall, produced by local House Studio. As of yet, there is no title to the album, but around nine to twelve new songs are expected to appear.

“It will definitely be one to add to your collection,” said Crys.

For more information on the band’s show this Sunday check out the listing here.