Home Features LGBT History Month Icons: Cheryl Dunye & Robert Indiana

LGBT History Month Icons: Cheryl Dunye & Robert Indiana

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Cheryl Dunye, FILMMAKER 

May 13, 1966

“… There are other people with stories to tell.”

Cheryl Dunye is a Liberian-born American lesbian filmmaker, actress and educator. Her films highlight social and cultural issues surrounding African-Americans and the LGBT community, most notably, black lesbians. 

Dunye grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Temple University and her Master of Fine Arts from Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts. In 1992 Art Matters Inc. awarded her a fellowship. The following year, her work appeared in the Biennial Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. 

Dunye has made more than 15 films whose themes explore the intersection of race, sexuality and personal identity. Emerging as part of the Queer New Cinema movement of the 1990s, she began her career producing short film narratives. A compilation of her work from 1990 to 1994, “Early Works of Cheryl Dunye,” is available on DVD. 

In 1996 Dunye wrote, directed, edited and starred in the romantic comedy-drama “The Watermelon Woman,” her first feature film and the first full-length narrative made by and about a black lesbian. It won the Teddy Award for Best Feature Film at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Audience Award for Outstanding Narrative Feature at L.A. Outfest. Her next project, “Stranger Inside” (2001), an HBO drama about black lesbian prison inmates, earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best director. 

Dunye’s other films include “My Baby’s Daddy (2004),” a comedy that grossed $18.5 million against a $12 million budget; “The Owls” (2010); “Mommy is Coming” (2012); and “Black is Blue” (2014), a sci-fi film set in a futuristic Oakland, California, that explores black queer transgender love. 

Dunye cites American film directors Woody Allen and Spike Lee as her artistic influences and Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (1978) as a significant source of inspiration. Her distinctive style often breaks the fourth wall: characters directly address the camera, blurring the line between the actors and the audience. Industry insiders have labeled her creative mix of fact and fiction “Dunyementary.” 

In addition to filmmaking, Dunye is a professor at San Francisco State University School of Cinema. She has taught at universities from coast to coast, including UCLA and Temple University. She is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 

Among other honors, Dunye received the Community Vision Award from the National Center for Lesbian Rights in 2004 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2016. 

She lives in Oakland, California, with her two children.

Robert Indiana

Robert Indiana, “LOVE” SCULPTOR

September 13, 1928 – May 19, 2018

“I am an American painter of signs charting the course.”

A pioneering American artist, Robert Indiana was instrumental in the evolution of Assemblage and Pop Art. He is best known for his ubiquitous 1965 work “LOVE,” which features the word rendered in colorful stacked letters with the “O” tilted. 

Born Robert Clark, he was raised in Indiana during the Great Depression. His adoptive father worked for the Phillips 66 energy company, and as a child, Indiana often looked up at company’s boldly lettered sky-high logo. It made an indelible impact on his creative sensibility. 

Indiana spent time in the Air Force before studying at the Art Institute of Chicago. In 1954 he moved to New York to begin his artistic career. “I was told … if I should persist in this ambition I’d be eating bean soup and living in a garret,” he recalled. “And that’s exactly what happened.” 

Indiana’s fortunes turned when he met his lover, Ellsworth Kelly, a fellow artist living in the waterfront neighborhood of Coenties Slip, a lower Manhattan haven for contemporary painters and sculptors. Kelly helped Indiana find housing there and introduced him to other trailblazing gay artists: Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Agnes Martin. Together, they laid the groundwork for the Pop and Minimalist Art of the 1960s. During this time, Indiana adopted his new surname as an homage to his roots and the distinctively American subject matter he chose to explore. 

Inspired by the maritime trade at Coenties Slip, Indiana repurposed planks and used stencils of short, bold words to make enigmatic “sign” assemblages. The darker aspects of the American ethos became a central theme in his work, including “The American Dream #1,” an oil painting featuring words such as “tilt” and “take all.” 

In 1965 the Museum of Modern Art commissioned Indiana to create a Christmas card. The result marked a watershed in his career. Inspired by the inscription “God is Love” from the churches of his youth, his late father and the colors of the Phillips 66 sign, he produced “LOVE.” He reimagined the work in painting and sculpture, and in the 1970s it appeared on a U.S. postage stamp. “LOVE” has been translated into multiple languages. Today, more than 50 versions are displayed in public locations worldwide, including Philadelphia’s famous LOVE Park. 

Indiana eventually complained that the widespread popularity and appropriation of his work caused the art world to shun him. He retreated to a remote island in Maine in 1978, where he continued his art until he died at age 89.

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