The personal and institutional mix in Bring Your Own Body (or B.Y.O.B.): transgender between archives and aesthetics, an exhibition on view now at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery of Haverford College. Curated by Stamatina Gregory, associate dean of The Cooper Union School of Art, and Jeanne Vaccaro, research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, the show holds archival media of transgender experience and study alongside contemporary art by transgender artists. You might expect such a show to make a strong political statement, yet the real effect is not a statement at all, not really. Rather, what emerges from this careful curation of new and old explorations of gender and sexual identities is, instead, more of a conversation.
So how does the conversation go? In an interview with The Huffington Post, Vaccaro explains: “While the exhibition gathers work under an expanded umbrella of transgender, it does so without identitarian claims. In that way, and in many others, B.Y.O.B. seeks to pose more questions than it does answers.”
The questions B.Y.O.B. poses range a good deal. In their work, the contemporary artists are examining questions of fetish, intimacy, family, selfhood, body, identity, and space—of the existence and evidence, the violence and beauty of their lived experiences. They explore these questions through a variety of media, including performance, film, sculpture, collage, photography, writing, and installation.
Meanwhile, the archival content of the show—which is largely pulled from the archives of the Kinsey Institute, one of the country’s premier collections of materials relating to sex and gender—feels both clinical and exploitative in comparison to the sincere explorations of the featured contemporary artists. For instance, along one wall of the gallery hang several archival photographs of anonymous transgender women of color, likely arrested for sex work and “female impersonation” and captured on film for police records. This violent past is evident in the taxonomy of these materials, with terms such as female impersonation, masquerader, ex-woman, etc. appearing with frequency. Yet this part of the show raises its own questions as well; The ephemera seem to ask, as Kinsey Institute founder Alfred Kinsey asked, Who are these people? Are they really criminal, or are they worthy of empathy? Could it be that, outside the binary of homosexuality and heterosexuality, there exist other human experiences of gender and sexuality which merit study and deserve space?
Together, the dialogue between the archival and the lived emerges as a dynamic one. And, refreshingly, Vaccaro and Gregory have chosen contemporary works which not only respond to the early taxonomy in the archival portion of the show but also expand beyond it. Whereas taxonomies of identity can be so limiting and academic circles of gender study so exclusive, these artists are using image and word and dance and laughter and textile to reflect on and push against the confines of identity politics and prior cataloguing of their worlds. A particularly touching element of the show is the inclusion of vintage serials, pamphlets, and other material by and for the trans community. These vintage materials were printed during Alfred Kinsey’s time and serve as a fitting bridge between the unsettling photographs from the Kinsey archive and the bold work of the contemporary artists.
Vaccaro and Gregory write that their choice to assemble these works in the manner they have has been in “an effort to assign value where it has been withheld.” Within the mainstream of late, there has been a good deal of talk about progress and acceptance (the broad public embracing of Caitlyn Jenner’s transition comes to mind, as does the recent uptick in internet chatter, newspaper headlines, and legislature battles to do with trans rights). Yet what the exhibition demonstrates is that the fascination and controversy swirling around trans issues and trans exposure is not new, and neither is their history, their existence, or their art. What the exhibition most succeeds to do, then, is perhaps what it set out to: Making space for trans art to be shown and trans history to be told puts both value and power in the hands of the artists.
You can visit the exhibition at the Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery of Haverford College through December 11, 2016. Gallery hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Wednesday 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., Saturday-Sunday noon – 5 p.m. The show was originally organized for The Cooper Union and is presented by The John B. Hurford ’60 Center for the Arts and Humanities and Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery at Haverford College. Learn more about the exhibition and upcoming events at exhibits.haverford.edu/bringyourownbody.