Featured photo: “Armor of Inclusivity” by Sara Westermark (she/her)
How do you advocate for a community of which you are not a part?
How can you uplift identities that are not yours?
How can you be an accomplice rather than just an ally?
These are the types of questions that have been circling artist and curator Jordan T. Robinson’s (he/they) mind for the last five years.
His newest show, Transparency, which just opened at the Center for Visual Artists in downtown Greensboro, focuses on the lived experiences of transgender people, an identity that’s not his own.
“When I first started this project, I was like, ‘I want to do this to serve this community, how do I get in touch with them?,’” Robinson recalls. “So I looked up all the LGBTQ centers in the state of North Carolina or any organization that was connected to the LGBTQ community and if I found anything specifically for transgender and gender-expansive people, then I would go for that and reach out to them.”
When Robinson first conceptualized the idea behind Transparency in 2017, it was because he noticed the increasing attacks on trans people across the country.
HB2 had just been passed in NC by former Gov. Pat McCrory, a discriminatory law that barred trans people from using the bathroom that matched their gender. At the same time, political pundit Ben Shapiro had started spreading anti-LGBTQ+ and anti-trans rhetoric at college and university campuses across the country. Then, in July 2017, former President Trump tweeted that trans people would no longer be able to serve in the military.
It felt important for Robinson to do something. And as an art historian and curator of visual art, he believed the best way to do so was to create a statewide art exhibit that highlighted the works of trans artists.
After pitching the idea to trans-led organizations in Charlotte who greenlit the notion, Robinson partnered with Lara Americo (she/they), a trans, Indigenous, Latina artist who helped Robinson put on the first iteration of Transparency in 2020 virtually via the Guilford Green Foundation.
“She has shown me the ways that I can advocate and be an accomplice,” Robinson says about Americo’s mentorship. “[P]art of that journey has been learning to advocate and spiritually, another personal reason for doing this project is there’s a teaching in my faith about loving your neighbor as yourself. And I personally reflect on that and wonder, What does it look like to love your neighbor as yourself if you don’t know them, and have not made efforts to know them until now? And what do you do from there?”
Since then, Robinson says he’s been asking questions and being silent to allow trans people to fill the spaces.
“I’m going to support groups and really asking genuine questions for understanding, and then just being quiet and listening to them tell their narrative, tell you who they are in their own voice, and how you can help them,” he says. “That was very helpful and from my perspective, I think a major part of this project.”
Now, almost three years later, Robinson celebrated the opening of Transparency at the Center for Visual Artists’ gallery space last week. The goal for him was always to have the project inhabit a physical space. There are 19 artists in the show, most of them identifying as trans or gender expansive.
As soon as visitors walk through the doors, they’re met with a work by artist William Plummer (they/them) whose cyanotypes are created using film and fabric. Printed in shades of blue and white, the word “THEM” floats in the center of an apparent speech bubble.
“Let’s set the tone here first,” Robinson explains about putting the work at the start of the show. “It’s a matter of respect and you need to approach this exhibition with that.”
The idea was to ground visitors in the shared experience of being human from the beginning. He says that through his conversations with trans people through the years, many lament the fact that cisgender people tend to focus unnecessarily on trans people’s bodies, objectifying them.
“There seems to be such a focus on the body before anyone focused on the humanity of this community,” Robinson says.
With that understanding, he says the show is made up of three sections that flow into each other. The first focuses on the abstract, the universal.
The bright, saturated digital illustrations by Charlotte-based trans artist Lena Gray (she/they) hang across from small, abstract pieces by CVA Art + Community Coordinator and ally Devon McKnight (they/them). Nearby, photographs by trans artist Melvy Shaw (she/her) capture the delicacy of butterflies perched on flowers, a symbolic mascot for those who choose to metamorphose into their truest selves throughout their lives.
On a pedestal, another form of symbolism hangs on a mannequin in rainbow colors. Made by Sara Westermark (she/her), hundreds of individually tied pieces of tile create the illusion of a tropical bird or a rainbow fish, a small suit of armor for Westermark’s nonbinary child. It’s titled “Armor of Inclusivity.”
The show’s second section, in the belly of the gallery, amplifies the narratives and stories of artists’ lived experiences. Here, artist Huan LaPlante’s (they/them) works dig into reflections of trauma and harm on broad sheets of hanging fabric in which androgynous figures touch hands while snaking black tubes connect their headless torsos. In the empty spaces of the fabric, LaPlante offers viewers a prompt:
“exchange the feeling of being one another
better to see that ‘you’ and ‘I’
are only fragments
no real border between
perhaps the histories are
the gravity of the past
weighs on us all the same”
On the adjacent wall, artist Richard Alvarez (he/him) memorializes iconic Black women important to the LGBTQ+ community like Marsha P. Johnson in neon colors and halos of gold glitter.
In the third section artists explore their relationship to their bodies and their sexuality. They ask questions about who is watching and the difference between objectivity versus space-making.
Artist rakiya (she/her) paints a figure with a UFO in place of their head being ogled at by lustrous aliens, one of whom reaches for the figure’s left nipple. Curtis Walker’s portraits zoom in on the body parts of varying people, showcasing a range of skin types, sizes and shapes. It’s a statement on sharing without shame, focusing without fixation.
And that’s the exact goal of Robinson’s of the project and exhibit as a whole.
“The best advice I ever heard was, ‘think of this like you’re throwing a party for someone, but the spotlight is on them, you’re just facilitating the space,’” Robinson says.
Transparency will be on view at the Center for Visual Artists’ gallery through September. It will then reopen at the African-American Atelier next door on Nov. 3 and run through Jan. 1, 2024. There will be an artist talk on Sept. 13 and a curator tour on Sept. 27. Visit mycvagreensboro.org or jtrpresents.art for more information.
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