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Invisible Bodies Part Three: Transformative Spaces

Invisible Bodies is a short term column by Natasha Matila-Smith, here is part three.

In choosing the title for this series, I sought to raise issue with the under-representation of marginalised bodies in contemporary society.  Ironically, marginalised bodies are often the most visible and noticeable. These bodies are exposed because they are different from the ones we often see plastered across televisions and magazines; these bodies are different from the anglo-centric beauty standards we have been brought up to believe are superior.   

Reality is subjective, but why is it that seeing multiple realities depicted in media so difficult?  It might not mean much to you, but seeing the same story with the same (often white, heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied) faces dominating the screen is not only unrealistic, it’s boring. In a World that constantly rejects the ‘different’, is the conclusion then that even fictional or seemingly fickle spaces like advertising have no room for the disempowered either?

It was suggested by a friend that if I am to talk about ‘invisible bodies’ then I should talk about other disenfranchised bodies. Admittedly, I was hesitant to write on the topic of the queer and/or trans bodies because their experiences seem so foreign to mine.  But I realise that the idea of actually having privilege over another body also seems foreign to me. As a mixed race fat woman, there are systemic prejudices that have and continue to deeply affect me, but I have the privilege of being a lighter skinned person of colour who is able-bodied, cis-gendered and as far as I know, heterosexual. So, while I am going to talk about trans bodies in relation to a more positive exposure (not relating to incidents of violence towards Trans people), I will definitely ‘stay in my lane’.

I have seen the sentiment ‘stay in your lane!’ echoed across social media platforms when discussing the multi-layered concept of privilege.  I often see instances of people commenting on topics that they have little to no first-hand experience in (race, class, gender, sexuality). While one may have experienced certain forms of discrimination, said one is not necessarily the one to voice opinions on how another person – affected by different or compounded discriminatory traits – should respond.  It is also essential for other people of colour to recognise that they too have privileged point of views.  Another great saying ‘Check your privilege’ urges people to think about how they might be more privileged in any given situation.     

It’s important to note that I am not writing on behalf of the trans communities or even trans individuals.  This piece serves only to discuss some important works in trans representation and how trans are an important voice in marginalised communities that contributes to a broader discussion about inclusion and realistic depiction. Below are just five of many trans artists who are exhibiting different personal accounts of gender and the trans body.   It is important to note that while these artists are challenging dominant heteronormative, cis-normative ideals, their works are also creating safe environments for queer and trans communities to have discussions about safer more inclusive trans futures.

Faa-Fafine; In a Manner of a Woman, 2005

Fa’a Fafine: In a Manner of a woman, 2005, Yuki Kihara

Japanese-Samoan artist Yuki Kihara’s works look at gender within the context of indigenous cultures, particularly within Pacific culture.  Fa’a fafine is a term or rather identity that ‘includes trans-women (as well as transmen, females, males, and intersex persons) of liminal gender and sexual social roles. It is primarily a social category based on gender role performance, and not necessarily an indication of orientation.’  Kihara’s work has proved important in not only highlighting differences between indigenous and anglo-cultures but also addressing the historic exoticisation of Pacific women and Pacific cultures. 

Photograph from Work in Progress, Melody Melamad

Photograph from Work in Progress, 2015, Melody Melamad

Melody Melamad’s 2015 photo series Work in Progress documents the bodies of trans-masculine people in gender transition. On Melamad’s work, Michael M.Weinstein writes:

‘The issue isn’t just that the truths trans bodies tell – the evidence of change inscribed on them, suggesting their previous forms and features – may not correspond to the felt truth of inhabiting such a body.It’s that, however closely we examine trans bodies, the experiences written on them remain illegible from the outside…In choosing to photograph trans-masculine people, Melamed takes on the formidable challenge of using a static, visual medium to capture both an abstraction (gender identity) and the metamorphosis(transition) that seeks to express it.”.

In revealing the trans body in a malleable state, Melamad’s work positions gender, sexuality and identity as indefinable floating concepts.  Positively, the idea of the masculine and the feminine begin to blur.  The act of gendering thus becomes a way of polarising those that sit outside of easily defined terms.

Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm), 2015

Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm), 2015, Juliana Huxtable

Contemporary American trans artist Juliana Huxtable (birth name Julian Letton) was born intersex. The term intersex can describe a range of characteristics that differ a person from a person with dominantly male or female traits at birth, further complicating any stable concept of gender. Huxtable’s work Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm) ‘combines and reinvents cultural histories, questioning the presentation and perception of identity in artworks that often use her own body’. In this work, Huxtable uses Nubian and Egyptian mythology to reinterpret the representation of her body as an African-American trans woman.

Antwaun Sargent writes: “In the portrait, Huxtable presents herself in a futuristic world, which is far removed from the trauma and self-loathing of her childhood. Like so much of her work, the photograph opens up alternative ways to think about the fluidity of sexuality and gender in a heteronormative society.”  In this work, Huxtable is creating a literal future for trans.  This new world is safe and accepting, even seeing trans being in a role of power and worship.

Come on Daughter Save Me, 2015, Vaginal Davis

Come on Daughter Save Me, 2015, Vaginal Davis

Vaginal Davis is considered a pioneer in trans punk representation.  Like Huxtable, Davis was born intersex and assigned male at birth.  Identifying as genderqueer, Davis is predominantly a performance artist who began her career in the predominantly white punk scene in concept bands like Pedro Muriel and Esther, Black Fag and the Afro Sisters.  Her 2015 work Come on Daughter Save Me consists of 16 clay and blood-red nail polish sculptures depicting various unknown women’s faces.  The women, perhaps as malleable as Melamad’s Work In Progress, give gender and concepts like masculinity and femininity a crude tangible quality.

Last image

Relationship, #23, 2008, Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker

Rhys Ernst and Zackary Drucker’s documentary style photographs in Relationship, exhibited at the Whitney Biennial in 2014, depict intimate and private moments between a young couple.  The fact that both were in gender transition became a point of interest for many viewers. Drucker commented ‘Of the 46 images on display there’s a few select images in which I would say, yeah, maybe that was actually explicitly about gender transition. [But it all] becomes about a transition when the audience is primarily cisgendered.’  The focus is laid equally upon all aspects of Ernst and Drucker’s life as a couple, with transition being merely one part of the evolution of a sometimes banal yet complex romantic relationship.  Being privy to some aspects of their relationship should not be an attempt to rationalise that which is not considered ‘normal’ – anglo-centric, cis-normative or Euro-centric and heteronormative. As people who are interested in human nature, character and the formation of identity, an un-romanticised pictorial history is at the forefront of this work.

Natasha Matila-Smith



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