DAZED Interview with The Portrait is Political Artists
Three artists speak on how to create portraits that make an impact
Jaishri Abichandani, texas isaiah, and Liz Collins speak about how they are making portraits to create space for those who have previously been marginalised, misrepresented, or erased
Text Miss Rosen
Portraiture is a political act. Who gets to be represented and revered, passed through the channels of history and power long after they have left the Earth? Who gets to have wall panels written in their name, their lives detailed while their likeness becomes a commodity available for purchase, view, and mass reproduction?
With the advent of photography, the portrait became democratised, creating space for those who were marginalised, misrepresented, or erased – though it is only in recent years that the art world proper has begun to make space.
“There is a mirror that is being held up to the art world in so many different ways; it seems like we are poised on the brink of some really big change,” says Jaishri Abichandani, one of the artists featured in The Portrait is Political at BRIC, Brooklyn.
“Portraiture is an incredible tool to pass on our narratives and histories to the next generation” – texas isaiah
The Portrait is Political brings together the work of artists pushing the portrait into new realms, using a collaborative approach to generate the social capital and social justice for the LGBTQ artists, subjects, and communities of Brooklyn.
Organised into three parts, the show includes Jasmine Blooms At Night, Abichandani’s jewel-like paintings of South Asian American feminists; Dear Los Angeles, Love, Brooklyn, a series of photographic portraits of black trans men and women by texas isaiah; and The Other Is You: Brooklyn Queer Portraiture, curated by Liz Collins, with Anna Parisi, and Sol Nova, a group show that exclusively features LGBTQ artists and subjects.
“One thing portraits have been doing for centuries is celebrating people and who they are, showing a person in their chosen environment as they feel best, most true, and their clearest self,” Collins says – a testament to the genre’s power to elevate and transform the way we look at the world. Here, Jaishri Abichandani, texas isaiah, and Liz Collins share their insights into how to use portraiture to create a political impact.
CREATE YOUR OWN SPACE
Born and raised in Brooklyn, texas isaiah’s first hometown exhibition is what he describes as “a love letter from a Brooklynite to Los Angeles, and all the cities that exist in between”, replete with portraits of black individuals made in Oakland, San Francisco, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Brooklyn between 2016 and 2018.
Now based in California, texas isaiah uses portraiture to honour the lives of his subjects and their legacy. “I've lost an incredible amount of people in my life, and for some of the people I've lost, I have no visual evidence of their existence. I only have my memories, and what happens to those memories after I am gone?” he asks.
“Portraiture is an incredible tool to pass on our narratives and histories to the next generation. They can also be reminders for where we are now, and looking back at those moments can be very difficult, but I think that is where the work begins or continues.”
texas isaiah recognises self-portraiture as part of the path towards self-actualisation, observing, “I used to feel like I was not beautiful to be photographed and I avoided it for a long time, and I noticed how much it affected my mind and body. I pushed myself to create self-portraits, and although it feels like there may be a dispute or two that I have to dissolve, I'm grateful for the possibility of fostering a tender space for myself.”
WORK WITHIN YOUR NATIVE TRADITIONS
Hailing from Bombay, Jaishri Abichandani moved to New York at the age of 15 – and like so many immigrants draws strength and inspiration from the traditions of her native culture. She grounds her practice in Rasa theory, a philosophy that first appeared in the Natya Shastra, an ancient Indian encyclopedic treatise on the arts.
“The idea is that all artwork is an emotional transference and a psychic conference between the maker and the audience,” Abichandani explains. “As an artist and curator, it is important to make work that is clear about its emotional and visceral impact on people.”
To achieve this effect, Abichandani asked her subjects for their choice of colour, symbols, objects, and flowers to convey their inner essence. “There are so many things that went into what’s on the wall,” Abichandani says. It’s really personal. These are people that I love and am in community with; ninety per cent are women I know personally.”
STAND IN YOUR TRUTH
Born in Bethesda, Maryland, and now based in Sunset Park, artist and designer Liz Collins brings together the work 37 LGBTQ artists living in Brooklyn today for The Other Is You: Brooklyn Queer Portraiture. The exhibition picks up where her 2018 exhibition Cast of Characters left off, employing a salon-style installation to create a majestic constellation of artists and subjects as dazzlingly diverse as the mediums and styles used to render their breathtaking forms.
“There are some real assertions of identity within the portraits,” Collins says. “A lot of the portraits are showing people’s bodies as they are. In this new paradigm, it’s the normalisation of all bodies, laying bare people and bodies as they are, and celebrating the diversity of all of us.”
For Collins, the way that we see people is a political act, and portraiture provides the framework that can be used to stand in your truth and uplift the community. “For us to see ourselves and to have the gallery wall mirror a small assortment of the vast range of queer artists working in New York right now is important and affirming,” she says. “We see ourselves, we know each other, but then there’s that way to show others: ‘Here we are interrelated in all these ways, and we’re not afraid.’”
“There is a mirror that is being held up to the art world in so many different ways; it seems like we are poised on the brink of some really big change” – Jaishri Abichandani
HONOUR THE PEOPLE DOING THE WORK AND AMPLIFY THEIR CAUSE
As the founder of the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective in New York (1997) and London (2004), Abichandani honours and amplifies the work South Asian American feminists are doing to make a larger social impact. “The idea was to create a portrait of my community that reflects the diversity of class, religion, sexuality, gender fluidity, profession, generation, and place of origin, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal, Jamaica, Guyana, the UK,” Abichandani says.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is Menaka Guruswamy, who went back to India along with her partner, Arundhati Katju, who was her co-council and won the case against Section 377 and the right for all LGBTQ Indians to live free of legal reprisal.
“These are the women doing the work on the ground,” Abichandani says. “Within the South Asian communities, my community doesn’t get to see portraits of these kinds of changemakers who are living, breathing, and walking amongst our midst, people making history as we speak. Then within the art world, there is the larger intervention of putting all these brown women’s bodies into a space where they are generally only painted by white men to be shown.”
CREATE A COLLABORATIVE DIALOGUE WITH YOUR SUBJECTS
For texas isaiah, the photograph is a space for mutuality and discovery through a visual dialogue that explores gender, race, and sexuality that unfolds in an organic, collaborative manner.
“I don't wish to control who gets to be photographed. We choose each other,” he says. “From my perspective, because I do not want to speak for anyone, I believe everyone I photograph brings so much of themselves to the table by sharing their truths with me, and I try my best to ask as many questions and to be transparent as possible.”
texas isaiah takes great care to listen closely to his subject’s needs and desires, making sure that they are involved in the creation of their visual legacy. The construction of the portrait begins with the subject’s choice of locale, a central feature of texas isaiah’s practice.
“I am interested in the affective ties one has for a place or space,” he says. “Is it because they've occupied this space before? Is it because they've dreamt of it? Is it an ancestral recognition? Sometimes, we choose a place not because we love it, but because we have something to work through.”
“For us to see ourselves and to have the gallery wall mirror a small assortment of the vast range of queer artists working in New York right now is important and affirming” – Liz Collins
CHANGE THE WAY YOU SHOW THE WORK
Drawing upon her design background, Liz Collins approached the exhibition as an experience of art within space and took great care to curate the environment to transform the way in which the artwork is received.
“I used to do fashion and my way to have intimate and authentic connections with people are through my clothing,” Collins says. “As I moved into working in interior space with architecture and creating these environments, I began looking at how space affects people. Ultimately, there is an urge to have intimacy, authenticity, and ultimately love.”
That desire takes the form of a salon-style installation, where the cold formality of the modern white cube is discarded in favor of something older, more romantic and sensual. “There is an overwhelming experience of all these faces and bodies and beings. I like to play with that tension of being a lot to take in then too much to take in,” Collins explains.
“At the opening, (people are really feeling the energy I want to be in the show: celebration and a clear stance of this exquisitely diverse and compelling, talented, brilliant, talented, weird, sex community both in the subjects and the artists. When you are on the street or on the subway in New York, you see people all crammed together like that in all of their splendor and diversity. It’s interesting to think about it as a portrayal connected to the environment.”
USE A POWERFUL SYMBOL TO ESTABLISH COMMON GROUND
In 1996, Trini artist and writer Shani Mootoo published Cereus Blooms at Night, a haunting debut novel that set the international literary world ablaze with its exploration of identity, gender, violence, desire, and love.
“It was magical realist fiction about a trans survivor of childhood sexual abuse that was ahead of its time,” Abichandani says. “It defined a generation that I belonged to. A lot of the women in the portraits founded their organizations at that time — and it seems a great title to work from.”
Abichandani chose the jasmine flower for the title of her work as a way to bring together a diverse group of women through a flower that is emblematic of the transcendent feminine spirit. “Jasmine flower is common to South Asia and beloved to women who wear it in their hair. It’ is used in both spiritual worship and personal adornment and it’s a neutral flower in that is not attached to Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, or any of those things that become contentious,” Abichandani explains.
“I thought of night blooming jasmine spreading its fragrance and illuminating the night when all else is dark was the perfect metaphor for the work that these women have been doing through all of their adversity.”