When Shikeith Cathey was growing up in North Philadelphia as a shy, artistic, queer black boy, he knew he wasn’t like the other kids. Other kids confronted him for being different, and he felt alone and helpless in the world. He initially kept to himself and didn’t attempt to fit in, but realized that he could use his imagination to help heal his pain.
Cathey took up photography and pursued a career in fashion, but found his life’s work snap into focus after July 13, 2013, when George Zimmerman was declared not guilty on all counts in relation to the murder of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. “I knew I had to do something different,” Cathey says. “I had to approach photography and art in a different way to make political change.”
Seven years later, Cathey is a multidisciplinary artist exploring the psychological landscape of black manhood, questioning societal and historical influences on the way black men view themselves and each other. While Cathey was initially skeptical of making art so personal, he soon realized he wasn’t alone. Nearly half of black and African American LGBTQ youth reported feeling critical of their identities, with 47% saying they’ve been mocked by family for their sexuality, and 80% claiming they “usually” feel depressed or down. “Because the black queer community has suffered from erasure,” Cathey says, “I’m thinking about art as a remedy.”
In a world where just 1.2% of all artwork in major U.S. museums is made by black artists, Cathey’s aware his voice is one of a few representing the voices of many. To pay homage to the black queer people that paved the way for him, Cathey is creating an underground chapel with his next exhibition, “Feeling the Spirit in the Dark,” showing at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh later this spring. It’s meant to represent the underground spaces black and queer people have historically had to carve out for themselves.
Cathey is also committed to supporting institutions built within the black queer community, like True T Pittsburgh, which works to dismantle negative portrayals of queer people of color through events held in the city, while raising money for local queer communities of color. According to Cathey, True T’s headquarters is one of the few, if not only, spaces in the city—outside of the thriving underground ballroom scene—where queer people of color can meet and connect. “It’s super vital for us to not only just be within other institutions,” he says, “but to have our own.”
Within these communities, Cathey hopes to spread the message through his work that, essentially, there is no right or wrong way to be in this world. “We are a generation that spills,” he says. “A spill can’t be contained, it goes and does what it wants, it creates its own form, and I think that’s what this generation is. It’s a new way of being.”