Working in an array of artistic media including photography, video, sculpture, classical music and the spoken word, transgender artists are sharing their stories and experiences, their trauma and hope, their pasts and futures -- on their own terms. Whether defining themselves as transgender, gender variant, transfeminine or gender failure, the following artists challenge our current understandings of identity while paving the way for a more aware and accepting future.
With skill, bravery, humor and passion, the following artists interpret transgender life in radically different ways, revealing the infinitely multifaceted reality of the trans experience. The following artistic forces have contributed immensely to the growing transgender presence in the art world and thus in the greater cultural consciousness. Behold, 10 trans artists who are radically changing the landscape of contemporary art.
1. Tona Brown
Brown is a mezzo soprano vocalist and violinist based in Baltimore, Maryland. Brown began playing the violin at the age of 10 years old and was partaking in competitions at 14. Brown, who referred to herself as an "androgynous" child, channels masculine and feminine qualities in her voice to give it its unique character. As Baltimore Vocal Arts Foundation founder Robyn Stevens said, "It's very powerful, with the cartilage and larynx of a man, but with a feminine quality. The timbre is unique."
Brown became the first transgender person to perform for a living president when she sang the National Anthem to Barack Obama and is currently working to secure a $3,500 deposit to become the first trans woman to sing at Carnegie Hall during LGBT Pride Month. "I would want nothing more than to sing and or play on the greatest stages and concert halls around the world," she told The Huffington Post.
2. Heather Cassils
Heather Cassils, 'Becoming an Image' Performance Still No. 1, Edgy Women Festival, Montreal 2013
(artworks © Heather Cassils; photographs by the artist and Alejandro Santiago)
While some view transgender identity as crossing from one gender to another, Cassils breaks down binaries to create a vision of continuous -- and sometimes slippery -- becoming. "I use my physical body as sculptural mass to rupture societal norms," Cassils stated to HuffPost. "Drawing on conceptualism, feminism, body art, gay male aesthetics, and Hollywood cinema, I forge a series of powerfully trained bodies for different performative and formal purposes. It is with sweat, blood and sinew that I construct a visual critique and discourse around physical and gender ideologies and histories."
In the work above Cassils attacked a 2,000-pound clay block with kicks and blows in complete darkness, the happening occasionally illuminated by a photographer's flash. The piece, dubbed "Becoming an Image," grapples with issues of evidence, documentation and memory.
3. Yishay Garbasz
Golf driving range, Mukaihata, Okuma-machi, Futaba, Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone, 2014
Garbasz's work simultaneously explores her mother's experiences as a Jewish Holocaust survivor and the artist's own personal journey with gender identity. Much of Garbasz's work revolves around the pain of trauma and the beauty that comes with reconciliation, such as her work in the Fukushima Nuclear Exclusion Zone. "My journey through the physical and spiritual reality of Fukushima is part of a life-long quest to explore and document spaces that were affected by trauma," she explained. "My explorations focus on places that are mostly forgotten and traumas whose physical signs have been erased or are invisible. These places are in fact home to a new reality. It is at this intersection where my work takes place."
4. Cooper Lee Bombardier
The Last Three Years
Bombardier is a visual artist, writer, illustrator and performer, whose past jobs include construction worker, cook, carpenter, union stagehand, welder, shop steward, dishwasher, truck driver and housepainter. "As a writer and an artist I am interested in exploring hinterlands and uncovering subjugated knowledges," Bombardier said. "My creative work is concerned with themes of gender, masculinity and manhood; survival, resiliency, and healing; juxtapositions of culture and identity; and the physical experience and positioning of the queer body in the world; labor and how what we do for money shapes who we are. My work is about journeys: on the road, in community; of body and heart; and the never-ending search to know oneself."
5. Amos Mac
Amos Mac in collaboration with Juliana Huxtable, "Making fun of Mapplethorpe", 2013
Mac is a Brooklyn-based artist who captures striking and playful images of gender non-conforming people, capturing their entire beings rather than solely their gender identities. "Inspired by teen magazines, vintage 'Physique Pictorials' and celebrity fan circulations, I construct artful representations of trans and gender non-conforming people," he wrote to HuffPost. "Often colorful and exuberant, humor and camp (stock queer motifs) permeate my work. Rather than examining transgender bodies or documenting 'transition,' I’m concerned with manifesting the bold wholeness of my subjects."
6. Rae Spoon
Spoon is a musician and author whose sound fluctuates from acoustic country folk to electric indie pop. Growing up in an evangelical Christian home in conservative Alberta, Spoon began making music as a means of escape. According to Spoon's website, "'My Prairie Home,' Rae Spoon’s latest album, explores the meaning of home when it is no longer a place one can return to."
With lyrics including "Lesbian, gay, bisexual/ Transgender and transsexual/ It’s better to ask if you don’t know/ A message from the Queer Trans Prairie Tourism Co," the songs address LGBT issues with humor and hope. Spoon teamed up with director Chelsea McMullan to create the documentary-musical "My Prairie Home," which debuted at Sundance. "Whatever I am trying to communicate with my work," Spoon explained, "I want my audience to sense that I am thinking about them and how they experience my music and writing."
7. & 8. Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst
Relationship, #23, 2008-13, c-print, 13 x 20 in
Drucker and Ernst are two transgender artists who have documented their romantic relationship and gender transitions through a stunning photo series entitled "Relationship." The works, which are currently on view at the Whitney Biennial, interlace banal moments of coupledom with shots that reveal more intimate details of gender transition, privileging neither. "This series of photographs represented a return to photography for both of us, and is simultaneously an extension of our narrative film-making practices," Drucker wrote to HuffPost.
"It is the real-life film of our 'romance collaboration.' Our bodies are a microcosm of the greater external world-transitions or shifts that we, as humanity, are looking at in 2014. As our earth transitions from abundance into depletion and the decay of our environment. As we move from institutionalized patriarchy to gender equality, and from heterosexist social structures to a more polymorphous spectrum of sexuality."
On being an artist, Ernst added, "I'm happiest creating things -- using my intuition and creativity and I think it's because I come from a family of artists and thinkers. I couldn't image it being any other way."
9. Ivan Coyote
Photo credit Adam P.W. Smith
Coyote started off singing in a lesbian folk band before realizing they preferred the banter between songs to the actual singing. They now combines music, storytelling, performance poetry and monologue in a singular practice. In their words: "I’ve never really been much into labels. I am interested in telling stories from the little niche that I have carved out for myself outside of the established gender binary, in the 'not really' space between male and female. I am writing myself down so I can find myself later."
They're currently working with Rae Spoon on a multi-media performance and accompanying book called "Gender Failure." Check out their beautiful and hilarious "To all of the kick ass, beautiful fierce femmes out there" on Youtube.
10. Wu Tsang
Tsang, who identifies as "transfeminine and transguy," is a Chinese-Swedish-American video artist whose work combines activism, community organizing and the art of the party. At 25 years old Tsang opened up a weekly club night at the LA immigrant gay bar Silver Platter, which he called "Wildness." Tsang documented the mixing of communities as artists and punks mingled with the Latino drag community, questioning the meaning of a "safe space."
A film based on the experiment, also called "Wildness," was praised at Sundance and the 2012 Whitney Biennial. "In my art and as a person, I just tend to be OK with contradiction," Tsang told The L.A. Times.