Amidst the current attention economy steeped in inequity, how can we truly collaborate across difference? I spoke with Edxie Betts, Matice Moore, and Micah Bazant of the Trans Life and Liberation Art Series about how they do it, and what they see on the horizon for trans art movements.
Art as Roses
In a time where aesthetics originating from trans and queer people end up in Urban Outfitters clothing lines and black trans women characters are written into Netflix shows, we are also witnessing some of the highest rates of murders of trans women in history. Many, including thinkers like Reina Gossett and Eric Stanley, have come forward and articulated that “visibility is a trap”, that there is a direct correlation between this increased visibility, and this spike in violence targeting trans people of color. Acknowledging these realities, trans youth in New Orleans involved in the anti-prison group BreakOUT! asked people to “give us our roses while we’re still alive”, and the Trans Life and Liberation Art Series answered.
The Trans Life and Liberation Art Series started as an effort by artist Micah Bazant, turning out little illustrations portraying trans people of color on their Facebook, and grew into a weekly collaboration with hundreds of likes and adoring comments on each post. Today, contributors to the series hail from all over the country and include Edxie Betts, Wriply Bennett, Chucha Marquez, Matice Moore, Noah Jenkins, Selva Neblina, Rommy Torrico, Nikki Jackson, Ethan X Parker, Bishakh Som, Ebin Lee, and Micah Bazant. Each week, the group puts out a portrait of a living trans person of color. Most recently, the series has depicted the likes of Raquel Willis, Ky Peterson, Micky Bradford, Jamal T. Lewis, among others. Demonstrating that their work is grounded in grassroots organizing led by the same people they are making art about, the group works with Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement, Sins Invalid, Strong Families, GetEqual, and Survived and Punished.
Producing creative work these day can be pretty fraught. If you make things and share them online, you are knee-deep in an attention economy that privileges certain people, and often means playing a social capital game even when you know it will likely detract from your self-esteem and the integrity of your work. Despite all this messy complexity, the artists behind Trans Life and Liberation Art Series haven’t stopped putting out work that hypes people who inspired them, and are willing to have these tough conversations.
As the group closes in on the fundraising goal on their Kickstarter campaign, we spoke with Edxie, Micah and Matice about what it’s like to collaborate across difference, navigating internet fame, and what it means to “make it” as an artist these days.
Portrait of Micky Bradford by Micah
What brought you to this work personally?
Edxie: I guess the work for survival under systems determined to eradicate and control me have always been there. Even before me in regards to my trans-cestors. But as far as this project goes I had been doing a few portraits of some black queer and trans people who were still living yet incarcerated for defending themselves against an attacker, like the one I did for Ky Peterson, a young black trans man looking at 30 years for killing his rapist in self defense.
So I had already spoken with a few trans queer gender non conforming comrades about the lack of art that isn’t a dead black trans women’s portrait or calling attention towards folks like us under extreme duress. So when I heard that this project came to be, I had initially just wanted to be painted and drawn to call attention towards the fact that I’m still living and struggling and for it to signal boost collective projects I’m part of. But Micah was familiar with some of my work as an artist already and asked that I participate at length to that extent.
Matice: Initially, I returned back to art making as an outlet for my grief and feelings of isolation. I had some art training about 12 years ago, but shortly thereafter was too focused on getting by, paying my bills, to really explore that aspect of myself. Fast forward about 10 years to the month after the initial Ferguson uprising when my partner at the time introduced me to linocut printmaking. The medium gave me a means to focus my attention and energy, and an outlet for expressing my grief and my politics.
I’d done some level of organizing in my community, and was really looking for the best way to support movements for black and trans liberation as two main groups I identify with and feel passionately about.
I learned about Micah’s work in 2013 when I was a part of the Stand with Monica campaign to support Monica Jones, a black trans woman from Phoenix who was being profiled and persecuted under Arizona’s oppressive prostitution laws. Micah provided the art we used on numerous items to raise awareness of the situation. When I moved to the Bay Area in August 2015, Micah and I started connecting and talking more about collaborating in the future.
Micah: As a white person who’s trying to make art as part of movements for racial justice, almost all my work emerges through relationships and collaborations. Last year a friend in Black Lives Matter Bay Area asked me to make posters of black trans women who were being murdered, for their protests. That invitation led to number of memorial portraits, as trans organizers around the country were requesting art for #BlackTransLivesMatter actions.
Often family members find the art on social media and I’ll send them prints, or we use the art to help raise burial funds. I’m usually crying and drawing. These images can help us grieve. But it’s also harmful for us to only recognize trans women of color in death. I was starting to have a backlog of portrait requests from living trans women of color organizers. The need to celebrate trans life was the seed of this project.
Personally, as a young adult I went through a lot of hard shit around being trans and being ostracized. I was suicidally depressed and didn’t make art for about 15 years. This work is really healing for me personally, spiritually, culturally, politically. It is so painful for me to not make art – to anyone who’s who’s blocked, I want to say: it is possible to heal!
Who and what are some of your inspirations – aesthetically and politically?
Edxie: Black womanist, feminist, artists and writers. As well as work very connected to the uplift of marginalized folks and their narratives. I started connecting art to activism when I took part in the Occupy and anti-war movements, calling for global change and social justice mostly centered around the economy... I have plenty of critiques for those movements now, as I do for all movements. But through the Occupy movement I then connected with many others in existence well before its inception. And through that I used to screen print stickers, shirts, bandanas, and other clothing with helpful and practical tactics that could be deployed during times of uprising. Also, I screen printed words and phrases like “Film The Police” or like “May 1st General Strike” kind of a counter media and propaganda strategy. Like, if enough people know, see, and experience police brutality on the daily, then maybe seeing patches and clothing that youth and others are wearing that says “Film The Police” might actually compel these same people to start actually filming the police. And once that tactic became as popular as it did, through many collective efforts, of course the state itself took that tactic into account and coopted it for its own gain with the implementation of police body cams, but even that too showed their intention of more militarization, surveillance and targeting those most active in organizing against state-sanctioned violence.
My inspirations are drawn from direct actions for collective liberation. It has been wildly empowering to see groups of folks make vast changes in their social conditions while building community directly without the usage and interference of the State Apparatus. Those efforts attach themselves to global movements for autonomy and can be quite threatening to the status quo and the institutions that facilitate it. Hence all of the criminalizing propaganda in regard to Indigenous resistance, black autonomous liberation movements, anarchist and anti-authoritarian organizing.
Matice: I met Faviana Rodriguez in person in either 2012 or 2013, and was immediately drawn to her work both aesthetically and politically. Being from Arizona, migrant rights initiatives were more prominent in my community and were probably where I learned community based organizing. Additionally, I love and revere the the expressive work of black artist ancestors like Elizabeth Catlett, and I’m inspired by the work Emory Douglas did with the Black Panthers. I deeply admire the work of a number of contemporary art-activists, including Jess X Chen, Chip Thomas, Thea Gahr, Swoon.
Politically, my inspirations are too many to name, but the folks who immediately come to mind include Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, James Baldwin, my mother and my grandmothers. Many of the contemporary queer and trans folks of color on the front lines, fighting back against state violence, organizing in their communities, and holding healing space very much inspire my politics as well.
Micah: In terms of trans-cestors, Marsha P. Johnson and her flower crowns and relentless daily resistance through adornment, performance and mutual aid. Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore, two kinky queer, gender non-conforming jewish artists who were Nazi resisters and made gorgeous strange art. They are my soul crushes.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement inspires me everyday. I feel so grateful to be alive at a time of revolutionary resistance. Suheir Hammad, Chinaka Hodge, Kara Walker, Firelei Baez, Wangechi Mutu, Kiese Laymon, are some of the many many living artists who inspire me that its possible to make monstrous, gorgeous, complicated work that is politically immense. The art Im making now is intentionally created for direct impact: the messaging is strategic and it has to work on tiny screens and posters. I love doing that work, but I want to make more complicated, strange art too.
Being in Oakland, I was lucky to meet Melanie Certvantes, Jesus Barraza, and Favianna Rodriguez, who’ve nurtured a whole wave of movement artists, and inspired organizers to value cultural organizing. They were my models that it’s possible to make art that is alive and meaningful and strengthens the movement. Molly Crabapple has also been an inspiration as someone who’s created a path for prolific work outside the “art world.”
And I’m so inspired by the work of my friend Patty Berne. She’s the co-founder and director of Sins Invalid and basically the mama of the disability justice movement. I’ve learned so much from her about interdependence, valuing wholeness instead of productivism, and how to “move together” when organizing across identities. A lot of the healing that makes my work possible has been through our friendship and solidarity.
What is it like trying to “make it” as an artist today, in this digital age and especially as people devoted to social change? What does that look like for you?
Edxie: I have absolutely no intentions of “making it” as an artist. Just that term is so attached to capitalist modes of success and exploitation. Art has been a tool of coping for decades for me. I never wanted something I use to cope to become something daunting or exhausting. So I truthfully have never before really put a lot of professionalism around art into any semblance of a career. I definitely need the coin though, I’m a Black Pilipinx, Indigenous neuro-divergent trans femme. So it’s hard to opt into the economy as my whole selves. But I do, however, ask that the creative class be more authentic in their political art that they often might gain social and material popularity from, when pulling ideas and representations from these resistance movements. I don’t think I’m well-liked for saying this often. But my likability or lack thereof isn’t the thing that’s going to get us all free, right? Many people want the status of ‘artist’ without putting in the work and suffering it takes to be an authentic person and artist. I’m really tired of the trend of artists uplifting the narratives of black militants in their work, to seem edgy, cool, and woke. But in actuality they’re not really interested in revolution and may often denounce and demonize black militancy when they see it in front of them. It’s not okay to capture an audience by aligning a particular aesthetic with say, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense for example and then turn around and question the ethics of insurrectionary mutual aid as well as their past and currently inspired self defence against a mounting fascist police state. It just looks like opportunism to me. In the end though, down recognizes down.
Matice: Making it from day to day means that I’m never dedicating as much time to my art as I’d like to because I have to juggle other work and responsibilities to pay the bills. I currently work full time, and do my art in the evenings or on the weekends. Whereas it would be great to make enough money from art to have that be my main source of income, I’m grateful for all the other ways I’ve worked with community and against oppression, as it’s that past experience that informs and inspires me to make art now. My path to becoming and sustaining myself as an artist looks very different than someone who moves through traditional art education and career pathways. My development as an artist is intimately linked with my connection to my community and my ancestors and so deepening those connections is part of the work.
Micah: Transphobia and depression have really impacted my ability to work at times, and forced me to deeply re-evaluate what “making it” looks like. I appreciate the disability justice principle that everything has inherent worth outside of transactional relations. “Making it” for me means making powerful art in a way that has integrity. That’s all I want to do, just keep doing the work. Other stuff, like getting more follows or hype, doesn’t matter except as it might benefit that goal. I use the internet as a vehicle to share art with more people. But I don’t love being a free content producer for Facebook, or the call-out and take-down culture of disposability that plays out on the internet.
I want the art to keep having a transformative life in the world. I want to be aligned with my values and truths and keep learning how to better fight white supremacy. I want to build with more artists and organizers and dream together and do new kinds of projects. I want my skills to get stronger so my work has greater impact, and push what we think of as movement art. I want to keep figuring out how to collaborate in a way that’s liberatory for everyone involved, and document that process, and shift ideas about art making. I want to keep collectively re-imagining what art is, outside of this capitalist economy that’s killing everything. On many days I feel I have made it, that I am doing the work and in the continual struggle of all this.
Art by Matice
How do you materially support yourself? What is it like for you to balance movement and cultural organizing with day to day life: friends, family, work?
Edxie: Hahaha! I support myself somehow through this work. I’ll often get paid to speak at colleges, which I appreciate ’cause I didn’t even graduate from high school. And to be asked to speak solely on my experiences is empowering and dismisses the necessity of the titles and credentials needed to speak on certain subject matter that I live and others just might only theorize about.
Balance for me as someone who is so very liminal comes naturally. I don’t know how to explain the drive, but there have been times I’ve been burn out. Like in the last 2 years serving more aspects of mediation and restorative justice work. But more recently I’m remembering to have fun at every opportunity and to be intentional about the spacetime I set for my family, friends, and comrades. There isn’t a proper way to go about it. People have different coping strategies that don’t fit well for others. I do have particular disabilities that render me incapable of getting out and being active sometimes. This is when I have a bed and home to even sleep in. I’m definitely supported by my community and chosen family. Trying to relearn interdependence because I truly think capitalism has stripped that away from many of us. I am essentially community employed. Meaning if I have the need for support I’ll ask. Many things I do centers mutual aid. There’s a reason why so many of us do this without our payroll in mind and that’s because we’re trying to get out of the habit of solely building and centering our relationships with one another based on how much money we can make for one another. How the Zapatistas for example have taught me that neoliberalism is a religion of money and that even though it can grant us access to certain materials and resources we need to survive, we still must interrogate the very nature of what is commodifying, owning and assigning value on certain materials we need, but also questioning the fact that these materials be for human usage only. These valuations shouldn’t be so set in stone. Especially when these same valuations are governed by the very same interlocking systems of domination that oppress us.
So I often talk about the propaganda and artistry behind money or US dollars and ask people what it means for our every daily interactions to be facilitated by currency in the form of green cloth with pictures of dead white wealthy cis-hetero slave-owning man heads on them? Like a religion, you think that this doesn’t ritualize the importance of whiteness as a tool used for a colonial project? But further, what would it mean to use as currency the images of any man’s head underneath the cis-hetero-patriarchy? This is where organized political resistance comes into play along with its cultural work.
Micah: For the past seven years I’ve been working as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator, mostly for nonprofit organizations. That’s a great gig, because I enjoy it, it’s mostly meaningful, and it pays a living wage. I also sell my art and speak about my work.
Six months ago I decided to try phasing down the design work and working mostly as a visual artist. I’ve been learning things like writing grants and crowdfunding, and that’s raising the money to pay everyone else in this project. I’m not being paid for my work on the Trans Life and Liberation series. I have a lot of race and class privilege and I’m committed to using my art to materially benefit the people I work with. I’m going to start doing more design work again, but at a lower volume that leaves more time for art.
Balance is so elusive! I am working on my procrastination problem, which is related to my perfectionism problem. When I procrastinate I’m not enjoying not working, I’m just beating myself up about it. Its ridiculous. But now I’m so busy that there’s less leeway for procrastinating. I’m trying to cultivate “imperfectionism”, which was part of the idea behind doing a series of quicker pieces that I have to share weekly. I have some wonderful friends and we are family for each other. We spend a lot of time supporting each other emotionally, physically, economically, politically, sharing food, skills, etc. Being around plants and physical movement are also critical to my mental health. Mutual friend adoration, plants, exercise, and continually making art is the dreamy recipe for me.
Matice: I just started working full-time for a nonprofit in Oakland that supports youth who’ve experienced parental incarceration to advocate and address the stigmatization facing the children of incarcerated parents, and to push for legislative interventions that attempt to reduce the additional harm heaped onto families by the criminal justice system. Before that, I’d spent close to eight years supporting black college students and doing social justice education for the campus community at the University of Arizona. I also run a project that sells political apparel and prints, and I donate most of the profit to supporting black-led initiatives and capacity building for black organizers.
I think balance for me is often predicated on relationship building and the on-going struggle to align my paid work with my values. At this point in my life as an artist, a number of people, many of which I’ve never met, have offered affirmation, or supported me with time and space to develop my art.
We’re in a moment where social capital and ‘fame’ (which I see distinct from money or material conditions like healthcare access, housing) are deeply intertwined with cultural organizing. From an outside perspective, I know that Micah’s work has received a lot of attention within certain circles, on the internet. How do you as a group navigate things like social capital, the way race and gender play into who gets recognition?
Matice: In terms of social capital and “fame,” this project is intended to highlight the brilliant work of trans people of color. Whatever additional attention is paid to the artists who create work for this project is a bonus, but each week the focus is on the person we want to highlight and support through artistic imagery. For the trans personas, or artists who’ve garnered more of a following than others, it’s my hope that the additional attention they bring is sustained through new page follows or what not so that the lesser known folks engaged through this project benefit as well.
When I initially volunteered, I wasn’t aware of any monetary support for the work, and when Micah got a small grant and I was told about the little bit I would be paid, I appreciated how both me and the person I’d chosen to highlight would be compensated the same for our participation.
Some of the resources that made this project possible were a function of Micah’s privilege, and I’ve had a number of conversations with Micah where we’ve brainstormed how to decenter their whiteness as this work grows and gets more attention. However, because this project is still very new, and different guest artists have different levels of access to time to make art for the project or to support planning and implementation, we’ve yet to talk as a group about how race, class, gender, ability and other dynamics of oppression impact how this project shows up in the world. I know that deeper discussion about representation are a high priority as we continue to grow and develop.
Edxie: That’s something among us that needs to be further discussed. I’ve been part of way too many organizing efforts that have not listened to me when I heeded warnings or who have completely ignored my calls for attention towards the specific systemic oppressions me and folks like me face, or the complete fetishization and tokenizing of my plight. White men and livestreamers receiving successful careers and accolades for parachuting into struggles that aren’t even really theirs to suffer, leaving many of the girls like myself in the dust and forgotten. So I do try and push forward certain narratives and might speculate about intention from time to time. ’Cause I have experience in being used. But I want us to do better than this ‘cause it’s been so disheartening over the years. That’s work and takes real truthful conversation and a manner of transparency. Micah knows I had quite a lot of questions regarding the project and processes of decision making. They have made more of an effort, but I think it’s up to all of us to make more strides in talking with all those involved in this. I feel very fortunate in being a part of work that can and will always center trans and gender non conforming folks of color. Perpetually reconciling is a often a slow and discomforting process.
Micah: We’re trying to figure it out. For example, recently a writer did a piece about the project that focused almost entirely on me, which erases other artists and participants and paints me as some kind of white savior. So now we’re developing a media strategy.
My work with trans women of color has received a lot of attention. And that is partly because of the oppression of trans women of color – because of a vacuum of respectful representation and the marginalization of trans artists of color. This project is trying to change that by working with organizers who are fighting to transform conditions, by trying to create more openings for trans artists of color, and collaborating with participants to make sure they love how they are represented.
I receive more social capital, money, and resources because I’m white and not a trans woman. I initiated the project after conversations with many trans justice organizers. If I did it again it would be through a more collective process with TGNC artists of color from the very beginning.
We need cultural organizing strategies that don’t center on social capital and reinforce white individualist myths about art. What would art be in a regenerative economy that served our collective ecological and social well-being, instead of our current extractive economy aimed at concentrating wealth and power? In a regenerative economy, I think we’d nurture everyone’s ability to make art, value art making as work, and make reparations for centuries of plundering art from communities of color.
Following up from that, what is it like to produce work together, across difference? What are some of the things you’ve learned from doing so?
Edxie: I haven’t produced much ‘cause of other projects I’m involved with or even personal challenges I face. The production of work is usually between the artist and the subject chosen. Their dynamics are probably most important in connecting and teasing out looks and their relationship to the aesthetic and intent the artist or subject is trying to convey.
Also people in general use different logics and have different politics. There are political differences that we must recognize and work with. It’s a good strong team of folks involved. I have learned a lot regarding the steps of getting my art printed. Different ideas to sustain myself with art that isn’t completely compromising my principles and agency.
Micah: Most of the collaboration in this project isn’t between artists, its one to one with participants. Building enough trust to collaborate can be challenging because many people involved are dealing with trauma and ongoing violence. I’ve had conversations where someone wants to work together and then disassociates halfway through and we just stop there. I’ve talked with incredible people who’ve survived decades of abuse, and want to participate, but first they want to tell me their life story with four other incredible people on the phone, translating and emotionally supporting them.
The relational structure of the project helps build trust – everyone who works with us is a friend or a friend of a friend in the movement. And art opens up trust. One of the people I’m working with is Ashley Diamond, who survived four years of torture in Georgia prisons. When I contacted her for the first time to explain the project, she said that when she was in solitary, feeling suicidal, she got the TGI Justice Project newsletter. And it had my portraits of Monica Jones and CeCe McDonald, and that gave her strength to live. She decided she was going to get out of there and have me paint her portrait.
Matice: While I’m grateful to be a part of a group dedicated to celebrating the resilience, highlighting the struggles, and acknowledging the brilliance of trans people of color, I think we’re still figuring out what it means to work together not only across difference but across geography as many of us only engage through social media at this point. It’s exciting to figure out how to continue building and visioning together, and how to make sure the individual values and beliefs with which we approach this work are also the means with which we interact with each other.
My involvement to this point has been mainly with Micah and Tanesh, the woman I chose to do my portrait of. I identify as a gender nonconforming black person who is masculine of center with a certain degree of class and education privilege. As such, my approach with Tanesh was to really gain consent, and listen to how she wanted her image and work portrayed through the project. We spent way more time talking about her life experience than was reflected in the final project, but was all necessary relationship and trust building.
Portrait of Reyna the Ripper by Edxie
Where do you see Trans Life and Liberation a few years down the line? Where do you see yourself a few years down the line?
Edxie: This is a tough question. I see many more people knowing about the series. I see it inspiring more revolutionary possibilities within aspects of uncertainty. I still see myself struggling. I’m really trying to focus on the now ’cause in so many ways my future isn’t guaranteed. I see transformation of myself and my relationships to many others.
Matice: In a few years I see this project being one of many resources people can use to better understand the lives of trans people of color, and an even bigger force to work against the erasure and/or dominance of one particular trans narrative. We are in some senses generating an archive of images that I believe will help shift our society’s awareness of the key role trans people of color play in our communities, while developing a model for community accountable artist collaborations.
For myself, I see more art making, more relationship building, and hopefully a larger body of work that expresses my dreams and desires for collective liberation.
Micah: As far as the Trans Life and Liberation series, over the next year there will be a show of all the work in Oakland, in partnership with Sins Invalid. It will include a panel with some of the trans and disability justice visionaries, and we’re planning to make short videos from these conversations. And there will be a coloring book of the project and a full color art book. I see the artists involved continuing to build and support each other, hopefully growing into our own visions of “making it.”
I want everyone involved with the project to still be alive in a few years. I want conditions to change so that is not even a question.
What do you think is next for queer and trans people in terms of building solidarity across disciplines, identities and experiences?
Micah: As Miss Major Griffin-Gracey says, “when black trans women get free, we all get free.” I think we all need to reflect on how we can help shift the state of emergency for trans women of color. How are we, as other queer and trans people, showing up with our skills and resources, to raise the average life expectancy for trans women of color from 35? How are we supporting those of us who are most impacted, to lead our movement?
I think building solidarity with disability justice is next. Think about how much trans people have radically changed your understanding of the world, and how much stronger and more intersectional our struggle has become. For so many years, there was no inclusion or awareness of trans issues on the Left. That has started to shift in the last five to 10 years. But there is still absolutely no inclusion or awareness of disability. How can we as trans people use our nascent inclusion to create openings for disability justice, which will also completely transform and strengthen the movement? How can we support our siblings (and ourselves) with disabilities to start literally and figuratively getting in the door? How can we make sure none of our beautiful non-normative body and minds are left behind?
Matice: I don’t know if I can speak for all queer and trans people, but my interests are in continuing to connect with and make space for queer and trans people of color to support one another, to dream and vision what solidarity looks like, and to continue to innovate ways to address the intersectional oppressions faced by our communities.
Edxie: Making much deeper and broader connections with each other and even those we don’t share the same experiences and conditions with. I appreciate the multidisciplinary approach ‘cause it reminds me again of intersectionality and that liminal space between everything that is filled with so much insight. Media is a big deal. I think and hope there’s going to be a huge psychic, emotional and spiritual paradigm shift, a kind of Libidinal Insurgency towards less oppressive ways of understanding, how we see each other and ourselves. ’Cause we’re definitely more than our material relationships. We essentially, want freedom from a constructed dystopia, right? So it would make sense to tear at the pages of oppression and utter control to then fill in our own constantly changing narratives of us.
Make sure to check out and support the Trans Life and Liberation Kickstarter!