The transgender body in art: finding visibility ‘in difficult times like these’

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‘We are tasked historically with the role of creating new culture’ … Ria Brodell’s portrait of Captain Wright. Photograph: Ria Brodell

Captain Wright, one of the subjects in transgender artist Ria Brodell’s paintings, lived until his death in 1834 with Mrs Wright and an abundance of rabbits. They were “respectable gentlefolks”, according to Brodell’s extensive research. When Captain Wright died, his neighbors were astonished to learn that he had a body that would be assigned as female. Demoted to a “creature” by the newspaper, his body attracted a crowd of curious spectators. Captain Wright is one in Brodell’s series Butch Heroes, which reimagines historic men who were assigned as female in the format of Catholic holy cards. The portraits – some of which are currently on view at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle as part of the show Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects – are touching and amusing at times. They speak eloquently to the fraught history and present of the transgender community.

It’s an interesting moment for trans art in the US, as arts organizations large and small are finally bringing recognition to an ingenuous people and powerful movement. The Museum of the City of New York features Gay Gotham, a show that chronicles queer creative networks in 20th-century New York, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum for Gay and Lesbian Art is in the process of nearly doubling its footprint. It also recently created the Hunter O’Hanian Diversity Art Fund to collect artworks from primarily female and transgender artists. Yet Donald Trump’s election has given the LGBTQ community new reasons to fear for their safety. Mike Pence advocates for “gay conversion therapy” and Trump has pledged to sign the First Amendment Defense Act, which would give businesses and landlords the right to discriminate against gay and transgender people. Since the election, 43 anti-LGBTQ incidents have already been reported to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In light of this new wave of bigotry and intimidation, it is heartening to see an unprecedented number of brilliantly self-determined art shows across the US presenting work by queer and transgender artists. While there have always been transgender individuals, for the longest time they were either forced to hide or be viewed as freaks. TV shows like Orange is the New Black, Transparent and I Am Cait have opened society’s constricted lens, and the media has celebrated what it perceived to be the “trans tipping point”.

“What’s missing in the conversation about the ‘trans tipping point’ is the fact that the experience is being told, but the means of production are still in the same hands,” says Chris Vargas, the executive director of the Museum of Trans Hirstory & Art (MOTHA), who organized Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects. Vargas alludes to the fact that TV shows about the trans experience are mostly written, directed and produced by cisgender people who identify as the gender they were assigned to at birth. “I don’t think much has changed for people who are not in privileged positions,” Vargas continues. “There’s still an epidemic of poverty, violence and discrimination. Being visible in culture is being scrutinized by the non-trans community.”

Inspired by the Smithsonian’s History of America in 101 Objects, 99 Objects contrasts archival materials with contemporary artworks andfocuses on trans experiences in the Pacific north-west. Vargas is working on turning 99 Objects into a book.

Brandy Martell, 400 block of 13th St near Franklin Street, Oakland, California (from Project 42). Photograph: Jono Vaughan, 2016

The fact that trans people are more likely to be victims of violence, stopped and questioned by police and forced to commit survival crimes because they lack access to housing, healthcare, education and employment is implicit in a lot of the pieces on display. Performance artist Jono Vaughan, for example, designs abstract textile patterns using Google Earth images of the site where trans women of color were murdered. Vaughan then prints the patterns on fabric and sews garments for individual performers who honor the victims in processional performances. Commissioned by the Henry Art Gallery for Vargas’s 99 Objects, the garment piece Brandy Martell, 400 block of 13th Street near Franklin Street in Oakland, California, indicates the name of the victim and the place where she was killed in 2012.

“If something isn’t assigned cultural value, especially in the art world, it doesn’t have visibility,” says Stamatina Gregory, who organized the traveling exhibition Bring Your Own Body in collaboration with Jeanne Vaccaro. “It’s important to look at the absences in addition to understanding the [trans] art history.” BYOB began at Cooper Union in New York last fall and is currently on view at Haverford College in Pennsylvania.

To address trans erasure and the embattled forms of agency, BYOB contrasts artwork with photographic documentation from the archives at the Kinsey Institute, including mugshots of trans sex workers from the Baltimore police department. The curators thought hard about how to present the “problematic material” they found at the Kinsey archives. It needed, they thought, “some form of intervention that mediated the violent weight of diagnostic histories”. Defying labeling and stereotypes, the curators looked “past the lens”, placing the handmade alongside video, photographs and trans literary magazines from the Transgender Archives at the University of Victoria. The show includes the early vanguard trans artist Pierre Molinier; multimedia artist Mark Aguhar, who committed suicide in 2012; art world star Zachary Zucker; and Genesis P-Orridge’s collaboration with the late Lady Jaye Breyer. Alchemical Wedding – three glass jars filled with hair, fingernail clippings and skin – highlights the couple’s surgical and performative attempt to meld their existence into one, to defy “the tyranny of DNA”.

Even Schwartz, In a Minute, 2016. Photograph: Evan Schwartz

The first, visible generation of trans artists often photographed the transition of their bodies. This may have been cathartic and satisfied the sensationalist hunger of the viewer, but it also helped to cement the idea of a monolithic transgender experience. A second generation now considers the emotional and social aspects of transition. Evan Schwartz’s show Best Man, currently at Postmasters Gallery in Manhattan, spares the viewer the common ham-fisted approach and serves as a good example for the kind of work that deals with the artist’s complex soul. Schwartz, who was assigned female at birth, plays lightly on the transgender motif. His photographs study male bonding, such as watching sports, firing up the grill and repairing motorcycles.

“What I find fascinating is that Evan really deals with the transgender soul,” says gallerist Magdalena Sawon. “His work struck me precisely for its longing for normalcy, its desire to be a part of a chosen tribe that will never be fully his. It is the humanity of the pictures that does it for me. I think he does not give 10 fucks about the look and the body – though these buttoned-up little shirts and preppie scarves are killing me.”

Coney Island Babies, at the Bureau of General Services-Queer Division, also in Manhattan, features a group of musicians, designers and visual artists who work within Brooklyn’s young avant-garde drag scene. Thanks to RuPaul’s Drag Race, a competitive reality TV show, drag has become a big part of mainstream culture. But Chris Bogia, who heads up the Fire Island Artist Residency for LGBTQ artists that organized the show, wants Coney Island Babies to be “a deeper dive into the art of drag and highlight artists within that community that are shaping it in new, exciting, perhaps less commercially attractive ways”. Bogia says: “Those voices shouldn’t get lost in our culture’s newfound enthusiasm for drag. They should be amplified.”

Boy Radio Silhouette, 2016. Photograph: Fred Attenborough

Among the artists in the show is photographer Fred Attenborough, whose polaroids show drag artists of color who are part of his rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. The color and vibrancy of the performing scene are as inherent in Attenborough’s pictures as the fear of staying or becoming invisible.

The individual voices within the trans art community are well-positioned to speak to the more complicated, emotional and institutional aspects of the trans experience. And their voices are more important than ever in times when we mourn democracy, decency and tolerance. It will be motivating and fortifying to see queer and trans artists respond to tyrannical opposition.

“It’s difficult in times like these, when great tragedy overwhelms us, not to feel like what we are doing is pointless,” says Bogia. “We are tasked historically with the role of creating new culture, but often we operate like scouts, far ahead of the folks we are making things for, so deep into the wilderness that we can barely see those we serve. But history also shows that it isn’t pointless, and people remember visual culture vividly.”