A London artist explores third-sex identity through pop culture icons from Michael Jackson to Margaret Thatcher.
Minor Relief, image courtesy of XXXora
Gender and power are the controlling themes for emerging Anglo-Spanish artist XXXora, whose debut exhibition, The Newer Gender, opens at East London’s Vyner Street Gallery on Thursday, June 14. Interested in iconography, she explores the links between masculinity, femininity and capitalism in a series of figurative paintings and short films.
Both based in London, our shared interest in gender brings us together. I identify as “trans,” influenced by academic and activist writers like Judith Butler, Leslie Feinberg, Sandy Stone and others that followed. XXXora has a more intuitive approach–“I’m a hermaphrodite,” she says, identifying more with Native American “two spirit” people and ancient third sex cultures such as South Asia’s hijra or Samoa’s fa’afafine than with Western binary concepts of gender variance. She’s developed a distinctive look: a silver mask covers one side of her face, the opposite eye heavily made up, sporting armor beside a corset and red stilettos. She explores unconventional gender presentations and their potential in both her appearance and her art, her image sometimes merging with those of her subjects, particularly her main focus, Margaret Thatcher, whom she describes as “the new leader of androgyny.”
Role models were difficult to identify for me growing up, as I did not fit into that black and white ideal of gender: my androgynous superstars were the closest I had.
XXXora’s politics are less obvious than they might seem on seeing Margaret Thatcher’s Tea Party, where a male-bodied Thatcher, female-bodied Michael Jackson and androgyne Freddie Mercury dine over the corpse of a British miner, referencing the brutal crushing of the miner’s strike, a crucial event in Thatcher’s tenure that is often glossed over in reminiscences of the ’80s. In Min0r Relief, an idiosyncratic selection of figures–Karl Marx, Eva Perón, Oprah Winfrey, and Aleksandra Kollontai, the People’s Commissar for Social Welfare in Lenin’s Soviet Union–attend a funeral. The very male, working-class mining industry has been defeated, but everyone depicted had differing ideas about how women should engage with industrial capitalism, and we’re left to draw our own conclusions about whose would best fill the void left by the failure of British socialism. In another portrait, Thatcher, masked, merges into XXXora. Why does the creator of such strong anti-Thatcher critiques as Tea Party and Miner Relief identify with the destroyer of the unions in this way?
“Thatcher displayed masculinised qualities,” XXXora tells me, “from being encouraged by the men around her to deepen her voice to exude more authority, to her aggressive stance on many issues, including the Falklands, a war over territory, power and natural resources.” Xxxora is less interested in whether Thatcher “consciously expressed masculinised behaviour,” than she is in the political ramifications of Thatcher’s self-presentation. “I think it’s tragic that the only way a woman could reach such leadership is by submitting to the horrifically unbalanced status quo.”
Supplemented by theatrical video manifestos where she revels in her persona, XXXora’s paintings have a distinctive aesthetic: greyscale backgrounds against which her brash, almost cartoonish monochrome figures–a “pantheon of androgynous superstars”–come to the fore. “I like that palette because it references the perceived parameters of gender. Also, I remember seeing Picasso’s Guernica as a child and being blown away by the intense monochrome spectacle. My parents are Spanish and my mother’s parents both lost family in the bombing so it was particularly resonant for me.
Section 28 prohibited any discussion around sexual diversity or gender variance. The law was not overturned until 2003.
“With regards to my use of celebrities, they represent modern deities–idols. Role models are very important, but they were difficult to identify for me growing up, as I did not fit into that black and white ideal of gender: my androgynous superstars were the closest I had. Most came to attention during Thatcher’s premiership, when gender conventions were being challenged. I think some flirted with androgyny for commercial reasons whilst others were and are third gender beings. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask, for example, whether Michael Jackson was actually transgender. He’d certainly sculpted his face into a feminised form by the time he died.”
XXXora draws a line from the fashionable androgyny of the ’80s–when, paradoxically, the New Romantics prospered but the UK and US governments wilfully ignored the HIV/AIDS epidemic ravaging queer communities for as long as possible–to the present flowering of transgender identities. It has not been easy for this culture to enter the mainstream, however, nor for the people within it to express themselves individually. One reason for this was Thatcher’s Conservative Party passing of Section 28 in 1988, banning the “promotion of homosexuality” in schools. In effect, Section 28 prohibited any discussion around sexual diversity or gender variance. The law was not overturned until 2003. For people like XXXora and I, educated in Britain at the close of the twentieth century, this meant silence around who we were, and scouring for role models, however appropriate, wherever we could find them.
“I’m surprised at how slowly we have accepted the existence of third gender people given the radical leaps the queer scene made in the ’70s and early ’80s,” says XXXora, suggesting that Britain in the ’90s became more conservative about ideas of maleness and masculinity, femaleness and femininity. I agree, feeling alienated in my youth by the “laddism” in nineties pop culture and the reaction against camp in gay circles as they strove to become more mainstream. But, XXXora says, their playing with gender was often just that.
“It was more acceptable to like Culture Club once Boy George said he was just fooling around in girls’ clothes and that he preferred a cup of tea to sex. I wonder if the same number of albums would have been sold if he had publicly identified as third gender. But I think the support that trans people have received from the science community has been a tremendous help,” she says, referring to the studies of gender variance and the development of sex reassignment techniques in recent decades, “and that it’s time to finish what my pantheon started.”
The Newer Gender is on at London’s Vyner Street Gallery from June 14 – 24.
Juliet Jacques is a freelance writer and journalist who covers literature, film, art, gender, sexuality, music and soccer. Her Transgender Journey blog for The Guardian was longlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2011, and she has also written for The New Statesman, TimeOut, Cineaste, The Blizzard, 3:AM, The London Magazine and elsewhere. She also writes the blog At Home She’s a Tourist.