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Conversations by Josef Cabey


Primarily a drawing project this is an ongoing body of work that imagines conversations between Black Queer historical figures and their present-day counterparts. This is a situation where you might see 1960’s civil rights activist Bayard Rusting (1912-1987) engaging in conversation with Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson (1985-present), gender non-conforming performers Sylvester (1947-1988) and Big Freedia (1978-present) doing duet, or even comedians Jackie ‘Mom’ Mabley (1894-1975) and Gina Yashere (1974-present)) throwing down at Harlem’s Apollo theatre, something that could never have happened. Exception to this is the drawing of the writers Audre Lorde (1934-1992) and Jackie Kay (1961-present) as the two women did meet each other. Also included are portraits of singular figures.

Artist Statement

My personal practice is primarily but not exclusively painting based and has always been concerned with human relationships framed by my own identity as a Black Queer man living in the UK. I am inspired by those who came before me and often pay artistic tribute to historical figures, from activists to performers, or even my own mother. People who carved out a space and achieved something in the face of adversity.


Born in London, Josef relocated to Brighton in 2003. He was educated at Newham College (Dip, Art & Design), Central St Martins (BA Hons, Graphic Design), and University of Brighton (MA information studies) where he is also a part time librarian in the schools of Arts, Media & Humanities. Josef has also practiced as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer. You can find more of his work on his Instagram (@zefsco) or website:

Biographical details: Conversation drawings

Audre Lorde (1934 –1992) Self-described "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet" was an American writer, feminist, womanist, librarian, and civil rights activist. Lorde was a native New Yorker. Her activism and her published work speak to the importance of struggle for liberation among oppressed peoples and of organizing in coalition across intersectional differences. Audre Lorde was the recipient of many honours and awards, including New York State poet for 1991-93. Her works include the international recognized Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Sister Outsider and The Cancer Journals.

Jackie Kay CBE FRSE FRSL (1961-present) is an award-winning writer of fiction, poetry and plays. Kay was born in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and Nigerian father, she was adopted as a baby by a white couple. Kay’s awareness of her different heritages inspired her first book of poetry, The Adoption Papers. She has many accolades and awards including Guardian Fiction Prize, Scottish Book of the Year Awards. From 2016 to 2021 Kay was the Makar (poet laureate of Scotland) and was appointed as chancellor of the University of Salford in 2015. Some of her other best known works include: Trumpet, a biography of Bessie Smith, Why don't you stop talking, Red dust road and Fiere.

Alvin Ailey Jr (1931-1989) was an American dancer, director, choreographer, and activist who founded the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre. He created AAADT and its affiliated Ailey School as havens for developing Black artists and expressing the universality of the African-American experience through dance. His work mixed, theatre, modern dance, ballet, and jazz, creating choreography that continues through its performance to spread global awareness of Black life in America today. His most recognised piece is the epic Revelations, a much performed piece. In 2008 December 4th was declared as ‘Alvin Ailey Day’ in New York City. He has also been inducted on the ‘Rainbow Honor Walk’, a walk of fame in the Castro, San Francisco. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2014.

Johannes Radebe (1987-present) is a dancer and choreographer. He was born in Zamdela in South African. He is famous in the UK as being a dancer on the popular BBC television show Strictly come dancing. He has spoken out about the homophobic bullying he received as a child when attending dance school in South Africa. Radebe has won the Professional South African Latin championships twice and has been the Amateur Latin South African champion three times. He is fluent in six languages. In 2021 he broke boundaries with tv celebrity John Whaite as the first male same sex dance partnership on Strictly, making it all the way to the final. In 2022 he launched his own dance show Freedom in UK theatres.

Sylvester James Jr. (1947-1988) known simply as Sylvester was born in Los Angeles. He was a singer active in the world of disco, soul and pop. He was known for his flamboyant gender non-conforming appearance, falsetto singing voice, and hit disco singles in the late 1970s and 1980s. Sylvester started life as a Gospel singer but left the church after disapproval of his sexuality, he became part of a group of young black drag queens and transgender women who called themselves the Disquotays. Later he moved to San Francisco and joined the avant-garde drag troupe the Cockettes. On leaving the Cockettes he formed the rock band Sylvester and his Hot Band. His career took off when he went solo and with his backing band ‘Two tons o fun’ had hits including, You make me feel mighty real, Dance disco heat and Do ya’ wanna’ funk. Sylvester was a HIV/AIDS activist. He died from complications from the virus in 1988.

Freddie Ross (1978-present) known by the stage name Big Freedia is a rapper known for work in the New Orleans genre of hip hop called bounce music. Freedia identifies as a gay man but presents visually as gender non-conforming, and is ambivalent about pronouns using both she/her/he/him. Freedia started singing in the church choir, and started professionally performing around 1999. Freedia first gained mainstream exposure in 2009 and has several albums and mix tapes out including Queen Diva, Big Freedia Hitz Vol. 1 and Just Be Free, and also featured in her own reality tv show Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce. Away from performing Freedia also has an interior design business.

Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014) was instrumental as a participant in the Stonewall riots in New York City 1969. She was born in New Orleans and is remembered as a LGBTQ civil rights icon and also an entertainer. In the 50’s and 60’s she performed as MC at The Jewel Box Revue, North America's first racially integrated drag revue, where she was the only Drag King. She also performed at the Apollo Theatre and Radio City Music Hall. DeLarvarie presented a masculine persona, often wearing what was considered male clothing. As well as being an MC and singer, she worked for much of her life as a bodyguard, bouncer, and on voluntary street patrol. She was considered ‘the guardian of Lesbians in the Village’. It is said that DeLarverie roamed NYC’s lower Seventh and Eighth Avenues right into her 80s, checking on all the Lesbian bars in the neighbourhood. She is often referred to as the Rosa Parks of the gay community.

Gina Yashere (1974-present) is a British/Nigerian comedian from Bethnal Green who has made many appearances on British and American television. Before becoming a comedian, she worked as a lift technician and engineer. She first came to prominence as a finalist in the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year competition in 1996. She has appeared in a number of television programmes in the UK such as The Lenny Henry Show, Comic Relief, Mock the Week and has now gained wider fame in the USA appearing on programmes such as The Tonight Show, The Barbarian the Troll and Bob hearts Abishola. She performed in her own stand up show called Skinny B*tch on streaming tv. Having emigrated from the UK she now lives with her partner in Los Angeles.

Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley stage name of (Loretta Mary Aiken 1894-1975) was a stand-up comedian and actress. She began her theatre career in the 1920s and became an entertainer of the ‘Chitlin' circuit of African-American vaudeville. She came out as a lesbian in 1921 becoming one of the first openly gay comedians. During the 1920s and 1930s she often appeared in androgynous clothing and recorded several lesbian comedy routines. She later made comedy albums and appeared in films. and on television programs including, The Ed Sullivan Show. The ‘Moms’ character was developed in the 1950’s. The non-threatening old woman in a floppy hat persona allowed her to address topics too edgy for most comics of the time, including racism and sexuality. In the 60’s she played mainstream theatres such as Carnegie Hall. She also recorded records, and a cover version of Abraham, Martin and John was a chart hit in 1969, making her at 75, the oldest living person to have a U.S. Top 40 hit.

Bayard Rustin (1912-1987) was an American leader in civil rights, socialism, nonviolence, and LGBTQ rights. He worked on the March on Washington Movement, in 1941, to press for an end to racial discrimination in employment. Rustin later organized Freedom rides, and helped to organize the Southern Christian leadership conference for Martin Luther King Jr's leadership amongst many other activities. Due to criticism over his sexuality, he often acted as an influential adviser behind the scenes. Rustin served on many humanitarian missions and was an accomplished singer. In later years his ideas leaned towards neoconservatism. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2013.

DeRay Mckesson (1985-present) is a civil rights activist, podcaster, and former school administrator. He was an early supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, he has been active in the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland and on social media outlets. Mckesson has also written for HuffPost and The Guardian. He was part of a group that launched Campaign Zero, a policy platform to end police violence. In 2016 Mckesson ran in the Baltimore mayoral election, he was not successful. He has been part of the organisation Crooked Media and hosted the Podcast Pod Save the People. He has written a memoir called, On the other side off freedom: the case for hope. In 2021, McKesson was awarded an honorary doctorate in humane letters.

Archbishop Carl Bean (1944-2021) was an American singer, activist and clergyman. He was noted for his disco version of the early gay liberation song I Was Born This Way that remains an LGBTQ anthem to this day, inspiring a song with the same title by Lady Gaga. Bean founded the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, a liberal protestant denomination that is particularly welcoming of LGBTQ African Americans. He then founded the first church of the denomination, the Unity Fellowship Church, Los Angeles where he later became Archbishop. In the 1980’s Bean became an activist, working on behalf of people with HIV/AIDS. In 2010, he published a memoir I Was Born This Way titled after his hit song. An intersection in Los Angeles was renamed Archbishop Carl Bean Square in 2019.

Conversations will be on show until 1st March at BMECP in Brighton and in the We are Family exhibition at The Ledward Centre.

To see more of the artists in the We are Family exhibition, click here.


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