The “C” Files with Maria Brito

FULL EPISODE

Juliana Huxtable and Swoon

Maria Brito and artist Juliana Huxtable discuss gender fluidity, trans identity and the intersection of different disciplines in Huxtable’s practice including performance, DJ’ing, photography, music, painting and writing. Brito then joins artist Swoon in her Brooklyn studio to discuss drug addiction, vulnerability, motherhood, trauma and how being an artist saved her life.

AIRED: November 13, 2019 | 0:27:03
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TRANSCRIPT

Juliana Huxtable is one of those amazing artists

where she goes to places where people normally

don't want to hear, they don't want to go to

and she takes us there with humor and with brilliance.

She is at the intersection of many dialogues,

and she is also opening up

this entire conversation around gender.

And what I love about Juliana is that she's so prolific.

She can DJ, make her own music, make film,

she paints, she takes photographs.

she performs, she writes poetry and prose.

She is good at everything, and I'm so intrigued

and fascinating about her own persona,

and how cool she is.

Hello. Hello.

So good to see you. Nice to see you.

Thank you.

Brito: When do you know that you wanted to be an artist?

When I was a child.

When I was three I told my mom

I wanted to be an artist

or that I was an artist,

not that I wanted to. I told her that I was.

How was your time aboard?

Because I have heard it so many times

that you said that the teachers were not supportive

and that you were trapping your identity according to them

and obsessed with putting your identity out in the work.

And as far as I'm concerned, that's what artists do.

They work with their identity

because it's the first thing they know.

All art is about identity.

Anyone who is making work it's like naturally

their identity is going to be woven into what they do.

But I think women, queer people, people of color

unfairly share the burden of being told

that what they do is identity,

even though it's not necessarily more or less about identity

than what anyone else does.

And so, are you totally over the trans conversation?

You don't want to ever like talk about it?

I'm not over that the trans conversation in so much

as that's always a part of any conversation

that I would have.

But I don't like when things become like pathological

or deterministic when people are like.

"Oh, you used pink hair because you were born a boy

and now you are a woman, and that means that you like

pink and that is why you have pink in this portrait.

That's like clinical, really suffocating,

uninteresting way of talking about art work.

Like, to me, it's like why I like art

is because it doesn't have to be a literal.

I want to be to be imaginative about thinking

about what trans could be as a category.

And so that's kind of more interesting to me,

and I think maybe my aversion

to the more literal trans conversation

is an interesting way to motivate

how I think about my work or something.

One of the pivotal moments for me

was when I saw your work at the triannual in 2015

because you were author and muse at the same time,

because we have that amazing 3D sculpture

by Frank Benson.

And When I first saw that work I was thinking to myself,

"She must feel very vulnerable."

The way that that sculpture is made

is your own body turned into an object.

And how do you feel about all the hoopla

around it and the attention?

Yeah.

Well, I think what most people don't realize is

that the sculpture was not made for the triannual.

When I agreed to do that sculpture,

it was going to be shown in one gallery in New York,

one gallery in London.

It's a very specific context,

And I never thought it was gonna be in a museum

with thousands of people seeing it.

Very early on in the sculpture,

It wasn't even going to be fully nude.

It wasn't even going to be in those colors.

Those colors for the sculpture with an adapted

because those were clothes that I had already been using

on myself, and new Nibiru portrait

in new museum was part that character

I had already been developing for years.

And so there were earlier portraits that I had done

in a similar vein with a similar sort of painting,

and that painting was adapted on

to the sculpture after the fact.

At the time, you know, I thought,

"Well, I guess probably more good

will come out of this than not."

And so I never really felt super sure about wanting

the sculpture to be in the show,

and then after the show opened,

I think my relationship with to the sculpture

got a bit more... complicated

is one way of putting it.

It's been, sometimes, it's been a source of stress.

And I'm happy to be at a point

where that sculpture has its own life

and I have my own life.

♪♪

The topic of Denver is something that

fascinates me and a lot of people

because it's so ample and there are so many nuances,

and it's not just one thing or the other.

What have you been discovering lately with gender

that adds to your practice?

I've seen great portraits that you've created recently

that are interesting for people to think about gender.

Gender, to me, is like...

It's a lens. It's a tool.

It's something that can be as complicated

or as basic and reductive as you want it to be.

And I think that what I find really interesting

is like even the sort of like --

There's so much thought

if you're thinking about gender theory.

There are so many ideas and thoughts

and concepts and movements that fall loosely

under the rubric of like feminism

or gender studies or gender activism or queer theory.

And sometimes I think that those labels actually

short sight the overarching nature of what's being said.

Like, I think some of the most things

that have fundamentally changed the way that I see the world

have come or fall under gender theory,

but they're really using gender and using questions

of gender and sex as a way to interrogate

fundamental questions about society,

power, race, culture.

And so I think that one of the potentials of art and visual art

especially is to do a similar thing where it's using gender

as like a trope, but it's not just about gender.

It's not like I'm just making work about being

myself in the world.

It's a way of provoking questions about identity

and how identity functions and how style

and fashion and counter culture

and like identity on a much larger level exist

in the kind of contemporary moment.

And so it's about exploding gender or thinking about gender

as something that's not just self reference.

How do you get into the nightlife?

And you know you deejay and you also throw parties

or you used to shock value but how did that happen?

I mean I've always been obsessed with nightlife

since I was a kid. -Why?

I don't know, it's one of those things that's just like

I found and fantasized about nightlife

as a space of liberation.

And I think that for me church was really important to me

growing up, I loved the music. I loved the community.

I loved the glamour of church like Southern black Baptist

like people you dress up and so

but I think that church had a lot of shortcomings for me

in the sense that it was like

could be very conservative, socially.

Clubbing to me was almost like an all like a form of church

but a much more free. version of that or something.

And so it just made sense to me

that I would start deejaying and throwing parties

and being more involved in the creative side.

Everything feels impossible right now.

♪♪

Why don't you tell me about the House of Ladosha

and how it started and what it means

and what happens when you go there.

So House Ladosha is a family, at the core.

It started at-- in dorm room in new school.

Fast forward many many many years later that family

is only just grown.

How are your creative collaborations with Juliana?

We've done so many different things that,

I guess it depends on what the project is.

We've done parties big parties together.

We've helped each other with each other's work.

We've worked collaboratively on stuff for House of Ladosha.

As hectic as it may seem on the outside, and sometimes it is,

it's always seamless because we know

that we have each other's backs and we have the same goals.

I love the project that you did with her and the new museum.

-Oh, yeah. -For Traeger.

Yes.

and that also I love the idea of using art

for social activism in connection with gender.

Everything we do is always in some way pointing to politics

but we should kind of put a camera or mural against that.

And then also celebrate House of Ladosha

and the work that we've been doing.

So, how do we kind of shake people up to be like,

Look, yes things are dark now but they've always been

kind of intense. Especially for queer families.

And the best thing you can do is.

Like not forget that.

That it's important to keep the people

who you love closest to you,

especially if you're queer to, like, like hurdle up.

Because it's, even if it does get better,

and hopefully will, it's not going to be easy overnight.

[ Cheers and applause ]

You were a total pioneer because now

is that we're seeing that non binary

and the fluidity of everything is actually becoming the topic.

Yes. It's great. So if you did this 20 years ago...

Yes. People weren't so obsessed with language back then

but the LGBTQ community it was sort of us and them.

That was it. That's all you needed to know.

And so when I started developing my look and my identity

I was gender neutral and I was fluid and I was

not interested in committing to any kind of box.

So I would do public events and there would be pageants

and people would say the M.C. would go

Are you a boy or a girl. And I would say neither.

That's the only answer I have was neither.

I couldn't say, "Oh, I'm fluid." or, "I'm non binary."

or I didn't have that language and and people celebrated

that just that notion of not knowing.

How did you meet Juliana?

She was hanging out with the House of Ladosha

and they were a band at the time

♪ I guess I'm carrying Bradshaw, Royston, fashion, genefac ♪

And so I had seen her performance

and she was just on the side go go dancing.

And I saw this amazing person

on literally on the side of the stage

and I was like "This is all great,

but she's the star." And actually there was,

someone from publication there that night

and I made some declaration I was like

"Oh, that girl. She's the new it girl.

So whatever she's got going on, you need to look at her."

I was just drawn to her. I find that a lot with artists.

Who are operating within certain networks.

It's like you just recognize it when you see it.

It's almost like meeting an old soul.

Like, I've known you forever even though we've just met

and we had that connection.

What inspires you about this neighborhood?

-I think the diversity. -I love Bushwick.

I mean it's very cool.

I mean I'm also like moved here as an artist.

Like, I moved here because I liked being in the neighborhood.

And so it's weird to see people that move

and don't want to see black or Latino people.

I find that to be weird

but that's something that's kind of happening

where even like me or Chris we'll walk into a bar.

And people get nervous and weird and it's like. "What?"

It's like why would you move to Bushwick,

if you want to just put beard wax on?

I think that for what it is worth

at least you keep producing amazing music.

And photos and videos.

Out of the neighborhood.

It's been lovely. Thank you.

♪♪

Caledonia Curry, known as "Callie" to her friends,

known as "Swoon" to the world, is an extraordinary artist

whose practice spans from murals and street art

to incredible worlds within worlds

and installations in museums,

and she is the embodiment of what it means

to be an activist and an artist.

She has inspired so many people

because she's accessible and everything she does

has humanity at the center of it.

She has had the most difficult childhood.

Both her parents were addicted to heroin.

And she actually was able to become

this incredibly successful artist that she is.

Callie...

Hi. [ Chuckles ] ...hi.

You have been pretty vocal

about the addiction of your parents... Mm-hmm.

...and how scary, frightening, chaotic

that world was for you as a child.

Talk about how you came through the other side.

You know, I think that, for years,

I just ran from my -- from my childhood.

You know, I sort of just burst out of the gate,

and I was going and I was going,

and I-I kind of thought that I had gotten away.

And then in my late 20s, early 30s,

my life started to really fall apart

in the sense that I was just doing things

that I couldn't live with.

I was acting in, like, wild, abusive, chaotic ways myself.

You know there are ways in which that happened unconsciously

where I would just kind of, like, put all my energy

into my work, where I could just feel

that I had all this restlessness

and rage and, like, desire and all these things,

and I was like, "Who am I? What is this person?"

You know, there was a ton

of really serious mental illness in my family.

There was a ton of really serious drug addiction,

and I just figured that,

like, you know, set the stopwatch.

When when do I get mine? Like, when does it happen?

You know, I thought it was about genetics.

I thought that we were really damaged.

And what I learned is that there was damage

but that it was psychological and emotional damage

and that it could be healed.

And so when I was able to stand up and say,

"Yeah, okay, so my parents were addicted to heroin.

I love them. I'm alive. I'm whole.

You know, I see what happened, and yet I forgive them,"

I was able to kind of make my life whole

and say, "I don't have to forget things.

I don't have to hide things. I can be who I am.

I can bring it into my artwork. I can share it."

And then I became able

to actually take the true stories of my life

and try to put them into work directly

and to create healing in that way.

How do you explain cases of people like Callie?

She had a very traumatic childhood,

yet she overcame that trauma.

Nave: Being able to do art

helped her get through those times

because if you're focused on the strokes, the colors,

the way you're drawing them,

how hard are you going to push on the pencil,

you're not thinking about everything else.

So, it's almost a form of meditation in itself

to help you come into that window of tolerance,

to be able to process these things

and cope and soothe yourself.

I'm guessing her parents didn't have some of those

coping skills or some of that sense of safety

from other people in their lives.

And it's not just like, "They're druggies.

They just decided to go through that

because it was so much easier for them to go

and just do the right thing."

If that would be the case,

I guess they wouldn't have done it.

If you haven't been struggling with addiction yourself,

it's just hard to imagine that happening.

But if you understand that the part that takes the most damage

as you go through continued use

is the part that's your personality,

the part that even thinks about right or wrong,

and to be on the outside and trying to imagine that

or understand it, it's like, "Nah.

If you can't see it, it's not broken,"

but there is suffering

and there is something physically going on.

It's not a choice or a lack of morality.

There is something you said

that by drawing certain portraits

and combining certain pieces together

in one big installation

helped you figure out puzzles of your life.

How did that happen?

Well, how it started was I learned that a lot of trauma

is stored in the nervous system

and that in order to heal kind of childhood-trauma things

that are that are buried very deeply in your past,

you need to do very deep work.

So one of the things that came up for me

was a deeply buried fear

that my mom, when she was suicidal

or when she was going through a psychotic episode,

that she was in danger of killing me,

that she wanted to kill me.

And it was one of those things that, as a child,

my mind couldn't let that fear out.

I had to bury it.

But when I started to dig into this work,

I was able to access it, and what happens in trauma

is that the psyche is trying to escape

its present circumstance.

Something's so difficult to deal with

that the mind wants to get away from it.

And one of the ways that you can get away from it

is by kind of splitting the channels of your mind,

so "This isn't happening to me" or "I'm somewhere else"

or "I'm someone else" or, you know,

"my brain has created

a different environment to be in,"

and I found that I was doing those things.

I was creating different environments to be in.

I was creating different memories.

And so I started with an image of disassociation

which you so wisely put as like a puzzle, right?

That it's like a puzzle and all its pieces are scattered.

So I took this scattered image,

and then I started tagging it

with memories, stories, pieces of reading,

things I learned,

and then I started to put them back together

through the artwork.

And once I put all those pieces back together,

I found that I had a whole story that made sense

and it was a story about somebody

who could listen to themselves,

who could believe their own mind and memories,

and who could say, "That's in the past now.

I'm alive. I'm whole. I'm okay.

I'm finding a way to heal."

♪♪

How do you draw your mom with all the pain that you had

and put yourself in her arms

in such a loving, nurturing moment?

You started here, or you started here?

I started there. Right.

I started there. That was --

That was, like, the present moment,

and then I sort of looked back and kind of found this,

and I was just doing a lot of deciding about how to --

you know, how to bring her story in,

but I felt like I really wanted, when I saw this

and it was, like, her and her absolute sweetness,

and I just wanted to hold that, as well.

That was a picture you guys had?

Mm-hmm. Yeah.

From the time that my mom was diagnosed with cancer

until she died, it was only three months,

so it was a kind of a short period of time,

and I was down in Florida,

and I was taking care of her and spending time with her,

and my world kind of stopped at that moment.

And the thing about artmaking for me

is that it's kind of like this pole

that's, like, in the center of your world,

and that the wind is blowing and your feet are off the ground

and you feel like you're getting sucked away,

but there's one thing you can hold on to.

So I drew her as she was sick and as she was dying,

and it was almost like a choiceless choice.

Like, I-I almost had to draw her

because I couldn't do anything else.

Like, I couldn't survive another way.

I had to stop what I was doing and draw her.

And it was terrifying and it was scary,

but, also, there was a lot of love there,

and so that's why you see the love in this portrait.

But there's -- You know, there's sort of terrifying elements

of the kind of cycles of life and death

and the sort of sense of things being reduced to ashes

but born again.

But this drawing, for me, was one of those things

where I just -- it was how I survived.

Jeffrey, thank you so much for having me.

Well, thank you so much for your interest in Swoon.

You remember the first time you found her work?

Oh, yes. Well, like so many other people in New York,

I saw her work on the streets.

I remember seeing the first work in Chinatown.

And it's startling.

You do a double-take because the figures are so strong

and animated even though they're flat.

They look like they're alive.

And...

of course, I asked, "Who is that?"

And, finally, people said, "Oh, well, that's Swoon."

♪♪

Many artists stimulate us

with philosophical issues, formal and conceptual issues.

Well, Swoon has that, as well.

But on top of that,

there's a deep humanity, deep sympathy for people.

Street art has been a boys' club,

and very few women enter into this discourse,

so it's very tough and aggressive work --

fearless, but it's also totally feminine.

Brito: What I also love about Swoon

is this very important combination

of art and activism.

Well, art and activism is something

that almost every younger artist is talking about today,

and artists are more and more concerned

that they need to do something more than produce

another work for an art fair.

So, Swoon has from the beginning.

It's not that she changed

and said, "Oh, I have to be an activist now."

This is central to where she's always been.

Well, and I think we're all very grateful

for giving her that chance in 2005.

We all need artists like Swoon.

Well, with Swoon, I had to fight to get her in the gallery.

She was very reluctant.

But it turned out great.

And we literally closed down the street.

From Green to Worcester, just a sea of bodies.

And Swoon emerges from the gallery

of this crowd like a rock star,

and she is lifted up by the crowd

and is held up

and floats above these hundreds of people.

It's an amazing photograph.

It's one of, like, a religious ecstasy.

Can you tell me about the work

that you have done in Philadelphia

with rehab patients, inmates,

people who want to become valuable members of society

after they've gone through their moments of Hell?

Mm-hmm.

Around the time that I started to really connect

with the struggle that I went through in my own family

and to be honest about the amount of suffering

that it takes to get people to a place

where they are deeply addicted to drugs

or where they have committed a crime

that they and the rest of society can't live with,

I felt this powerful desire to be part of the dialog

around understanding what gets us to that place

and that any of us could get to that place

and that any of us can come back from that place.

And so they started this Arts Community Center,

Philly Mural Arts did,

you know, which sounds kind of unlikely.

You're like, "Is artmaking really what we need

in, like, the middle of the opioid epidemic?"

And I believe and they believe

that the answer is "yes"

and that it's part of a larger answer

but the answer is, "Absolutely, yes."

And so they offer people a space to come in,

to wash their hands, to get clean,

and to just to make art and be listened to.

And what that does

is it gives people a way to calm down,

to get in touch with their feelings a little bit,

and to begin to consider other options.

Like, "Maybe I do want to try to get a bed in a rehab,"

or, like, "Maybe I do want to call my mom, actually,"

or, you know, these things, these decisions

that you don't even have time and space to make

when you're living homeless out on the street,

just hustling for your next fix,

that you need someone

to give you a little bit of care and a little bit of silence

and a little bit of, you know, something beautiful.

I have not met many people like you.

I haven't, and I've met a lot of people in my life.

So I want to say thank you for opening up

your studio, your life, your heart

and a chance to see that human beings

go through very difficult things.

They can come on the other side.

Thank you. I appreciate that so much.

[ Both laugh ]

♪♪

♪♪

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