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Creating a Platform for Exploration: Four Young Artists Explore Gender Fluidity and Identity

Veronica Mills

Dylan Etienne Ramsay by Gesi Schilling
Social constructs have long shaped identity and confined gender to a binary, creating a restrictive effect on the growth and experiences of the general population—even those who are cisgendered. Traditional gender roles feed the rules of binarism limiting overall expression and individuality. Part of restructuring these gender guidelines is recognizing a more inclusive gender spectrum, acknowledging individuals who may identify as gender-neutral, genderfluid, transgender, agender, intersex and beyond.

While recent political changes like California’s gender-neutral bathroom laws and the vocal support of celebrities like pansexual Miley Cyrus, have helped to bring the world beyond binarism into the public eye, the perception of nonbinary identity as a marketing tool or fad has developed as a consequence, sometimes with the result of perpetuating gender stereotypes. In contrast, the art world, has continued to offer a rich landscape for profound exploration beyond binarism. As contemporary dialogue surrounding gender identity expands, artists of color have employed their practice to explore gender identity at various intersections including race, politics, sex, and economics. Identity does not form in a vacuum nor does it maintain rigidity, and these young artists tackle this intersectionality with a more pronounced and angled approach than artists of previous generations.

In Miami, National YoungArts Foundation winner and fashion designer Dylan Etienne-Ramsay uses performance and interactive visuals to engage audience members and focus thematically on neutrality. “The clothing that I make pushes further for the garments not to have any categorization, in terms of sexuality or gender.” He says it’s important that artists use the experiences of trans and queer populations to fuel their works and highlight qualities that have long been ignored. “Right now, the idea of gender neutrality and being nonbinary is sort of like a trendy topic and a lot of people are taking that for granted…as a thing that will pass by in the next few months or years. But I have a lot of friends that are nonbinary or trans and this is a really huge moment for them.”

Ramsay’s work tests the malleability of gender and material: “I try and create work that can be worn by both sexes, using certain fabrics that can be visually or conceptually manipulated [as] the person is wearing the garment.” Ramsay’s work speaks to identifying with a choice that feels most natural to an individual—he forms the pieces while the garments are draped on a neutrally constructed item, instead of a traditional mannequin. The clothing takes form and shape once placed on the human body.

Artists like photographer John Edmonds, who often photographs clothing himself, reflects on the rigidity of gender rules. “The clothing I use in much of my practice is gendered in society—hoods, du-rags, different types of masking to protect one’s face from the weather,” he says. “We know that anyone of any background despite race, gender, sexuality, can wear these items. Yet, we still have a bias attached to it. My work flips these expectations on their head.”

His work contains elements of himself in the subjects he captures. “I had always been interested in thinking about how the subjects I photograph were always like mirrors for me, in a way. So, I’m interested in seeing male in female, and female in male…how gender is fluid—and how we can identify ourselves in others based on the tiniest likenesses.” There’s an elasticity to gender expression and norms across time, too, and Edmonds explains further how the historical background of these pieces adds depth to the conversation: “In so many of the images much is left to the viewer’s imagination. I do this by withholding information about the subject. Du-rags are powerful because they have such a rich history—mainly black women in the Antebellum south period wore du-rags, or stockings that were used to protect the head. Through time, du-rags became more closely linked to men and a particular type of black masculinity. The work considers the utilitarian headdress as an object that is fluid out of space and time.”

Ramsay, too, reflects on shifting gender norms, particularly a movement away from a hyper-masculinity that silences or limits movement outside of traditional gender themes. “There are artists taking this really masculine straight-edged black male who’s been stereotyped for years, and morphing that to highlight characteristics that have long been ignored.”

Still, around the world, traditional gender roles undergird the responsibilities, decision-making power, and activities society has assigned to men and women, in both private and public spheres. In India, Avril Stormy Unger, an experimental performance artist, choreographs the collision of sex, gender, and politics. “I identify as queer and being queer in India is still punishable by law,” she says. “This, in addition to being a woman, plays into my work in various ways. The fact that I am a woman cannot be ignored. [The audience takes] for granted that I am a woman performing. I use this perception to then question what a woman can or can’t, should or shouldn’t feel or do.”
While there are few societies in which the assignation of power and status is equal between men and women, this declines even more sharply for the nonbinary population, who are often rendered invisible and powerless. Unger strives to empower and push boundaries for women and minorities. “The majority of people that perpetuate the systems that keep specific groups of people ostracized from mainstream ideas and social services, are cisgender,” she explains. “Most people who do not identify as cisgender don’t have the support systems to live a dignified life, and this deeply moves me.”

crazinisT artisT, a performance artist based in Ghana, explains that this kind of oppression may not have always been the norm. “Cross dressing was always part of our tradition,” he explains of his home country. “We have a group of people here who have traces of the opposite sex dominant in their character. We once looked to them for wisdom. Now people do not have the freedom to live as they were born. The conflict between identity, performativity, and the sexuality is the problem of the African community.” For his performance piece, Frozen, crazinisT stripped himself naked and bathed before dressing up in the female form, complete with full makeup and dress. Like many countries (including Unger’s), Ghana has introduced punitive legislation specifically targeting citizens who exist outside of gender norms. crazinisT artisT challenges the history behind these attitudes: “I see homophobia as a western import. The redefinition of sexuality in the U.S., tied to religion, gave Africans perspective on what homosexuality should look like.”

Gender identity and gender roles are important determinants of the distribution of power and access to resources; in nearly all societies, traditional gender roles privilege straight men. Through the imposition and continuous reinforcement of rigid gender norms, these societies deprive non-male identifiers of rights, power, and resources. Unger questions constructs that have conditioned youths to limit themselves based on gender identity: “Living as a woman in this world, patriarchy, social norms and hegemonic narratives have always fueled my creativity as a statement against these prevalent forces.”

She takes her work directly to the community to ensure that her messages permeate local society. “I perform mainly in alternative venues and unconventional public spaces to reach out to people who wouldn’t otherwise go to a dance event at an art venue or a theatre,” she says. “I realized how strong a need there is for performances in public spaces for the average passerby, and moved a significant number of projects to the streets of Bangalore, India.” When crazinisT artist uses his own body to spark conversation surrounding gender and sexuality in African culture, it is, he says, to “encourage reciprocal actions and the exchange of dialogue—at one point my audience is performing as they respond.” But while addressing the problem at home rather directly, crazinisT acknowledges that gender fluidity is complicated beyond the shores of Africa. “Looking across borders, it’s like the fight for LGBTQ has been fought for one race and not the other in the West,” he says.

While traveling to the Netherlands, a country known for its liberal policies, he was detained when officials were unable to reconcile his presentation as a female with his passport photo: “When I crossed the European borders in the female form—even though Europeans are aware of these kind of transitions and post-gender conditions—they were still not ready to confront the black body past the prejudices against this form.” crazinisT felt the handling of his entry was connected to his race. “I asked myself, would I have undergone the same thing if I were a white body in the trans or cross dressing state? Would the reception and perception be the same? There is a racial conflict within the conversation about the right to identify across the gender space.”

Though nonbinary individuals might automatically confront assumptions about gender and gender roles—including the ways they intersect with one’s race and national identity—the highly-stigmatized population is frequently disenfranchised. We see this reflected in the lack of legal protection, low representation in health policy, access to care, and even the dearth of complex, in-depth, nonbinary characters in popular culture. When figures like Caitlyn Jenner or Laverne Cox represent this community, their wealth, wider obligations, and celebrity status naturally divorces them from the disadvantaged communities they’d like to represent. And so, the conversation often remains edited and superficial. Artists have stepped in to fill in the blanks, offering a platform upon which to hold a more substantive dialogue. Says Unger, “All our visual references in this digital age of women and minorities are mostly deplorable in their representation. My performances place the viewer in an empathetic space, where the reality of the situation I am expressing is easily communicated. The passing public, both elitist and otherwise, take notice of my work and are forced to confront themselves as result. Having a space where everything happens in that moment—where both myself and the audience are fully engaged—allows for an immersive experience that is free and unpredictable, yet inclusive and shared.”

Veronica Mills is a freelance writer and native of Miami. She uses her experience living abroad across Africa and South Asia working in the international development field to inform her writing.

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  • “I see homophobia as a western import. The redefinition of sexuality in the U.S., tied to religion, gave Africans perspective on what homosexuality should look like.” Enough said.