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How artists have explored transgender identity


In Frieze magazine, Juliet Jacques recounts the past and present of transgender expression in art, all the way from Claude Cahun in the 1930s to artists like Frank Benson and Juliana Huxtable today. Here’s an excerpt:

But is such a direct use of an artist’s identity problematic – either when representation is handed over to a third party, or when it is enacted by the self? Perhaps it runs counter to queer theory which suggests that there is no fundamental ‘self’, creating considerable tension for artists reacting against essentialist concepts of gender, but there are deeper psychological problems too. Benson told The New York Times that he sent an ‘intense email full of historical references’ to persuade Huxtable to pose nude: for an artist (or writer, as I found when documenting my own gender reassignment), such exposure can be nerve-wracking and draining, coming with concerns about how much it shatters stereotypes and how far it indulges the ‘curiosity’ of outsiders about transgender bodies, not to mention how it can lead to artists being typecast.

It can be argued, too, that personal ‘stories’ – relatively easily co-opted by large institutions and mainstream media – take the focus away from wider political issues for a minority that still faces many legal and social challenges worldwide. The radicalism of Juliana lies not just in the technological potential that it signifies, but also in the very act of bringing a trans woman of colour into a prominent New York gallery. Not only does this confront the audience with a body that defies conventional categories, it also suggests possibilities to people who may not have seen someone like themselves in such a space before. Individual and collective concerns can have a symbiotic relationship: the self-realization enabled by encountering works such as Juliana or The Foundation leads people into communities, and into exchanges that will not just generate new identities but also engage meaningfully with their wider contexts. The durability of this interest, and of the engagements it produces, remains to be seen.

Image: Frank Benson, Juliana (detail), 2014-15. Via Frieze.