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Who gets to make art about a marginalized community?
That’s the question at the center of a clash between the transgender community and a Brazilian artist doing an upcoming residency in Manchester, U.K.
The artist, Virginia de Medeiros, is embarking on an experiential project that involves taking the hormone testosterone and embedding herself into Manchester’s trans social scene. The project will be part of an ongoing U.K.-Brazil cultural exchange that takes place from July through October.
But news of the project offended transgender artists living in Manchester, many of whom received the following email:
Virginia will be developing a new work, directed at the transgender universe—women who had assigned the female gender at birth but now are understood as men, also called FTM—female to male. The starting point of the project is her own body—a few months ago she started taking testosterone hormone as an artistic procedure… Acting as an ethnographic artist, she would be attending social spaces in Manchester which are frequented by transgenders to get into the daily lives of individuals or groups and gather personal and unobtrusive stories.
The letter states concerns about cisgender (non-trans) artists who get funding for trans-themed work when such funding is direly needed for transgender artists. It also cites concerns about a lack of basic understanding of what it means to be transgender: The idea that someone can take hormones for a few months to conduct an ‘ethnography’ is perhaps an offensive minimization of trans people’s lifelong struggles.
We also feel like the artist’s assumption that she, as a cis woman, could gain an “approximation” of what it is like to “become” a trans man, is somewhat misguided and plays into the pathologisation of trans-ness by positioning our “becoming” as a purely medical and biological process. This is misleading because it furthers the incorrect assumption that all trans people choose to/are able to choose to take hormones and situates our identity as part of a medical process. Her project also positions trans-ness as something that is reachable by cis people through engaging in those medical processes. Whilst we believe that Virginia’s work genuinely has something interesting to say about gender and subjectivity, we believe that trans artists are better able to articulate work around these issues. There is a longstanding history of cis people getting funding to undertake trans art while trans artists are sidelined and their work goes unfunded and overlooked.
Manchester artist Jess Bradley, a member of both Action for Trans Health and the Queer of the Unknown art and poetry collective, told the Daily Dot that the project struck locals as “insensitive.”
“It feels similar to how cis actors (often of a different gender) are invited to play trans roles whilst trans actors struggle to find roles,” said Bradley. “It perpetuates the idea that the trans experience is something that cis people can access simply by undergoing a medical process.”
“Trans people have always been so much more than our bodies, and the focus on the medical aspects of transitions is objectifying,” Bradley continued.
Bradley and other artists who signed the letter acknowledged that there could be some language barriers in de Medeiros’ initial email; while terminology like ‘transgenders’ is considered inappropriate in English, a poor translation can lead to small misunderstandings.
De Medeiros herself does not speak English and believes her initial artist’s statement might have been taken out of context; she had to write her emails to the Daily Dot in Portuguese and then have them translated.
“I have deep affection and empathy for the struggle of transgender communities,” said de Medeiros in a statement emailed to Daily Dot. “I feel part of this struggle, because I am also a minority within my country, and I sense the emergence of a plural, diverse, inclusive sexual citizenship.”
In the statement, de Medeiros, who self-identifies as pansexual, explained that she is continuing to learn and develop her understanding.
“When I implanted the testosterone chip in my body and started taking testosterone gel, my belief was that these procedures would bring me closer to the trans community,” said de Medeiros. “But now I see that that doesn’t make any sense: Learning also entails making choices and risking being wrong.”
De Medeiros said that she did not have a specific plan in place for the Manchester work, but that it would be a process of “artist research” that required “getting to known other codes.”
“The act of becoming familiar, of interacting, of building trust, of sharing life, of caring, of falling in love, of letting oneself get carried away, of embarking in adventures—comprises the basis of my work method,” said de Medeiros in the statement.
It’s unclear what de Medeiros’ project will look like exactly, since it doesn’t begin until she arrives in the U.K. But the artist has done years of work based on trans themes, like the 2006 installation Studio Butterfly, which featured transgender women speaking about and displaying photographs of family and friends. The installation took place in a redecorated room-cum-salon in Salvador, where the women were invited to sit on a throne of sorts and tell stories inspired by the photographs they brought.
De Medeiros’ 2003 installation Redobras celebrated the life of a trans woman named Rosana who ran a shelter that closed after she passed away from AIDS, despite the fact that Rosana’s sister and family still lived there. The installation transformed the house into a memorial complete with photos, wigs, and projections on the external facade.
Much of De Medeiros’s previous work has centered on Brazil-specific themes of sexuality and gender, with projects exploring sex worker communities, BDSM, and a Candomblé Orisha-worshipping priest who lives simultaneously as two separate gender identities—Sergio and Simone.
The artist’s connection to Brazil’s trans community is clear. But can she make peace with the Manchester artists whose open letter shows a strong skepticism about the proposed project?
One thing is for sure: The vast majority of artists receiving funding and residencies to make work are cisgender. But Bradley said that in Manchester, queer and trans artists often struggle to get grants and other types of funding for their work.
“If you want to fund art which tells trans stories, fund trans artists to tell them,” Bradley said. “We are perfectly capable of telling our own stories without a cis person to act as a mediator. If you want to see art about what it is like to undergo the changes associated with undergoing hormone treatment, fund a trans artist who is doing just that.”
The visibility and success of transgender contemporary artists increased exponentially over the past couple of years. From Juliana Huxtable’s exhibitions and performances at stalwart institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, the New Museum, and the Guggenheim to San Francisco’s Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art launching the world’s first trans-only artist residency—it’s clear that many emerging trans artists are already making work that could benefit from additional funding streams.
“Queer of the Unknown is incredibly popular,” said Bradley. “Yet often we have to work outside of traditional galleries and art spaces due to the barriers put in place by the art establishment.”
On Sunday, de Medeiros emailed a response to the Manchester trans artists who signed the open letter. Bradley told the Daily Dot that a direct discussion between the artist and the community is still being scheduled to take place.
Mary Emily O'Hara is an LGBTQ reporter. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, NBC Out, Daily Dot, Broadly, Vice, the Daily Beast, the Advocate, Huffington Post, DNAinfo, Al Jazeera, and Portland's Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly Willamette Week, among other outlets.