On June 22, 2014, a trans woman in Cali, Colombia, was harassed—verbally and physically—by two police officers in a public area of the Diamante neighborhood. Because the woman, Tania Marcela Camelo, was both empowered and informed of her rights as a Colombian citizen, she immediately filed a complaint to the police station with the help of the Santamaría Fundación. The mission of the foundation is to promote this sort of empowerment of trans individuals, but they, and many other similar organizations around the world, struggle against stigmatization and a lack of realistic portraits of women like Tania.
Carlos Motta has spent the past few years creating an archive of documentary video portraits of activists and people who perform gender as a personal, social and political opportunity rather than as a social denunciation. His Creative Capital project, Gender Talents, debuts next week with the public launch of the Gender Talents web platform. We spoke to Carlos about his goals for the project.
Alex Teplitzky: Gender Talents purports to focus on activists who “perform gender as political, personal and social opportunity rather than a condemnation.” How did you come about this angle of looking at gender? What are some of your own experiences with others seeing gender in this negative light that made you want to produce this project?
Carlos Motta: Gender Talents departs from my project We Who Feel Differently, another web project and video archive where I interviewed dozens of LGBTI and queer activists around the world about the history, development and contemporary state of sexual and gender politics.
One of the persons I interviewed then, Norwegian trans activist and sexologist Esben Esther Pirelli Benestad, opened my eyes to hir way of thinking about gender performance: For Esben Esther gender performance, in binary or non-binary expressions, represents an opportunity to be embraced rather that a social condemnation to be feared. Esben Esther sees hir (and wants others to see) non normative gender identity expressions as talents and has developed an activist practice to assist others to “see what they cannot see.”
I found Esben Esther’s rejection of medicalizing and stigmatizing attitudes and terms (disorder, syndrome, etc.) inspiring, so I set out to make a project that would document the work of other activists that work similarly.
Alex: I was very moved by the portrait of Samanta, who shows pictures of herself and displays her costumes. As a straight, white male, I found this interview touching because it was so personal in a way to which I could actually relate. She demonstrated feelings of pride and personal strength, and it was inspiring to hear her tell her story rather than just show it from a director’s perspective. Can you comment on this a little more?
Carlos: I used a variety of different approaches to making these portraits, from extensive interviews conducted by other activists or by me, to less formal approaches, but for the most part the final idea was decided in collaboration with the subject.
In the case of Samanta, she really wanted to show “the world” her dresses and to tell her story from the perspective of her craft, something that according to her, has kept her alive and helped her survive. My intention with every portrait was to facilitate a video space where the activists could re-present themselves in their own terms, to establish a conversation where they could determine the way in which they wanted to be “portrayed.”
Alex: Gender Talents functions as both an online documentary database, and a series of performances and activities all over the world. What is your ultimate goal for this multiple-part art project? Who do you hope will see it? And can you describe some of the real-life activities?
Carlos: Gender Talents seeks to be a resource for people looking to know about the development of trans and intersex movements and discourses—but hopefully one that considers the intricacies and nuances of these politics: How the experiences of trans male-to-female sex workers in Guatemala, for example, demands understanding the intersections of gender and sexuality with other pressing issues of social inequality, or how the experience of American intersex activists is often centered around silence, stigma and the malpractice of medical doctors….
Every person and every community deals with gender identity politics differently. I am interested in making these specific contexts visible to resist the wave or normalization that seeks to make blanket statements and single handed narratives about social struggles.
The physical events are ways of bringing these conversations to a physical place, to occupy institutions with non normative bodies and to create spaces that are uniquely diverse through an experience that is not based on the problematic notions of “tolerance” and “inclusion.”
One of the most significant events we’ve held so far took place at the Centro Cultural de España (CCE) in Guatemala City in the context of the 19 Bienal de Arte Paiz. The CCE is the heart of the city’s cultural life (often an elite cultural life) and the Bienal Paiz is a respected art event in the region founded and funded by one of the country’s richest families. Together with Galilea Bracho, the founding director of Red Multicultural de Mujeres Trans de Guatemala (REDMMUTRANS) we conceived an event that would literally “occupy” these traditional institutions with trans women’s bodies, from stylists, to sex workers, to indigenous trans women: groups that have traditionally been excluded and not welcome in such venues.
The strategy was clear: Galilea wanted a “respectable” place to hold a screening and panel discussion about the struggles of her community so I used my “cultural capital” and my reputation as an artist to facilitate this “intervention”: the event was “my” artwork and hence entered the doors as “art,” yet the resulting event was very symbolically charged. To see the couple of hundred trans women enjoying and event conceived by them and for them at the CCE, was a triumph and hopefully a lesson for the city.
Alex: How did Creative Capital’s support help you with Gender Talents?
Carlos: Creative Capital was the main funder of the project but it also helped me shape a vision for it and to articulate it at the two retreats I attended. I am indebted to CC for its generosity and unique approach to funding and resources for artists.
Alex: In your presentation at our Artist Retreat, you said that Creative Capital had labeled bathrooms as “Men” and “Women,” which you pointed out was a subliminal way to reinforce current gender norms. Well, we have a gender neutral bathroom at our new office now! What are some other simple ways that organizations and individuals can think about in a way that will express gender as an opportunity and not a condemnation?
Carlos: Ha! That is nice to hear! Organizations and institutions are often oblivious to struggles that don’t seem to concern them, so being sensitive about these seemingly small things that represent the world to some people is a way of building truly inclusive spaces. The best ways to change things is by listening to people’s needs attentively. Cultural organizations can lead a way towards change.