Feb 28, 2022
2020–21 artist in residence Texas Isaiah shared digital space with photo sitter and collaborator Bearboi, artist and thought partner Terrell Brooke, and scholar and writer C. Riley Snorton for a conversation that expands the blueprint for a collective archive of Black trans lives. During their time together, the group reflected on the following questions and more:
Texas Isaiah in Conversation is presented on the occasion of (Never) As I Was: Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2020–21, held at MoMA PS1 while the Studio Museum constructs a new building on the site of its longtime home on West 125th Street.
This is a record of transgender ancestors’ names and life stories that were mentioned and uplifted during Texas Isaiah in Conversation. The term transcestor was coined in 2009 by Lewis Reay.
Texas Isaiah [he/they] is an award-winning, first-generation North American, visual narrator born in East New York, Brooklyn, and currently residing in Los Angeles. As an autodidact, Texas Isaiah's method prioritizes the endless possibilities of an adequate care system and a more thoughtful and compassionate visual world. In 2020, Texas Isaiah became one of the first trans photographers to photograph a Vogue cover (Janet Mock, Patrisse Cullors, Jesse Williams, and Janaya Future Khan) and a TIME cover (Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union-Wade). He is one of the 2018 grant recipients of Art Matters, a 2019 recipient of the Getty Images: Where We Stand Creative Bursary grant, and a 2020–21 artist in residence at The Studio Museum in Harlem.
Bearboi (they/xe/he) is a Black trans photographer and visual content creator from Prince George’s County, Maryland and is currently based in Minneapolis. Their personal work predominately celebrates the beauty of everyday life at the intersections of Black queerness, allowing the underrepresented to take up space, be seen, and be heard.
Terrell Brooke (he/him) is an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles who works with body movement, sound design/experimentation, and vocal exercise to explore BIPOC queer feminist theory. Terrell’s most recent works, from rhythmic multi-genre sets to abstracted soundscapes, seek to explore notions of resiliency and femme embodiment and to amplify queer narratives.
C. Riley Snorton is a writer, scholar, and advocate. He is the author of Nobody is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low (University of Minnesota Press, 2014) and Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). He is also the co-editor of Saturation: Race, Art, and the Circulation of Value (MIT Press, 2020).
Please explore the following materials offered by Texas Isaiah and his conversation partners.
|bell hooks, All About Love (Mahogany Books, 2022)||Sister Gertrude Morgan, Smithsonian American Art Museum||Kortney Ryan Ziegler, Still Black: A Portrait of Black Trans Men with Kortney Ryan Ziegler, University of California Television|
|Akwaeke Emezi, Dear Senthuran (Penguin Random House, 2021)||Kortney Ryan Ziegler, 2017 Gender & Work Symposium: Images, Identities, and the Space(s) Between, Harvard Business School|
|Audre Lorde, Collected Poems (W.W. Norton, 2000)||Kingston Farady, A Transgender Man's Path to Freedom, Rituals with Laura Ling|
|Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals, (Penguin Random House, 2020)||Jevon Martin, Black Trans and Hopeful. Meet Jevon Martin, Christian Science Monitor|
|Sonia Sanchez, Morning Haiku, (Beacon Press, 2011)||Daniel Peddle, The Aggressives, Breaking Glass Pictures, 2019|
The poignancy of Texas Isaiah’s work lies in his ability to reimagine the healing potential of photography for Black people, particularly Black trans, gender expansive, and nonbinary folks. Placing thoughtful collaboration at the core of his practice, he allows his sitters to document themselves on their own terms. The Brooklyn-born, LA-based photographer adopts a restorative approach to the photographic process, centering the self-actualization of the photographed, many of whom do not often find themselves depicted within the photographic canon. Texas Isaiah’s photographs depict quiet moments of intimacy across spaces of community, nature, and home that celebrate the quotidian as a way of foregrounding his sitter’s humanity. As such, his images are full of silent conversations between himself and his sitters, the sitters and themselves, and with himself. In them he asks: What do I want to see more of? What contributions can I make to an evolving conversation surrounding images of Black trans and gender expansive folks? What would Marsha P. Johnson love to see in image-making today? These questions continue to guide Texas Isaiah’s practice through and beyond the residency.
You have described the intimacy between you, the people in your photographs, and the camera as “creating with individuals and narratives” rather than serving as onlookers. How have you been able to navigate changes in intimacy in the photographic process alongside the people you photograph?
The shifts in intimacy have unquestionably changed with how we can be in physical space, but I believe people will begin to interrogate how to expand our connections to intimacy. This may be when I cannot image people frequently, but this moment is an opportunity to figure out new ways to engage.
Your project Our Moonlight / Intimacy and Isolation, created for the New York Times in August 2020, considered the ways people have renegotiated intimacy while remaining physically distant. Inspired by a former partner, in tandem with a desire to get out of the house, you’ve noted this passion project stemmed from your “burning curiosity of how, specifically Black, queer, and gender expansive, couples were sustaining intimacy amongst one another during this time.” Can you expand on this?
I felt an incredible amount of anxiety around producing Our Moonlight / Intimacy in Isolation during the early season of the pandemic. But it was important for me to work on something that would allow me to check in with the community and support my well-being. It was some people’s first time outside of their homes. Although we were required to manage our distance, we could still establish intimacy, but it had to be shaped differently.
You began your career photographing clubs, recognizing the importance of nightlife for Black, trans, and queer communities. Alongside the societal erasure and marginalization of these groups, these spaces served as a place of gathering, community, and joy. With the current precautions around gathering, those formative years of your career seem to take on a new meaning while remaining central to your work. As an artist whose early works captured nightlife, how has your relationship with that period in your life changed?
I frequently travel back to those moments because the ideals and values are still at the center of my work. I also still go out and attend events—every time I travel to a new city, the first places I am interested in exploring are nightlife spaces. They’re some of the first places I learned about building community. I love to dance and meet new people. People have now examined the questions around gathering in spaces, but there will always be privileges that allow some to congregate and others not to. Who's allowed to do that and who isn’t? These are questions I feel like people, even pre-pandemic, had to ask themselves regarding safety and acknowledgment.
Nightlife helped and continues to aid how I define myself as an artist. We are constantly faced with questioning ourselves on whether or not we are artists. Who is an artist? Who's able to call themselves an artist? What does one's artistry have to look like? I spent some time listening to people attempting to manage what my career or work should look like to reach bizarre tiers of "success." It made me doubt myself. Nightlife reminds me of why I am here to begin with. It has nothing to do with success or believing my value is tethered to success.
I've been thinking a lot about memory and visual archives in relation to this moment when Black people are experiencing so much loss. How have you interpreted the role of the visual archive in your community?
Within a time of intense isolation and distance, I've been fascinated by artists finding reflections within their work. People are going back to their archives and revisiting and revising projects they produce; some folks are pointing the cameras at themselves, and others are photographing their inner circles at a distance.
I’m most interested in how photographers, or artists, are developing more self-portraiture. I've been thinking a lot about the presence of the artists within their own work and the relationship between yourself and yourself when you become the person that's in the image. What kind of inner kinships are you able to discover? Do your self-portraits allow memories to remerge? How does this experience apply to the moment a sitter is involved in the process again? I believe these questions are essential to ask as we transform our relationships with ourselves and one another.
(Never) As I Was marks the third year of the multiyear partnership between The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Museum of Modern Art, and MoMA PS1, and features new work by the 2020–21 Artist-in-Residence cohort: Widline Cadet (b. 1992, Pétion-Ville, Haiti), Texas Isaiah (b. Brooklyn, NY), Genesis Jerez (b. 1993, Bronx, NY), and Jacolby Satterwhite (b. 1986, Columbia, South Carolina).
With practices spanning new media, painting, sculpture, and photography, each artist proposes dynamic ways of experiencing time, space, and locality set into this current moment of complex transformation. In response to the seismic impacts of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, for the first time in the Museum’s history the artists participated entirely in remote form for the duration of the residency. Communication was deeply mediated by the digital—this way of collaborating presented new modes of being, bending and recharting the territories of domestic, social, and studio space.
Widline Cadet’s photo and video works examine intergenerational memory, selfhood, and erasure within the diasporic experience. Texas Isaiah offers a space for mourning, celebration, prayer, and remembrance, asserting the significance of imagination in the abolition of gender while exploring the healing capacity of rest as a place of connection. Genesis Jerez’s collaged paintings layer family photographs, oil paint, and charcoal to create works that interrogate her own personal histories and reckon with questions of diasporic fracture. Jacolby Satterwhite’s refocus on painting during the residency marked a shift inward: across these paintings, he engages fantasy as a mechanism for healing and a veil for trauma, flaying open a psychic space for transcendent possibility. Each artist took on the challenge of thinking critically and durationally about the ways the tensions and possibilities of private vs. public and interior vs. exterior can be expanded, reimagined, and renegotiated through and beyond their work. The outcomes are tender and lyrical explorations of family histories, memoir, spirituality, and memory. In reflecting on their private pasts, these artists have created works that look toward what collectively lies ahead, to a world that is at once achingly the same and never as it was.
(Never) As I Was is organized by Legacy Russell, former Studio Museum Associate Curator, Exhibitions (now Executive Director and Chief Curator, The Kitchen), with Yelena Keller, Curatorial Assistant, Exhibitions, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and Josephine Graf, Assistant Curator, MoMA PS1. Exhibition research is provided by Angelique Rosales Salgado, former The Studio Museum in Harlem and MoMA Curatorial Fellow, and Elana Bridges, former Mellon Curatorial Fellow, The Studio Museum in Harlem.
Support for (Never) As I Was at MoMA PS1 is generously provided by the Tom Slaughter Exhibition Fund and the MoMA PS1 Trustee Annual Fund.
The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Artist-in-Residence program is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts; Joy of Giving Something; New York State Council on the Arts; Doris Duke Charitable Foundation; Jerome Foundation; Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation; and by endowments established by the Andrea Frank Foundation; the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Trust; and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Additional support is generously provided by The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.
The Studio Museum in Harlem’s Artist-in-Residence program is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts; Joy of Giving Something; Robert Lehman Foundation; New York State Council on the Arts; Doris Duke Charitable Foundation; Jerome Foundation; Milton and Sally Avery Arts Foundation; and by endowments established by the Andrea Frank Foundation; the Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Trust; and Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
Digital programming is made possible thanks to support provided by the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation’s Frankenthaler Digital Initiative.
Additional support is generously provided by The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.