Last week, we were thrilled to feature work from the Cooper Union exhibit Bring Your Own Body: Transgender Between Archives and Aesthetics. As my colleague Mimi Wong noted in her intro, the curation aimed to test “the limits of taxonomic language’s ability to express a range of identities,” but looking over the images, I noticed that much of the figurative work we featured was very white and very [femme]. There were several artists of color’s work included in the exhibit, much of it not directly of the body, but the language surrounding the body. I understand the move to keep the QPOC body from being consumed as a fetishized/commodified object. The only way to get the story right is to tell it ourselves.
My staff and I had chosen from the Kinsey archives one solitary image of three black trans [women]. One image of a handful that weren’t photos of trans [men] and [women] being arrested for false charges of sex work and illicit behavior. We juxtapose to feel better. We love the pageantry, the pretty to “balance” out the ugliness of history.
Mark Aguhar’s print “I’d rather be beautiful than male” from her Making Looks 2011 series performs a number of necessary complications. A brown trans-femme identified multimedia artist and activist, her representation in the world and in her work challenged the long history of art viewers’ obsession with whiteness and [male]ness. During a recent trip to New York, I wanted to see the print for myself. I stood in front of the language, the gradient bright color of each letter, some immediate questions came to mind. Would one come across this piece and get the subliminal message that they can’t be both beautiful and [male]? What is beauty? [Masculinity] doesn’t belong to white [men]. Or Black or Brown [men]. How often does the mythos that it does frame our point-of-view? Does this work, without the context of the artist’s identity, run the risk of erasing the Bois, and [male]-centered queer [women], and genderqueer folks, and two-spirit folks? Or does it simply highlight the flawed nature of how we conceptualize gender?
Of course, most of my questions tap at the phrase’s literal reading. I consider whether I have the right to ask any of these questions as a cis [woman]. I have no way of knowing the artist’s intent, who sadly committed suicide a year after this work was completed. And really, her intent is not necessarily the heart of the matter. As with most work I come across as an editor, I want to understand what the work is doing. Queer as action, queer as verb. What ruptures and chasms does the interrogation of gender bring?
The following writers and artists are those whose work queers and troubles the constructs of gender, whether through performance, or the performative nature of the work itself. Some readily accept their work as activism while others may not. But they represent a fraction of those I see wrestle with, deconstruct, and transgress the confines we often attach to gender identity and expression. If we hope to understand what this gender business means/does, then I’m eager to see what/who we’ll escape. Who we’ll re-make ourselves into. How and if we can, leave the constructs behind.
— Aricka Foreman, Enumerate Editor
Christopher Soto (aka Loma)
Christopher Soto (aka Loma) who’s currently curating Nepantla, an e-journal dedicated to queer poets of color, does so with intention and investigation. In a recent Apogee interview, they emphasized that “Intentional community spaces are vital. They preserve histories, affirm identities, and provide new avenues for folks to create and export their work.” They also pointed out the often ignored reality that “for many of us QPOC, oppression has been normalized into our everyday lives. We are pressured by assimilationism to renegotiate our identities into something digestible by the hegemonic masses.” Soto hopes to expand Nepantla’s reach to demographics beyond the literary and arts fields, “I think we need to expand our budget and continue redistributing that wealth. I also think that we need to set up regional directors, committees for Trans/Gender Non-Conforming Poets of Color, and Queer Indigenous / Two-Spirit Poets. I’d also like to see more groundwork done, in solidarity with organizations such as Black and Pink, and the Ali Forney Center. So that way more of our gente in the struggle can see and partake in this project.” In their poem “Rework,” Soto writes “Language is where the tongue fails itself over and over/ again.”
Ching-In Chen’s novel in verse The Heart’s Traffic (Arktoi/Red Hen Press, 2009) is described as a “novel-in-poems [that] chronicles the life of Xiaomei, an immigrant girl haunted by the death of her best friend. Told through a kaleidoscopic braid of stories, letters, and riddles, this stunning debut collection follows Xiaomei’s life as she grows into her sexuality and searches for a way to deal with her complicated histories.” Navigating the terrain of embodying, complicating, and reconciling a multitude of identities (manufactured and experienced) permeates Chen’s writing, editorial and activist practice. Having also co-edited The Revolution Starts At Home: Confronting Intimate Violence Within Activist Communities and Here Is a Pen: an Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets, Chen is not only a critical voice but uses theirs to make room for and expand critical conversations. And in those dialogues, their work enacts what they speak. Chen’s “a zhihutsu” from the The Letter Q (Scholastic, 2012) reads “But I want to meet you. Not always in/ self-defense, in disaster. You meet me where it is possible. You smile/ and offer a hug. And I say yes, come with me down the/ road. And you do, you meet me where it is possible.” What Chen brings is not hope, but a desire to try, to must, to work.
Ignacio G Rivera
Recipient of the Marsha A. Gómez Cultural Heritage Award from LLEGÓ: The National Latina/o Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Organization, Ignacio G Rivera is a Two-Spirit, Black-Boricua Taíno, queer performance artist, activist, filmmaker, lecturer and sex educator who prefers the gender neutral pronoun “they.” Ignacio’s body of work “has focused on gender and sexuality; specifically on queer, trans, kink and sexual liberation issues within a race/class dynamic.” Their work enacts these intersections in a number of spaces: publication, professional development and lectureship, in film and on the stage. Most recently, their third short film entitled “Transient” is a “video-diary-style experimental film about the consciousness of identity within travel. “Transient” touches on issues of ego-centrism, tolerance and gender attribution.” A founding board member of Queers for Economic Justice, “a progressive non-profit organization committed to promoting economic justice in a context of sexual and gender liberation,” Rivera’s emphasis of not only representation, but to access to economic rights proves that the myth of helping everyone “find” agency is not what’s at stake. It’s seeing, hearing and taking action to ensure they’re taken seriously.
Darkmatter is a New York Based trans south asian performance art duo comprised of Alok Vaid-Menon and Janani Balasubramanian. Their work, both referential to aspects of modern life, poems like “OkCupid” and “White Fetish” are anything but irreverent. If the adage is true that sometimes, you have to laugh to keep from crying is true, then having to seek to keep from disappearing is equally so. In an interview with Alok about style and gender expectations, they recall being called Osama by a white [male] MTA passenger, only to have them stop mid-insult when he caught sight of Alok’s stiletto heels. Alok pinpoints how misconceptions of race and gender are, often, inextricably linked, where-in that moment “…when they see me as brown person, they automatically masculinize me too, because of this idea of the terrorist idea…” Janani’s poem “Jealousy” focalizes one aspect of the difficulty of “having the same conversation over and over”, an experience many LGBTQIA folks face, especially with family. “Love means listening differently every time”, and that while exhausting, we have to negotiate who we grant access to that conversation. While “every love story is eventually a ghost story/ New York is full of walking dead” there is an acknowledgement of witness, of ourselves and the world(s) we move through daily.
Tunde Olaniran is not interested in playing into paradigms. “I feel like the act of making this record [Transgressor], because of who I am in the world, is transgressive,” says Olaniran in a Detroit News interview. “Because it’s like you should either sound like the Weeknd or Luther Vandross, or whomever, and when you perform you should either look like Kanye or you should look like a drag queen. Even within queer communities, what I’m doing is still pretty transgressive, because I’m not giving you snaps in a Z or doing death drops.” Plugged into an afrofuturistic aesthetic, with elements of punk and his own brand of performance art, Olaniran’s music is very much his own. “It only becomes transgression in the eyes of the reacting society. Sometimes, the reaction is kind of violent and more extreme than the act itself, whether it’s blocking traffic on an expressway to make people stop and think about [#blacklivesmatter], or it’s a woman deciding she’s going to not follow in the path that’s been laid out for her. A lot of those themes are in the lyrics and the album,” he said in a recent Rolling Stone interview. Olaniran finds a slippery home in the fraught in-between, an apostrophic address that allows the listener to follow his journey as he simultaneously confronts and turns away from constructs with ease.“It’s the punk in me that wants it to be jarring.”
Invincible’s work through Emergence Media uses creative multi-genre “expression to activate social transformation.” The Detroit-based rapper and performance artist has spent over a decade working with Detroit Summer, “a multi-racial, inter-generational collective in Detroit that is transforming communities through youth facilitative leadership, creativity, and collective action.” Complex Movement’s (one of many collectives through Emergence Media) most recent project includes “Beware the Dandelion”, a mobile art installation that “intersects disciplines including: community organizing, design, hip-hop and electronic music, architecture, and theater. The experience occurs inside a 400 square foot polyhedron dome-like pod structure.The performance and generative design are projected onto the surface of the pod to create an immersive visual and sound experience that incorporates science-fiction, projections, songs, and interactive game elements.” The work is inspired by the teachings of the late Grace Lee Boggs, and pushes the boundaries of how social activism functions in (and is introduced to) a number of different audiences. While a weighty lyricist in their own right, Invincible is currently not presenting or performing any solo work, choosing instead to focus on collaborative, community based projects instead.
Umlilo is a singer and performance artist from South Africa. Visible as recently as 2013, the Johannesburg-born musician defends the LGBTQIA community and the violence against it, while also critiquing capitalist obsession in South African youth culture. Through what’s described by Superbalist 100 as “an eclectic mix of booty popping post-kwaito, with lush, dark compositions” Umlilo’s “gender-bending” performance and production “thrives in his idiosyncratic take on electronic music”. In the video for his song “Chain Gang”, Umlilo shares with Vice his perspective on the ills he feels South African youth are inundated with. “We have so many people of color getting gunned down,” he says. “Also in South Africa we have a huge problem with the corrective rape of lesbians and the list goes on and on. These crimes show us just how cheap the lives of black people and LGBTs are.” The song shows the “obsession with money that essentially keeps us all in this endless cycle of oppression,” he says in an interview with allafrica.com earlier this year. His song “Living Dangerously,” in response to a time Umlilo says police swat infiltrated his home, was featured on the trailer for “While You Weren’t Looking,” a film produced and shown part of Out In Africa’s film festival.