Art has long been considered an important tool for self-expression; a means by which the voiceless can have their voices heard. You only have to look at the incredible feminist art movement of the 1970s - which saw female artists shift away from modernism in their fight for equal rights - to realise how powerful the visual medium can be in reflecting social progress and encouraging political change.
Nowadays, members of the international transgender community are fighting a long and tiring battle of their own. Despite notable progress in recent years, many are still struggling against wide-spread prejudice, violence, workplace discrimination, access to medical treatment, and the right to marry their loved ones.
But if history is any indication, adversity can be one of the greatest catalysts for powerful, world-changing art, and the transgender community's ongoing plight could very well pave the way for an exciting new wave of artists to find their rightful place in the Australian arts community.
We caught up with a small group of emerging Australian trans artists who have already started making their mark.
This incredible Melbourne-based street artist has taken to transforming public places and safe LGBTQIA+ spaces as way of celebrating trans bodies and shifting perceptions of normalcy. Visiting Sydney for the launch of her new exhibition, we caught up with Astro Twitch as she was working on a new mural for creative hot-spot The Bearded Tit in Redfern, Sydney.
“With depictions of trans women in art, it's often easy to tell when a cisgendered artist has created it – like with Jenny Saville's famous piece (Passage, 2004) which centres around the subject's penis.” Astro says.
“It can be difficult for artists not to hyper-concentrate on that. It doesn't necessarily offend me, but it can feel like they're treating trans subjects as a spectacle.”
This is especially apparent, Astro says, in art which focuses on the transitioning process.
“I think many trans people see transition as this set of difficult things they have to do. So its not really something to make art about. Cis people seem to see transition as some sort of magical thing that they are very fascinated by, so they are more prone to make art about it.”
“I do think there's something going on with creativity and art in general, everything is intersectional, so within the spectrum there's certainly a wing for trans-focused stuff. But it's always hard to know whether it's a trend or whether it will stick.”
Politely declining to have her photograph taken alongside her mural, I learn that Astro's anonymity and use of a pseudonym (“there's no clever story or meaning behind my name, unfortunately”) is integral to her process.
“I think it's easier to attack a person than it is to attack a concept. I grew up in the middle of nowheresville, so whenever I visited museums I didn't know much about the artists behind the art. I love that my anonymity allows people to form their own interpretations – to have their own unique experience of my work.”
Follow Astro Twitch on Instagram here.
Artist Tyza Stewart explores and disrupts concepts of gender construct, identity and interpretation through their striking paintings – many of which are self-portraits. In their omission of gender-specific body parts, Tyza's work encourages a level of intrigue and self-examination.
“My works often respond to other peoples' perceptions of myself, specifically other peoples' perceptions of my gender.” Tyza says.
“For me, this is a starting point for making art that might prompt a viewer to consider the assumptions that inform their perceptions, and the social norms that inform these assumptions. Making figurative self-portraits that omit much of my body is, in part, a reaction to the media's tendency to sensationalise bodies when talking about trans people.”
When describing what they hope audiences will take away from their work, Tyza concedes that a level of frustration is inevitable – but can often be the catalyst for otherwise daunting self-reflection.
“My paintings might be frustrating to some viewers who just want to put people and bodies into strict binary categories, but I hope it encourages people to think about their self in relation to more varied understandings of gender.”
Check out Tyza's Tumblr here.
At its core, Archie Barry's body of multi-platform art recognises that “our bodies are highly politicised vehicles to be living and moving in,” and that “the surveillance and policing of bodies in both governmental and social relations form restrictive patterns of embodiment that inhibit our potential for futuring new worlds and selves.”
Moving effortlessly between light-hearted video installation, sculpture and illustration, Barry insists that they're one of many young and emerging trans artists – you just need to know where to find them.
“There are a lot of non-binary artists lurking in art schools and artist run initiatives,” Barry says.
“These are the people most likely to make work about trans and gender non-conforming bodies, but because they only occasionally break onto the commercial art scene, such artwork is only found within these communities, if you go hunting for it.”
“I hope that people might walk away after viewing my artwork wondering 'what is it that makes me a man/woman?'"
You can view more from Archie Barry here.
Despite a noted under-representation within the arts community and possible accessibility and funding challenges, this year has already seen some exciting and explorative works from both trans and cis-gendered artists reach the public's attention.
Earlier this year, artist Amy Amos Gebhardt explored gender expression through her widely praised video installation There Are No Others. Meanwhile, Sydney-based photographer Brenton Parry has been at the helm of an interactive photographic project titled My People My Tribe – photographing striking black and white portraits of naked LGBTQIA+ bodies and releasing one per day for the next 100 days.