Artist TRANSforms Bodies Into Murals
By Samuel Leighton-Dore
When it comes to the representation and celebration of trans bodies in the mainstream media and arts community, there’s no denying that we’re falling pretty far behind. Luckily there are kick-ass artists like Astro emerging on the scene, focusing their immense creative talents on introducing trans bodies to both safe places and urban spaces.
We caught up with Astro ahead of their upcoming exhibition in Sydney. Check it out and come along!
First of all, tell us a little bit about how you started out. Have you always had an interest in the human form?
I’ve been drawing my whole life, so it’s kinda odd to think of “starting”. I’m completely self-taught. I guess I had one class in high school, but I don’t have any real official art training.
There was a specific experience when I started concentrating on painting people. When I was in University I lived in Germany for a bit. I had never really been to museums before or seen masterwork paintings. I remember standing in front of a van Gogh painting for about 30 minutes. This experience really affected me. I liked how at basically all points throughout history painters would paint people. It gave a single point of comparison, like a jumping off point for art history. Vermeer painted people very different than the way Klimt did, and now someone like Jenny Saville paints people completely different than both. This difference is a reflection of the very different time and place they came from. After that I became more and more fascinated with using the portrait as my own jumping off point. I have a very different relationship to the images of people that I depict than a lot of other painters do, so I depict them differently.
In the last few years, since I starting focusing on only painting queer people I kind of discovered that paintings of the portrait, or human body, could sometimes be empowering for people who identify with the subject in some way. Maybe they are trans and seeing trans people be regularly a part of art gives them a sense of affirmation. The same could be true for sex workers, or people who are heavier than what is normally represented in art and pop culture. This was actually something I was not expecting, that people would react so positively to the identities, and it has been a really fun aspect of painting.
I’m curious as to your relative anonymity as an artist. What was the reasoning behind that decision?
I guess there are many reasons. I always liked the aspect of anonymity in street art, like the paintings did not come from a person, but are just sort of part of the city. Also, sometimes I might say something in street art that is a little confronting. I feel like its more powerful if the viewer can’t put a person to it. It makes it harder to dismiss.
On a personal level, I’m actually a somewhat shy, maybe even reclusive, person. Talking to strangers is very difficult for me. So for me there’s some comfort in being anonymous. For example, I can go to an art opening and just kind of walk around unnoticed.
Your paintings often depict trans women in various stages of undress. Why do you think it’s so important to celebrate trans bodies?
For many trans woman, when they are naked the’re pretty undeniably transgender. I think there’s some power in that concept. In not being ashamed of trans bodies, but rather to say transgender people are just as worthy of being the subject of art as a cis person’s body. So much of the narrative of transgender people’s lives is about loss of agency. So I want to make my art one place where being transgender is a completely valid experience.
A major part of the experience of being transgender involves the body. Whether that’s through dysphoria, or medical aspects of transitioning. The body, and we relate to it, is a major part of the story of transgender people. Probably my favourite feedback is when transgender people write me to say that it made them feel good to see bodies they relate to in paintings. To me that’s a really great thing you can do with art, is make someone feel a little better about where they fit in the world.
In your experience, have subjects expressed any particular insecurity or anxiety around their body image?
These days I get consent from all the people I paint. If someone is hesitant, uncomfortable or just not interested I totally give them the opportunity to have it not happen. I think this is important. Many artists just grab an image of a person off the internet without asking, paint it and sell it. To me that seems exploitive. Sometimes that concept is part of the art, that’s one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s really just the artist doing what’s easier. Sometimes I email people and ask, and they never get back. So no matter how badly I want to paint them, I just have to move on.
I don’t want the subjects of my paintings to be uncomfortable; rather I want that to be a positive experience. I don’t want anyone I paint to feel like they’ve been used. I personally have my own body issues, so if somebody didn’t want to be depicted I would completely understand that. The nudes are almost always done using people who participate in sex work and are very used to having lots of photos of their nude bodies in public. This way I can be sure they are comfortable with that too.
One of my favourite paintings of yours is of a gorgeous woman with a penis. We don’t often see images like these in public places. Do you think art provides an opportunity to normalise them?
When I paint nude trans people I definitely try hard to paint them as if being trans is a totally normal thing. I go out of my way not to sensationalize them. So if a woman has a penis, its just there, it’s not necessarily featured. For a trans woman this is their experience, and this is the narrative that I want to see more of in the world.
I don’t know if trans bodies will ever be “normal” for mainstream society. But I do realize that if I’m putting a painting in public there’s a range of people that are going to see it. I like the idea that for some viewer it may be the first time they’ve seen a nude trans person. Maybe since they are looking at it through the lens of “art” they might take a moment longer to contemplate it. So for that person, yeah I guess trans bodies become a little more real, a little more human.
Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming show in Sydney? What can we expect?
I’ll be doing two events in Sydney over the week of 16-23 July. They’ll be pretty different and people should feel free to come to either or both.
The first is a gallery show with another Melbourne based street artist called Be Free. This is at blank_space gallery in Surry Hills. For both of us, its our first time to do anything in Sydney, so we just kind of wanted to have fun. Last year I was thinking about how queer people (especially trans people) are often depicted very simplistically or one-dimensional in pop culture. So in response to this I’ve been working hard to make my portraits have more complexity. I try to this in two ways. First, I worked really hard at simply improving my technique and painting people with more layers, and more texture than I had before. Also I’ve been breaking up the portrait into a set of abstract pieces that kind of lyrically connect together to make the image of a human. This show will be the first time I’ve really shown a set of these paintings in this style, so I hope people like it. Be Free’s paintings are very different from mine. They make elegantly simple paintings that often tell a story about the freedom and innocence of youth. I think together there will be a refreshing mix (at least that’s the hope).
The second event will be a mural that I’ll be mural painted at Bearded Tit.
My art is explicitly for queer and trans people, who are more likely to have lower incomes. Because of this I really try hard to put paintings in public places for queers to see. I think Bearded Tit is a great super queer-positive location for, so I’m happy to leave that behind some art for people to enjoy. My aim is to be finished with the mural by Wednesday (20-July) so the mural will be unveiled at their weekly event, Queerborhood.
Everyone should feel free to come to one or both of the events.
The opening reception for Astro’s exhibition will be 4-6 PM Saturday 16 July (374 Crown St Surry Hills, NSW). If nothing else, come have a free beer. Click here for more info.