The weathered bronze statue strikes the classic Venus de Milo pose — a graceful female figure with rounded breasts and belly, standing in coy contrapposto, covering her genitalia with a casual hand. But the Grecian symbol of womanhood takes a new twist in this photo, sporting a pink tie and short blond wig, with playful orange balloons floating at its feet. Instead of the quintessential feminine image, viewers now face a wacky, whimsical, sexually ambiguous human figure.
All of the art on display at the Afro-American Cultural Center gallery’s exhibit of Trans/Genderqueer art and photography seeks to similarly confuse the viewer’s preconceptions of biological, sexual and cultural boundaries. In one Mats, Zafir & co. photograph, shirtless individuals with beards and boxer shorts slouch around city streets, full breasts exposed. In her artist’s statement, Tamir Lederberg explains that her “Outcast” collection features photographs of moments and images “that I want to or am forced to remember” — huskies and flowers alongside portraits of drag queens. In Noam Lapid’s sketches, nude models are drawn solo or in couples with animal heads of their choosing, freeing the viewer and the subject to examine trans bodies and the security of anonymity.
What all the show’s images share is an effort to confuse the cultural constructs that govern gender identity and much of how we view the world, replacing them with a celebration or exploration of a truer self. The three artists on display approach their work in fundamentally different ways. “Struggling for Pleasure” focuses on the positive, hopeful energy of the queer movement in Gothenburg, Sweden, depicting protests and parties that evoke the hippie spirit of the ’60s. “Outcast” shows quieter, lonelier images. “Animal Heads” ushers the viewer into a realm where fantasy and reality collide and complement each other — the animal heads the subjects select somehow seem natural on human bodies.
The exploration of gender and sexual identity present in these works fascinates curator Rachel Schiff ’10, who met the artists last summer while researching the intersection of queer identity and Judaism in Israel. Schiff says the images remind her of the supportive community she belonged to during her time abroad, a group of queers and activists who allowed her to explore her own sexual and gender identity. Many of these friends also supported featured artist Tamir Lederberg when some of her prints were barred from a show of her graduate work in Jerusalem, staging a protest outside and carrying the censored images.
Examining the different works is often a confusing experience, as genders and cultures and species disassemble and reassemble themselves in different media. The exhibition raises many more questions than it answers, but that seems to be the point — an invitation to think outside the heteronormative box. In her curator’s statement, Schiff bemoans the categories still constraining the works and the movement, specifically the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in Israel’s queer community. Despite eliciting feelings of uncertainty, by showcasing an accepting community, the exhibit creates a safe space in which to question convention. At the exhibit’s exit, one photo of two figures kissing says it all: “You are not alone.”