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Black Trans Liberation as History and Prophecy: The Art of Tourmaline

The artist's first solo show, is a reminder that pleasure is inseparable from the joint projects of abolition and freedom.

By Tal Milovina

January 21, 2021

Tourmaline’s Coral Hairstreak, 2020.(Courtesy of Chapter NY)

Nearly two centuries ago, as cholera made its way from Canadian ports down the Hudson River, New Yorkers scrounged for respite from and within an increasingly unlivable city. It was a time not dissimilar to ours. Some mostly white New Yorkers found refuge in the city’s patronage system, with political candidates in poorer wards securing votes by paying for ferries to transport constituents to “pleasure grounds” upstate. Others enjoyed exclusive “pleasure gardens,” outdoor havens which existed throughout the country but were especially prominent in New York. With much of the city’s resources restricted to the white and the wealthy, autonomous communities built their own sanctuaries; throughout the 1820s, on the outskirts of lower Manhattan, Black-owned pleasure gardens flourished. The spirit of these gardens—joyful, recuperative, filled with wonder—run through the work of artist and activist Tourmaline, permeating her dreams and providing the title for her first solo show.

Pleasure Garden at Chapter NY, actualizes a world in which life is easy for Black trans femmes. In a series of self-portraits inspired by the photography of Jacob Riis and Victorian-era pornography, Tourmaline places herself in the imagined space of a Black-owned pleasure garden. In one portrait, she squats over a pumpkin, giving birth to (or copulating with) the land around her. Elsewhere, she dons the helmet of a space suit while blasting off into extraterrestrial realms. In Tourmaline’s world, there are no demands of productivity or austerity; she exists in a reciprocal relationship with nature, literally floating in time and space. Respectability and legiblity are elided too; basking in wayward pleasures, she refuses histories of anti-cross-dressing laws which, not so long ago, targeted trans people for simply existing in public.

In Salacia, a short film that accompanies the portraits, Tourmaline reenvisions the life of Mary Jones, a Black trans woman who was born in 1803 in New York. The real-life Jones worked in a SoHo brothel, part of a community of “girls of ill fame,” which—in court transcripts unearthed by Tourmaline’s sibling, Che Gossett—Jones cites as the reason she recognized her own power. “At a time when there weren’t many Black trans people out and about, she was living large and in charge,” Tourmaline tells me. Laughing slightly, she adds, “chargin’ and largin’.” But the world responded to Mary’s beauty with punitive instincts. In the 1830s, the street queen was imprisoned at Sing Sing Correctional Facility and labeled a “man-monster” in a tabloid lithograph. In Tourmaline’s retelling, Mary (played by Rowin Amone) transcends imprisonment by finding refuge in Seneca Village, a community of free Black and Irish immigrants who lived together in the decades leading up to the Civil War.

First screened on the High Line overlooking the Hudson, and now housed in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, Salacia moves from scenes of luxury in Seneca Village—women adorned with pearls and feathers, nestling together under blankets; children dressed in all white, running around a fire pit—to Jones behind bars at Castle Williams, a fortification on Governors Island. Dreamy shots of the river’s banks on Manhattan’s West Side are interspersed with found footage of Sylvia Rivera, the street activist and trans icon who lived at the Christopher Street Pier more than 100 years after Jones’s life. 

At a time when New York Mayor Fernando Wood was calling for secession—a flagrant display of the city’s entanglement with the transatlantic slave trade—Seneca Village was a sanctuary for people with a fugitive relationship to the state: one of the only places where Black people could be landowners and were thus allowed to vote. In the same spirit, Rivera’s encampment at the piers became a refuge for displaced trans, HIV-positive, and disabled people at a time when the AIDS crisis was at its worst and vilified communities continued to be neglected. In Salacia, the self-identified drag queen and liberationist Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson appears on a button that Sylvia wears on her shirt. In the wake of Marsha’s passing, Tourmaline tells me, the encampment became an homage to Sylvia’s friend and comrade, who had been found in the river nearby.The impossible life flourishing at Christopher Street also highlighted the wealth that ran through the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center up the block.

Working outside of a dominant art historical canon that extracts from, and then discards, Black trans life, Tourmaline speculates on the gaps in history—what she calls “tapping into the current of what’s already here” and what the scholar Saidiya Hartman has referred to as “critical fabulation.” Attending to the rich legacy left behind in the imprints of our collective trans ancestors, Tourmaline makes real the impossible freedoms that she notices everyday. In doing so, the artist blurs the line between cultural worker and organizer. Aesthetics, care, and everyday life are all part of the deeply political project of her art practice. The attention given to ease and luxury in Pleasure Garden is proof that joy flourishes under brutal conditions and that abundance plays a central role in political organizing: Aligning our desires with what we understand to be possible, pleasure allows us to expand on the life-affirming things that we already have and, in turn, to realize the big-scale changes we dream of.

Swallowtail, 2020. (Courtesy of Chapter NY)

Tourmaline was born in 1983 to two freedom fighters. Her parents—her mom a union organizer and her dad a member of the Memphis-based Black Panther counterparts the Invaders—met during the 1967 Detroit riots. Sweeping through the city that summer, the uprising was a response to decades of segregation, disinvestment, white flight, and a police department that Black residents understood to be an occupying force. This political legacy is crucial for understanding Tourmaline’s path not just as an artist but also as a prison abolitionist and disability justice advocate. Growing up in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, Tourmaline spent much of her childhood visiting and writing to her father in prison, wishing for better resources “to navigate that emotional experience” of incarceration.

By the early 2000s, Tourmaline was living in New York City and organizing for Black, trans, queer, and disabled communities. She taught creative-writing classes at the Rikers Island jail complex and partnered with the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance, successfully stopping the building of a new $375 million jail in the Bronx. After graduating from Columbia, she worked with Queers for Economic Justice, a liberation group which dissolved in 2012 due to a lack of funding, and the legal aid organization Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Over almost two decades in community organizing, Tourmaline experienced a “fundamental paradigm shift”: Combing through the archives of trans elders like Jones and Johnson, she realized that seemingly small gestures—writing to incarcerated loved ones, finding a gender neutral bathroom when you really need it—are what create the conditions in which we can feel good. Quotidian acts of care are the bedrock of how we move through this world, and how we might move into a more liveable one.

In turning to the ordinary, Tourmaline’s artistic practice recovers and recognizes the lives of trans activists of color discarded by the power and authority of the historical archive. The filmmaker’s now defunct Tumblr brought Sylvia and Marsha—the “mothers” of modern gay rights, whose contributions were largely erased by more assimilationist strands of the movement—back into mainstream consciousness. Tourmaline’s 2009 film, STAR People are Beautiful People, invokes the celestial expanse to highlight the sweeping impact of Rivera and Johnson’s activist group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries. In 2016’s The Personal Things, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy—the trans icon who was beaten by the police during the Stonewall uprising of 1969, and has since witnessed the riot’s evolution into a commercialized parade—explains that she changed her government IDs back to male in order to “strike” against a transphobic status quo. Atlantic Is a Sea of Bones, Tourmaline’s 2017 film based off the 1987 Lucille Clifton poem of the same title, follows the self-actualization of Egypt, a character based on the iconic ballroom figure Egyptt Labeija. Reflecting on the excavation of Black trans life, the film interrogates how massive losses—the Middle Passage, the AIDS epidemic, anti-Black policing and “quality of life” gentrification—continue to shape a landscape even after they’re supposedly over. A year later, Happy Birthday, Marsha! reimagined Marsha’s life in the hours leading up to her igniting the Stonewall riots.

If the theft of Black trans life is an ongoing violence, then creating counternarratives is central to the project of realizing trans futures—what Hartman calls “redressing the violence of history.” For Tourmaline, this visionary work is rooted in freedom dreaming—a term she borrows from her mentor Robin D.G. Kelley and a practice that stems from the Mississippi Freedom Schools of the ’60s. In a piece for Vogue this past year, Tourmaline explains that freedom dreaming is about building the worlds that we want, not just destroying what we don’t. The practice takes as a truth that change is inevitable—a nod to Octavia Butler’s tenet, “God is change”—and that we can call into existence the changes that we desire by asking questions, over and over: “What does the dominant culture have that we want?⁣ What does the dominant culture have that we don’t want?⁣ What do we have that we want to keep?⁣” Tourmaline began asking these questions during her time as a community organizer, and her artistic practice follows in their tradition. 

In late August she proposed a plan to replace Rikers with Nanny Goat Hill Pleasure Gardens—a “counter-monument” named after a rocky outcrop in Seneca Village that would transform a place of captivity and ownership into a space for more reciprocal and intimate relationships with the land. Freedom dreamers, like the architects of Seneca Village and the owners of the 19th-century pleasure gardens, turn toward everyday care and connection as a source of liberation. In their honor, Pleasure Garden asks: How is the world that we dream of—one of abolition, self-determination, and housing and health care for all—already here?

Morning Cloak, 2020.(Courtesy of Chapter NY)

Turning the camera on myself was difficult,” Tourmaline says. “When we’re conditioned to believe that we don’t have value, it can be hard to look at ourselves.” This journey—to reclaim her position in that fraught category of who and what matters—is why she considers the portraits to be her most important work. Part of a broader project of valorizing the lives of Black trans femmes, Tourmaline’s self-portraiture resists the urge to, as Hartman put it, “arrest motion and fix time.” Neither static nor solitary, the five portraits are named after the artist’s favorite garden butterflies—Coral Hairstreak, Sleepy Orange Sulphur, Morning Cloak, Summer Azure, Swallowtail—tributes that not only honor her own metamorphosis but also call into the present the many histories and people who pollinate her work. In each invocation, Tourmaline wears white, the same color that over 15,000 people wore to honor Black trans lives in front of the Brooklyn museum this summer, and a nod to director Julie Dash and cinematographer Arthur Jafa’s landmark 1991 film Daughters of the Dust.

At its core, Pleasure Garden interrogates how entangled the histories of colonialism and slavery are to our contemporary relationship with nature. Once located between 82nd and 89th streets, in what we now call Central Park, Seneca Village was destroyed by eminent domain in 1857, a political maneuver that removed Black landowners’ right to vote under the guise of restoring an idyllic public. But the show also offers the possibility of transforming and recontextualizing the traumas that continue to haunt trans lives. 

Salacia, 2019.(Courtesy of Chapter NY)

Salacia opens with a refrain from The People Could Fly, the 1985 collection of folktales that tells the story of enslaved people who call upon ancient magic to fly to freedom. One of the first books that Tourmaline read as a child, the folktales’ illustrations inspired most of the tattoos which peek out from behind her pink hair in the portraits. Like the reimagined Jones and the real-life Rivera, the picture book’s author, Virginia Hamilton, communed with those bridging the gap between their inherited reality and the worlds they desired.

In Tourmaline’s freedom dream, the magic of outer space and the sea—not the calendar and clock—keep the time, mingling the future and the past with the present. As Sylvia meditates on the Hudson, she calls out from the future to tell Mary, “You got to keep fighting, girly, ’cause it’s not time for you to cross the River Jordan.” While the shots of shimmering water necessarily invoke painful histories—the millions of lives lost during the Middle Passage, the 7,200-some people incarcerated on Rikers island today—Sylvia’s invocation of the biblical river allows viewers to imagine more beautiful realities. Pulling together the scattered historical documents of an archive policed by white imagination, Tourmaline convenes with the many would-be trans elders who illuminate her work. An homage to the beauty of those street queens who luxuriate outside of white-walled galleries and mainstream history—from Jones’s resolve to exist as her full self to the care work of Rivera and Johnson to the visions now offered to us by Tourmaline—Pleasure Garden inspires an imaginative politics of everyday trans life. 

Art-making is always political work, uniquely capable of transporting us to new ways of feeling, sensing, and belonging. And trans life—the art of reenvisioning ourselves and how we exist in relation to others—is particularly bound to the remaking of the world. Effectively challenging what we know to be normal, rational, and valuable, the gifts of transness are not frivolous addendums to be added to a list of economic or political demands. Glamour and performance, Pleasure Garden maintains, are inseparable from the joint projects of abolition and Black trans liberation.

Tal MilovinaTal Milovina was an editorial intern at The Nation.


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