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‘The Party’ is as much a celebration as it is a memorial

It’s hard to tell exactly what feeling permeates the ground floor of UNSW Galleries on this rainy Thursday. On Sydney World Pride’s website, The Party’s stated purpose is to “celebrate LGBTQIA+ nightlife and party culture in Sydney from 1973 to 2002.” Still, each person who shakes off their umbrella and enters the gallery space carries in a kind of somberness with them. Young or old, everyone knows that queer culture is not the same as it was. 

Right at the entrance of the Galleries there are three posters attributed to Bob Hay, advertising various events for UNSW GaySoc. Showing my age, I immediately googled UNSW GaySoc to find out what became of it, only to find the page for UNSW Queer Collective and various other screenprints by Bob Hay. Nearby, a black and white photograph taken from a high vantage point shows two femmes tenuously embracing one another. It’s easy to see flashes of my own indeterminate sapphic relationships in this image, particularly in the front-facing subject’s hand gliding just below their companion’s breast.  

The Party is forthcoming about the debauchery Sydney’s queer scene had to offer pre-millenium. Two black-and-white photo collages document, in no uncertain terms, the cocaine use present at the time: up-close shots of the telltale thumb press on the nostril. In the other, William Yang does away with the implications, showing us a dozen and a half shots of young mascs preparing and consuming the drug. These assemblages are amusingly titled “The Rush Hour” and “The Powder Room”, respectively. 

The Party makes no attempt to dissolve the historical link between Sydney’s queer scene and kink, with photos depicting urination and needleplay tucked deep within the galley space. One photo of a masc with blood smeared on their face makes me wince. The exhibition, much like my ancestors, pulls no punches.

Some of my personal favourite pieces from this exhibition are the cartoons drawn by Jeff Allan and Melissa Bradley for the Sydney Star Observer. These strips were drawn with a memey quality to them, touching on common points such as the expectation to dress scantily at queer events. Another focuses on signs it’s time to go home from Sleaze Ball, like when you’ve spent more time at the ‘meeting spot’ than dancing. This is a problem that persists in the modern age, despite the fact everyone carries communication devices on them at all times. 

On the surface, The Party mostly addresses queer joy and celebration, albeit for a few light-hearted protest signs and calls for safe sex. However, given the historical context of AIDS from 1983 onwards, the photos on display capture an air of ‘dancing at the end of the world.’ The wide scale demise and the generational loss are bubbling underneath the floorboards. A fluorescent-laden print quotes Emma Goldman; “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of our revolution.” During the day, these purveyors of a good time suited up and worked from the grassroots to spur the Australian government to action. 

This exhibition captures something that was not for sale, something unfriendly to the big four banks and proudly hedonistic in the face of soul-crushing discrimination. The Party, at least for now, is over. I imagine the lights coming on, the subjects of the photos pulling jumpers over their nipple pasties and traversing down Oxford St with their heads down. In the thinning rain I walk the same route, counting every stripe in every rainbow flag I see.