In this roundtable discussion, three of the artists involved in Kiss My Genders – Ajamu, Travis Alabanza and Victoria Sin – discuss play, intergenerational conversations and what community means to them with guest curator Vincent Honoré.
Vincent Honoré: So I guess we should start by talking about how each of you position yourselves within Kiss My Genders.
Victoria Sin: It’s really important to have these views and stories, narratives and representations, coming from the queer artists themselves, rather than having other people speak about our identities.
Ajamu: I like the title – Kiss My Genders; it’s about kissing my ass, basically! [Laughter] Straight away there is a certain energy, or an attitude. There is always a danger with talking about any kind of identity – even queer identity. I would maybe move ‘queer’ from an identity to a politics, as in, what is a queer ‘doing’? Then it becomes more messy, more murky, harder to articulate, because, actually, we inhabit many internal worlds simultaneously. We too often try to bring [that reality] back down to ‘identity’ to hold it, to articulate it. The exhibition operates in a different register – as an attitude or an energy, or something else.
Travis Alabanza: I’m so glad you started with the title, because that’s why I didn’t ignore the request to be involved in this. We just came out of a year of institutions doing stuff about gender – I was feeling fatigued! I was just so done with these stale conversations about gender; they would bring in these really exciting artists, but the institution would work its magic to make their work seem more mundane or serious about gender than I know those artists intended.
And what I love about Kiss My Genders is what you were saying – that same playfulness in the title, for me, invites the artists, the audience and the visitors to have that same playfulness too. I think that’s what’s been left out over these last two years – the playfulness that I and so many other trans, queer, gender non-binary artists have. The reason this feels important is that it’s an exciting way to say ‘Look, this thing is real – this exists in nightclubs, this exists on our record players, this exists when we’re dancing around.’
Ajamu: That playfulness or that mischievousness is no less political; although it is not seen as political, because people assume it’s not doing that sociocultural work.
Travis Alabanza: It’s the most political thing I think we can do sometimes. People always see us and our conversations – especially with trans folk – in direct relation to violence. So when me and my friends play, I’m, like, ‘This is incredible, because you’re having to learn about us through us being joyous, being playful, pretending.’
Victoria Sin: One of my main things about drag is that it’s inherently playful. There’s always comedy, it’s always going to be a bit silly. You’re asking yourself to step outside of yourself and do something that you would not do in your day today. It’s like a tool that can be used to gain a better idea of, actually, how serious gender usually is, and that’s where the power is: making fun of gender.
I also think about this in relation to science fiction and fantasy in queerness, because these are places that you can say, ‘Actually, here’s a completely new world that is separate to the societal context that we’re in, and I’m gonna change these things, I’m gonna play with it.’ The whole point is that queerness is playful and it can change, and probably will, because who’s the same thing for the rest of their lives?
Ajamu: It makes me think about queer and punk. They’re both doing something very specific. They are mischievous, they are deviant. But now the word ‘queer’ has been co-opted for all forms of difference, right? I’m not sure that all forms of difference can be queer. That’s why I think I’m pushing back against ‘queer’ as an identity position, but not necessarily ‘queer’ as an attitude or an energy. I would actually like to reclaim the deviant queer, the dirty queer.
Vincent Honoré: The exhibition focuses on recent works but also includes works from the late 1960s and early 1970s. The radical social changes initiated in the 1960s, with the rise of feminism, gay rights and unconventional notions of masculinity, as expressed in glam rock, disco or punk – and seen in the exhibition in the works by Luciano Castelli and Jimmy DeSana – paved the way for changes in how gender was socially perceived and is now considered. How do you connect with previous generations? Who are your ‘transcestors’?
Ajamu: The one artist I keep coming back to, decade after decade, is Pierre Molinier. There was an exhibition of his work at Cabinet Gallery in Brixton in 1993. I was totally bowled over by it, partly because it was confusing – I couldn’t work out where Pierre was in the image, and there are times his body has morphed. It not only played around with gender, it explored fetishism, voyeurism and spectatorship.
Victoria Sin: It’s important to have intergenerational conversations, because if you don’t, then you just start trying to reinvent the wheel every time – and why start all over again when you can learn from people before you?
Ajamu: What are the things that you steal from another generation, and what then do you invent? What are the tensions?
Victoria Sin: I remember realising that I was an artist who was into gender, who was into science fiction, who was into sex and pornography. I found the work of Shu Lea Cheang, a Taiwanese artist. She made a queer, sci-fi porno called I.K.U. (2000). Finding her work for me was, like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not alone in this – here is another person who’s come before me that my work can be in dialogue with.’ I remember also thinking, ‘who are the drag queens that I can look to in the past?’ Then I looked back at Cantonese opera. This was a space where men would play women, women would play men; I found out that these two iconic actors called Yam Kim-fai and Bak Sheut-Sin were actually two actresses who played romantic lead roles opposite one another in 1960s films, and who maintained a ‘close’ friendship for over 40 years. These narratives, they do exist, and, really weirdly, sometimes they exist in very heteronormative contexts.
Travis Alabanza: I love Jo Clifford – I think she’s one of the best playwrights ever. I was looking for trans people that are grotesque; I hope she doesn’t mind me saying this but, among many other things, her work is sometimes gross. I was looking for a way that trans people can make performance that doesn’t feel like it needs to be pretty and attractive, and can be mean and horrible. Jo Clifford’s work was a real invitation to make the audience angry and upset, but it would be about their pain rather than hers.
Ajamu: For me it wasn’t just artists, but also people like Miss Gold walking around Brixton in the late 1980s – people who were never trans non-binary, but presented another kind of gender: Jamaican queens who were just walking around in Brixton, Chapeltown, Toxteth, just taking up space. Because I couldn’t work them out, I found them frightening. They didn’t apologise for presenting themselves in ways that would seem unacceptable in black culture, and gay culture too. It’s that confidence to be different – that energy – that I kind of took with me as part of my own politics. So now I say to myself, ‘I am now one of those queens that scares people’ [laughter].
Victoria Sin: A similar experience brought me to drag. Sneaking into gay bars when I was 17 in Toronto and seeing my first drag shows, seeing these queens who were using femininity – a queer femininity, a femininity that most people would say should not exist, or is existing in a way that’s very improper – but using it to take up space and command a room; I was absolutely infatuated. I wanted to be like that, and use femininity in a way that is not intended to be consumable from the viewpoint of a heteronormative, cisgender gaze.
Vincent Honoré: This makes me think of Peter Hujar’s comment: ‘My work comes out of my life. The people I photograph are not freaks or curiosities to me. I like people who dare.’ It is about daring, as well as being part of a community. What is your relationship to your community, and how does it feed your art?
Victoria Sin: I wouldn’t be able to exist in any kind of healthy way without a community; I definitely would not be able to make the work that I’m making.
Travis Alabanza: I live with three other black, gender-nonconforming people, and my close circle of friends are all black, won’t-be-defined fags, freaks, whatever you want to call us – or we call ourselves freaks. That, for me, powers my work. But sometimes it’s hard to grasp what we mean by community in a physical form. Maybe four years ago, when I was first starting to make work in a ‘community’, I found it useful; then, recently, I’ve actually found it not so useful to see myself so directly linked to this thing that I can’t quite grasp. At the moment, my work is coming out of quite a selfish need. If that work then helps someone else or is useful in a community, it’s fine. Maybe that’s the sense of community that I enjoy: just like really supportive aunties, cheering each other on.
Read the full discussion in the Kiss My Genders exhibition catalogue, which also features original essays by Amrou Al-Kadhi, Paul Clinton, Charlie Fox, Jack Halbestam, Manuel Segade and Susan Stryker; an excerpt from Renate Lorenz’s influential Queer Art: A Freak Theory; and poetry by Travis Alabanza, Jay Bernard, Nat Raha and Tarek Lakhrissi.