Tourmaline is a New York-based artist, writer, and transgender activist whose work addresses Black, queer, and trans experiences in relation to social and political power. Her installation “Mary of Ill Fame” is currently on view in the Venice Biennale. This summer, her work will be featured in the Aldrich Museum’s “52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone” and in “Pure Joy,” an exhibition at 1969 Gallery. Her artwork and activism ask us to reconsider what is possible and align the possible with our desires.
Whitewall spoke with the artist about her recent Biennale show, the role of desire as a political project in her work, and the influence of recent years upon the relationship between desire and autonomy in her artistic practice.
WHITEWALL: What does it mean to you for your work to be selected for the Venice Biennale?
TOURMALINE: I can’t overstate how much of an honor it is to be a part of “Milk of Dreams.” It is truly the culmination of so many artistic dreams. Contributing to this collective work and vision was a deeply powerful experience. It’s an oceanic movement of art that is resonant and fun to make and experience. Filmmaking is by its nature a collaborative endeavor. Working with Christine McCharen-Tran as the production designer for the installation and the cast and crew of Mary of Ill Fame made it all possible and that much more meaningful to me.
WW: What kind of experience did you hope viewers would have with the work in Venice?
T: I hoped that viewers feel transported. The physical space of Venice is a powerful parallel to the watery world of the film. I hope that the work causes people to question what sort of life allowed for the architecture of these great cities, which were molded by the transatlantic slave trade and traditions of injustice. I want them to confront and appreciate the sort of past that made this moment possible, the people deemed as “nobodies” whose lives allowed for ours today. I hope that viewers see themselves and each other with more clarity than before.
WW: Were you in Venice for the opening? What was the experience like?
T: It was so incredible and powerful to be in Venice for the opening. I was there for three weeks! The sense of community and camaraderie among such talented artists blew me away. Everyone’s work was breathtaking and it was cool to be amidst their skill and experience, but especially their kindness and support.
WW: You’ve been a Social Justice Artist in Residence and a mentor at Silver Art Projects in NYC this year. Can you tell us about this experience? How has it informed your practice, and what you’re working on currently?
T: As an artist in residence in 2020 and a mentor artist in residence in 2021, the sense of community here has impacted my practice in a variety of ways. So much of my work has touched on the history of lower Manhattan over the past hundreds of years. Being in this space is a truly special experience and it is here that I have expanded the breadth of my work, taking on projects that were a joy and challenge to tackle.
While an artist in residence, I created my Pleasure Garden self-portrait series, which is now a part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Getty Museum, and LACMA, among others. I produced my friend Sophia Giovannitti’s film In Heaven at Silver Art Projects and created a series of self-portraits that will be shown at Art Basel. I’ve also done a piece for Dove, two pieces for Unilever, and am now writing a biography of Marsha P. Johnson.
WW: You’ll be participating in “52 Artists: A Feminist Milestone,” the restaging of Lucy Lippard’s 1971 feminist exhibition on view this summer at the Aldrich Museum. Can you tell us about what you’ll be showing?
T: At the Aldrich Museum I will be showing self-portraits from my Pleasure Garden series. Very sexy and very fun—I can’t wait for the show to open! Pleasure Garden is all about not separating pleasure from our desires or from ourselves.
WW: The political project of your work is a matter of aligning the dispossessed with their desires. How have you developed your approach to this over the course of your career (e.g. focusing on personal experiences vs. forgotten historical narratives)?
T: Little by little. There has been a lot of trial and error in my practice. I choose the direction that I move in by paying attention to how I feel and if my beliefs of what is possible align with what I want. I’ve worn many hats throughout my life. I spent time as an organizer in the healthcare industry and as an artist working in fashion. My experiences have taught me that we are all part of the community.
WW: Your work construes its political focus—abolition of police, prisons, the state—as a fundamentally pleasurable and positive process of creation. Have the events of the past two years changed your approach to this?
T: Over the past two years more and more people have become a part of abolitionist work. It’s been profound witnessing this shift and growth. I want to live in a world in which punishment and cages don’t keep people safe, but showing up for each other does. I can imagine what that world can look like and I see that more people than ever can too.
WW: Has the pandemic changed your artistic approach to desire—perhaps complicating the ways one can desire or slowing down the ways in which desire is achieved?
T: The pandemic has fine-tuned my awareness of my own desire. It added emphasis on the desires I experience and made me focus on the presence of desire itself as opposed to the lack of the thing I am desiring. If it was a feeling I was desiring, I asked myself how I could cultivate it and channel that feeling inside myself without obtaining something in the physical world. If it’s the rush of driving in a sexy Lamborghini I was desiring, I can simulate and experience that feeling within myself.
WW: Do you believe that desire and political autonomy always overlap, or does it depend in your work upon who is doing the desiring or what is desired?
T: Desire and political autonomy always, always overlap! Similarly to abolition, conversations about desire, pleasure and joy are happening more than they have ever before, but this is just a starting place. Desire should be centered, not relegated to the margins. Systems that try to curtail how someone is showing up are the opposite of desire, they are containment. Moving toward desire is always moving toward our truest selves. We must value feelings and emotions as indicators of how much of ourselves is flowing from us and to us, which is exactly what we need in the world today.