Existence as Protest: Making Space for Trans Artists at Rhizome DC

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When curator Lucas Rougeux put out an online call for entries from trans artists, “a lot of the submissions came with explanations of what made it valid as trans art” he recalls in a phone call, “but really, I didn’t need anyone to defend themselves—trans people are already having to defend their very existence every day…there is no universal ‘transgender experience’.”  

The resulting exhibition, Existence as Protest: The Art of Trans, Queer, and Gender Expansive Experience, on view at Rhizome DC through September 29th, largely reflects Rougeux’s inclusive curatorial ethos. He understands that what it means to be anything other than cisgendered is not an easily-categorized monolith, “and the influx of applicants from across the broad scope of transness—which included not only binary trans people, but nonbinary, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming folx—is a testament to that.” 

"Resilience" and "Clarity" by Julian Legendre (they/them), "beach hairs, Peter" by Gabe Duggan (they/them), "beyond stabil(e)ity" by C.J. Linton (he/him), "honeystillfloats" by Gabe Duggan, "Witch Water" by Alex Weidenfeld (he/they)
"Carmen," "Colby," "Harley," "Sam," and "Coral" by Katie Magician (they/she), "Homebody" and "Fibers" by Christina Yoshika Greene (she/her), "Red Cat" by The Model Mutiny, "Labor of Lava" and "Curtain for the Window to Spiral Time" by Janet George (they/them)
"Seggri, Rokanan, Hainish" by Sam Atha (they/them), "Girl Scout" by Faryn Kelly (she/her), "Sternum Armor" by Oona Giebel (it/its/they/them)
A lot of the submissions I got came with explanations of why they were submitting their work, and what made it valid as ‘trans art’. But really, I didn’t need anyone to defend themselves: trans people are already having to defend their very existence every day… there is no universal ‘transgender experience’
Lucas Rougeux

The prismatic nature of Existence as Protest is very much in line with Rhizome’s founding principles. Hosting an array of public programming blurring the lines between amateur and professional and serving as a community-first link between disparate music, dance, and visual art circles on the periphery of the mainstream since its establishment in 2015, the space takes its name and mission from a post-structural concept introduced in Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. 

Appropriated from a biological term for the root systems of plants, a “rhizome” philosophically represents a non-hierarchical system of sharing knowledge that has no fixed entry or exit points. Such a structure encourages a non-linear and diverse exploration of ideas and relationships. As the growth of a rhizome challenges the notion that schools of thought must meet the criteria of a designated central authority to be considered valid; Existence As Protest challenges a monolithic view of the transgender community through its diversity. 

The selection of works—painting, sculpture, photography, textile, film, collage, and site-specific installation—is immensely varied. The space limitations of presenting in a two story house alongside the wide range of mediums made for a curatorial challenge, but Rougeaux was still able to take the collection and spatially arrange the pieces such that some broader through lines put them in conversation with one another. 

"Quercus," "Daucus," "Datura," "Truce," and "Sweat" by Tyler Grigsby (they/them) and Jay Michonski (he/they)

The first space encountered in the exhibition, Rhizome’s living room, is abundant with scenes from and inspired by naturechallenging the pervasive and damaging societal notion that being transgender is at odds with it. The truth is, trans people have existed since the dawn of time. And although no one knows why with any certainty, many theories point to biological, genetic factors that cause persons to identify as other than their sex assigned at birth. 

"It's In Our Blood" by Ash Newton (they/them)

Upstairs, the idea that transness is intrinsic, rather than a choice or fad, is poignantly captured in a collage by Ash Newton. In bold type, it reads “It’s in Our Blood”. The loaded phrase not only speaks to the organic roots of transgender people’s experiences, but the violence that has been waged against them—particularly against transgender women of color, who led the charge at the onset of the gay rights movement in the United States. 

The loss of trans elders to violence and suicide has an impact on trans people’s adolescence: trans children may wonder, in the wake of such devastating stats regarding the longevity and wellness of transgender people and an onslaught of bigotry and misinformation in the media, does it really get better? The room to the right of “It’s in Our Blood” seems to explore this idea. 

Adolescence is difficult for everyone, but until quite recently, transgender children had virtually no openly transgender actors, singers, or other celebrities to identify with on the big screen. Without any real representation in the media, finding the language to acknowledge one’s true self and begin the coming out process can be elusive. The proliferation of the internet has allowed for more transgender people to share their stories, and online spaces can be integral tools for young transgender people to affirm the self-knowledge of their unique identities by hearing about experiences that align with their own. 

“Closet Blues” by MasVusi

The refuge that the internet can provide in adolescence is exemplified by MasVusi’s music video for their song Closet Blues. Viewers are invited to take a seat at a computer monitor adorned with an almost garish set of googly eyes and pop on a nostalgically bulky headphone set to watch the equal parts kitsch and glam-pop video that almost leans into the long-held view of gender variant people as “too much”. Set up on a desk covered in Sharpie marker messages and spilled nail polish, flanked by handmade jewelry by Oona Giebel and Sam Atha mounted on the wall, you are made to feel as if you are sitting in a teenager’s bedroom rather than a gallery space. 

“Closet Blues,” according to MasVusi, “….as both a music video and physical piece, works to bring the listener into this headspace where you feel closer to your younger queer self and connected to the emotion of young queer love; the complications that come with someone in the relationship not being out. It’s about how the world can feel like it’s against you, but there’s always a way to return to a place where you feel comfortable, at ease, and at home.”

The piece also references how queerness often flourishes in niche spaces, like online chat rooms and nightlife. The sanctuary provided to be one’s authentic self is often found underground, which made Rhizome the perfect place to show Existence As Protest. An epicenter for experimental performance art nestled in the Takoma neighborhood—whose unique blend of small-town atmosphere, progressive community building, and an eclectic arts scene create a distinctly bohemian enclave in the broader metropolitan-DC area—Rhizome DC’s grunge facade and its happenings are in stark contrast to the buttoned-up feel of the arts spaces downtown. 

"Live Sexy Queer Singles Suicide Hotline" by Liz Ensz (they/them), "Xaddi1" by Rae Akino

Directly across the room from “Closet Blues”, a sparkly wall of ribbon curtains and a shiny disco ball call to mind a high school prom photo op. Sardonic text pinned to glossy streamers reads “Live Sexy Queer Singles Suicide Hotline”. Artist Liz Ensz writes, “this work was created during the last years of my mom’s life, leading up to her death, when I was processing our relationship, my hidden life, and my struggle against suicidal feelings from lacking an accepting birth family…making this art was integral for my process of understanding and grieving and learning to love myself.” 

“Live Sexy Queer Singles Suicide Hotline” is not only in conversation with “Closet Blues” in its pointedly glam-ified rehashing of adolescent trauma vis-a-vis being in the closet. MasVusi shared “it’s interesting ‘Closet Blues’ is across from ‘Live Sexy Queer Singles Suicide Hotline’ because the song is inspired by a former lover who passed from suicide.” 

“May They Grow Old” by C.S. Corbin
"Carmen," "Colby," "Harley," "Sam," and "Coral" by Katie Magician (they/she), "Homebody" and "Fibers" by Christina Yoshika Greene (she/her), "Red Cat" by The Model Mutiny, "Labor of Lava" and "Curtain for the Window to Spiral Time" by Janet George (they/them)

Making it to adulthood and having the opportunity to heal the “Closet Blues” of one’s youth is not possible for all transgender people. With suicide affecting the transgender community in alarming disproportion to the general population, the mental wellbeing of transgender children in light of the encroachment on their and their families’ autonomy across the nation should be of great concern. This is encapsulated by “May They Grow Old”, a plaster birthday cake by C.S. Corbin. 

Its accompanying didactic text reads, …”trans kids deserve the right of feeling mentally and physically safe to grow up as their authentic selves, to age peacefully. I think a lot about those who weren’t able to grow old…about our elders of the LGBTQ+ community and how there should be more.” 

Long-held societal prejudices assert that the high rate of suicide among transgender people means being transgender in itself is a mental illness. In reality, factors like familial rejection, bullying, and medical discrimination as a result of being transgender are more likely to contribute to suicidal ideation in transgender people than simply being trans. Although not all transgender people experience gender dysphoria or transition physically, clinical studies have consistently found that access to hormone replacement therapy and gender-affirming surgeries have a positive effect on the mental wellbeing of those who undergo such treatment.

The doorway beside Live Sexy Queer Singles Suicide Hotline enters a space addressing the liberating act of physical transformation in the context of gender transition.

"T is Terrific" by Cooper Joslin (they/them), "Eating Myself" by Erick Buendia, "Saint Agatho" by Raulen Scheidegger (he/they), "Four Figures" and "Untitled" by Luke Sutherland (he/him)

Raulin Scheidegger’s “Saint Agotho” reimagines the Catholic saint Agatha, who was often depicted with her breasts cut off. This palpable religious imagery responds to the rejection of transgender people by the leaders in the Catholic faith, self-assuredly framing the alteration of the physical body as a spiritual journey; a divine alignment. This idea is paralleled by Connie Jin’s “Body” diptych and Nicky Allen’s “I Will Not Abandon This Vessel.” Integrating trans bodies and celestial imagery to assert the deeply ingrained, psychic self-knowledge of transgender people, these works speak to the concept of becoming your own creator. 

In contrast, other works satirize the association between transgender bodies and the destruction of nature and godliness: 

“Exquisite Corpse” by Alex Wedenfield
"Witch Water" by Alex Weidenfeld

“Exquisite Corpse,” a series of intaglio prints by Alex Wedenfield, “alludes to the gender euphoria of having the agency to decide what becomes of one’s body.” Evoking Satanic imagery through a black and red color scheme, each figure poses with likeness to portrayals of Baphomet, a pagan ram deity originally worshiped by the Templars and later embraced by various occult groups. 

Erick Buendia’s “Eating Myself” more directly approaches the likening of physical transition to body mutilation; its violent imagery offset by an ironically cheerful color palette and pop art sensibility. 

Existence As Protest tackles many themes that have become ubiquitous with trans life in popular thought, but its rhizomatic nature is reflected, too, in the incorporation of works seemingly unrelated to being transgender. Curator Rougeux said, “there are a lot of works in the show that don’t directly relate to ‘trans themes’, but there’s power in knowing trans people made them, and everything we do as artists is imbued with what we’ve been through and who we are. Transness doesn’t define trans people, it’s just a part of who they are, but the person you are is always going to inform in some way or another the work that you do.” 

"Joy" by Julieta Tetelbaum (she/her), "You Who Kept Me Alive" by Z. Hanna Mahon (they/them)

The idea that simply existing as a transgender person challenges society’s rigid imposition of gender essentialism is perhaps perfectly encapsulated by Hanna Mahon’s “You Who Kept Me Alive.”

Composed of daily reminders, schedules, and motivational messages written on sticky notes, the quilt captures a year of the artist’s life. Most are mundane, reminding the viewer that they could have been written by anyone. In the context of a show by almost exclusively transgender artists, the work drives home that trans people are just that: people with their own joys and struggles, communities, and dreams.  

Existence as Protest is open for viewing during all Rhizome events for the rest of September, or by appointment by e-mailing [email protected] .  Rhizome will be hosting an art market featuring trans vendors, Saturday September 16th, from 3-5pm, as well as an artist talk and panel discussion on Sunday, September 17th from 5-7pm. 

"Sternum Armor" by Oona Giebel (it/its/they/them, "Eliot" and "Bottom Growth" by Lennon Sherburne (they/them)
"Resilience" and "Clarity" by Julian Legendre (they/them), "beach hairs, Peter" by Gabe Duggan (they/them)
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