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.
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.
So good to see you. Nice to see 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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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 ]