The amazing Brisbane artist blurring gender lines

By James Branson

Something strange happened at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair last year. The lawyers came in. They advised that a number of works by young Brisbane artist Tyza Stewart should be taken down and removed from the state of New South Wales. The gallery that represents Stewart, Heiser Gallery, was told they shouldn’t give out the catalogues featuring the work. And that they should probably be pulped.

Queensland College of Art - Fine Art Graduates - 2011

This advice came from Bill Henson’s lawyer. And when you’re told that your work might be illegal by somebody who pushed hard against the NSW Government’s desire to ban Henson’s pictures of young girls and have him branded a child pornographer, you take that advice rather seriously.

Stewart’s work is provocative. The art writer Rex Butler speaks of his first encounter with Tyza’s paintings:

The work exhibited was a small oil on board of two men having sex, looked upon by a small girl – I was not to know yet, but it is Stewart who is crouched down to one side of them. 

Stewart’s latest work is a series of images of women with penises. They are self portraits, essentially. Some feature Tyza as a child with a penis, masturbating.

There’s a debate to be had here about censorship and what constitutes child pornography. Most artists I spoke to seemed flabbergasted that the silks even got involved. Bruce Heiser, whose gallery in Brisbane represents Stewart, didn’t see this coming at all.

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We could bang on about censorship and politics in art, but that would be boring. Stewart’s art, and the glaringly honest exploration of gender identity that is central to it, is actually way more interesting, because despite the controversy surrounding the images, the work really is rather fucking good.

Personally, I hate talking about art. It only rarely does the artist justice, and looking into a painting and thinking about what it tells you about yourself, your reactions to images you might see as unusual or provocative and your thoughts on the line between say, pornography and art, is always significantly more interesting than trying to have the artist explain what is often unexplainable. Words never really do it justice. But I spoke to Tyza and tried anyway…tyza12

Did you always have this idea to work on self portraits? It definitely developed over time. I really just started on this series over the past few years after I finished uni. There’s definitely a style of art I’m drawn to, though.

You seem like a pretty private person – is this a way to compensate for that? I haven’t really thought about that… I guess, although this is one part of my life I’m quite happy to have out in the open, and to have people talk about.

It’s obviously a pretty open exploration of your sexuality…It’s more about my gender than my sexuality…

Oh yeah. So is it your desire to be a boy? I think when I was a lot younger, around twelve, that was the kind of thing that I wanted. I wanted to be a boy, but now it’s more about not being a woman. Not fitting into that definition of being a woman.

The paintings are so honest – have other artists expressed shock at how openly you’ve displayed your questions on gender? They’re not so much shocked about the honesty. I really like work that’s very honest, and a lot of artists can identify with the work – not in terms of gender – but just through being honest in my art.

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Well I guess any artist is really trying to just explain themselves through art. I guess so, but it’s more about trying to explain it to myself rather than other people. So that there’s a discussion with other people….

Were you surprised the work was taken down at the Sydney Contemporary Art Fair? Yeah definitely. I was a bit worried about it. I think maybe there’s better contexts for the work than an art fair, which is about selling work.

Are you going to continue doing this kind of work for the foreseeable future? Yeah there’s more to explore, extending on this work and going deeper into aspects of it. I think I’ll keep developing this series…

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