The production of the black subject is so tied to the production of photography that there is no blackness that precedes its photographic image. – Aria Dean
Wandering through the vast exhibition, I wonder to myself about the faces on these walls. These individuals, the wide-ranging subjects of Diane Arbus’s incisive camera, are so carefully composed that to question the consent of their imaging hardly seems relevant — and yet it is. Arbus, whose legacy lies in the sensitive, uncanny proximity of herself to her subjects, is often credited with the sense that rather than stage her subjects, she “waited for them to pose themselves.”1 But many of Arbus’s subjects were people marginalized by the broader American culture of the time — drag queens and other queer-coded individuals, the developmentally disabled, children — in other words, relationalities potentially exploited under the nature of their collaboration. A photograph is a political object, with evident power dynamics.
In the introduction to her 1961 photo essay “The Full Circle” in Harper’s Bazaar, Arbus writes, “These are five singular people who appear like metaphors somewhere further out than we do; beckoned, not driven; invented by belief; each the author and hero of a real dream by which our own courage and cunning are tested and tried; so that we may wonder all over again what is veritable and inevitable and possible and what it is to become whoever we may be.” Each of the five portraits in the essay are accompanied by a small excerpt, a description of the subject in their own voice, as interpreted by Arbus — and this is the crux of the issue. Arbus’s gaze, her interpretation, reifies the same limits that it effectively transcends — by turning her camera on the underrepresented, we are reminded, by way of the effect of her clinical2 witnessing, of the subject’s fundamental erasure beyond the picture plane.
She must turn away from the sensibilities of the masses in order to sublimate them. And so there is a kind of fetishism that arises as our salivary glands pucker for the uncanny other mirrored and defined in the lens’s shallow pool.
In more recent decades, however, the queer self-portrait has emerged as a way to reclaim the terms of one’s own perception, to maim or control the audience’s capacity for violence. It has become a robust tradition thanks to the work of artists like Catherine Opie, Robert Mapplethorpe, Juliana Huxtable, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, and, now, Tourmaline. But the question of the gaze dates back to the early days of photography. The medium, which emerged at a time of immense technological evolution coupled with nineteenth-century European attitudes, effectively became a tool of distinction — those who were imaged were most often wealthy or, conversely, those who were never oered the agency of refusal. As the medium has evolved, so too have postmodern considerations of subject, author, and intent.
Born in 1983 in Roxbury, Massachusetts, Tourmaline is an artist concerned with “what it is to become whoever we may be.” Centering the LGBTQ+ experience, particularly the lives of Black, transgender figures overlooked by the historical canon, the New York-based artist seeks to repair a largely spectatorial perspective on such histories by imaging acts of liberatory pleasure and self-mythologization.
Tourmaline’s first solo exhibition, “Pleasure Garden,” at Chapter NY in 2021, presented the film Salacia (2019) along with six self-portraits — the artist’s first foray into the medium. An adaptation of the story of Mary Jones, the first known Black, transgender sex worker in New York state history, Salacia is set in Seneca Village” — a community of freed, Black landowners founded in 1825 and destroyed in 1857, when the city of New York cited eminent domain to have the population evicted for the construction of Central Park.3 Videos that reappear narrativized in the film Mary of Ill Fame (2020–21) are arranged here in a kind of nonlinear dream space. A brief intermission features found footage of activist Sylvia Rivera, who lived in New York City more than a century after Jones did, eectively collapsing the historical past and contemporary present — for Tourmaline is, herself, implicated in this legacy. The film culminates in a mantra, a stoical Black girl’s answer to Dorothy’s tearful homecoming: “We can be anything we want to be.”
Staged in a mythologized vision of Seneca Village, the self-portraits comprising “Pleasure Garden” see Tourmaline “fashioned in historical clothing, but presented through a contemporary lens.”4 Corseted with flowing skirts in Morning Cloak, Swallowtail, and Sleepy Orange Sulphur, Tourmaline alternatively appears dressed as a kind of raver-astronaut in Violet Copper, Coral Hairstreak and Summer Azure (all works 2020). The images appear hyper-saturated, lending an otherworldliness to her surroundings, intensifying the allusions to the possibilities and potentials of the yet-unknown. The success of these works lies in the chronological continuum that they propose — Tourmaline’s ongoing dialogue with Jones and Rivera, approached obliquely in these photographs, details the parameters and metrics by which one might hope to observe shifts in social attitudes toward Black trans women. It is a testament to the layers of Tourmaline’s self-depiction that the hopeful suggestion of yet-undefined womanist futures does not read as a speculative oversimplification, but as an imaginative proposition being gradually effectuated in present time.
In a 1992 conversation with Julie Dash, whose film Daughters of the Dust (1991) sought to visualize a Black women’s liberatory metaverse, bell hooks said, “I think one of the major problems facing black filmmakers is the way both spectators and, often, the dominant culture want to reduce us to some narrow notion of ‘real’ or ‘accurate.’ […] One of the groundbreaking aspects of Daughters of the Dust […] is its insistence on a movement away from dependence on ‘reality,’ ‘accuracy,’ ‘authenticity,’ into a realm of the imaginative.”5
Written, directed, and produced by Tourmaline, Mary of Ill Fame (2020–21), a short narrative film about Mary Jones, expands this “realm of the imaginative” into new dimensions. The film opens with Mary’s frantic escape from Castle Williams prison before depositing her in the pastoral idyll of an imagined Seneca Village. Mary lives here in relative peace and prosperity, at a boarding house run by an abolitionist press — despite the harassment of the local police who threaten to discover her whereabouts and evict her hosts. In Tourmaline’s account, Jones is a seer versed in practical magic, and we often encounter her scrying — divining the future in pools and reflective surfaces — existing, in other words, in a state of unified time. By the end of the film, Jones has been recaptured and we again see her languishing in a prison cell.
A puddle on the caked cement floor creates a portal by which a friend contacts Jones, warning of the police’s arrival at the boarding house. Jones performs a ritual with her own blood that sees her projected into a Central Park of the present day, where a tussle with the police ensues. The present action aects the past, and when Jones reawakens in her cell, it is confirmed that the police have left her compatriots alone for one more night. “They’ll be back,” her friend says. “Yes,” Jones replies. “And we’ll be ready.”
While the film takes real figures and events as its source material, it refuses to be beholden solely to the realm of the real. If it did, there likely would be no narrative to visualize on film at all, given that fair, detailed historical accounts rarely favor documentation of the oppressed. Invoking the imaginary in this case creates a more robust image of Mary Jones, where she is an agent in her own liberation. Infusing what Julie Dash has elsewhere termed a “basic integrity”6 into historical events, Tourmaline extends the formal parameters both of the filmic medium and the mythopoetic7 potential that is created when Black, queer individuals are the wardens of their own histories.
Arthur Jafa, whose cinematographic genius was first asserted when he served as the director of photography on Dash’s Daughters, has built his subsequent career around the question of rendering Blackness in the moving image. In his essay “69,” Jafa writes:
I’m trying to figure out how to make Black films that have the power to allow the enunciative desires of people of African descent to manifest themselves. What kind of things do we do? How can we interrogate the medium to find a way Black movement in itself could carry, for example, the weight of sheer tonality in Black song? And I’m not talking about the lyrics that Aretha Franklin sang. I’m talking about how she sang them. How do we make Black music or Black images vibrate in accordance with certain frequential values that exist in Black music?8
Part homage, part proposal, Pollinator (2022) cuts archival footage of activist Marsha P. Johnson’s funeral and community remembrances between black-and-white footage of Tourmaline, dressed in white and adorned with flowers, within a lush landscape. Close-ups of flowers — alive on the vine, dead and dried in vases, in photographs framing Johnson’s face as her iconic crown, drifting down the Hudson, where Johnson’s body was discovered floating one grim day in 1992 — are interspersed with video of astronauts floating weightlessly in spacecrafts. Dialogue in the film is sparse. The voices we hear are from the audio of the archival footage, layered over an ambient, meditative soundtrack. Though the film takes a non-narrative approach formally, it articulates a clear position of interconnectivity and dispersion through the tonal qualities of its visualization. Tourmaline tacitly inserts Johnson into our present in her spectral embodiment, and inserts a possible present into Johnson’s lifetime through inclusion of anecdotal accounts from those Johnson left behind, who continue to sing her name thirty years on.
Taking an approach that renders herself indivisible from ancestors in the fight for transgender liberation, Tourmaline engages an aesthetics of the erotic. Defined by Audre Lorde as “that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge,”9 the erotic sets a standard for self-actualization that questions not only what we do but “how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”10 Operating within Lorde’s mythopoetic assertion, Tourmaline’s practice shifts the emphasis from the spectator to the subject — away from Arbus’s claim of witnessing “what it is to become,” and toward an embodied sense of our own becoming.