Sculpture is often defined as three-dimensional objects and structures, but it can also reference sound and non-material artwork, and the multitudinous ways that art can transform and reimagine. It is in this spirit that Yorkshire Sculpture International (YSI) brings together diverse narratives around gender, lived experience and meaning making. The 2021 Summer Programme, developed during a very challenging year, has not hampered the artists’ ability to challenge and unite over complex questions. The public programme included events and commissioned work by Ariel René Jackson, Shezad Dawood, Akeelah Bertram, Claye Bowler, Nwando Ebizie and Ashley Holmes, across indoor, outdoor and digital locations. I spoke to Bowler and Ebizie as the basis for this piece, to shed some light on their respective practices and positions.
Claye Bowler told me that a lot of his work is about ‘what trans bodies might look like, and how we can use methods of hormones and surgery to sculpt the body’. Bowler’s art consistently bears witness to archives, trauma, the body and the erasure of queer and transgender narratives from history. Based in Huddersfield, his work can be seen as a series of meditations on ‘sculpture’ through the carving of his own body, ‘because it was not happening on the NHS’. Exploring the erasure of queer and trans narratives, he has produced ‘Measured Transition 2016-2021’, drawing to a close a five-year performance piece based on his experience of accessing trans healthcare and gender affirming surgeries. On 19 September 2021, the final work, developed in partnership with Henry Moore Institute, was screened at Leeds University Union, with Bowler in conversation with curator E-J Scott.
He explains that he began thinking about this work when he was first referred by a GP to a gender identity clinic in Nottingham: ‘the intention of this work came accidentally, I had shaved my head around the time of the initial referral and then hadn’t really cut it between then and my first appointment at the GIC (thirty-one months). At that point my hair was long, and I worried it was too long to say I am a trans man’. From this point he decided not to cut it again so he could keep a record of how long he waited for the surgery (five years) and was finally scheduled around the time he was invited to contribute to the YSI programme. After the surgery he used a scalpel to remove his long hair, explaining that it ‘relates to both self-harm and surgical settings’. This act was a tactical demonstration of the temporal limbo and prolonged waiting faced by those pursuing surgery within a defunded and overstretched NHS service, and, as Bowler explains, a way of ‘sculpting the body that I want because hair is the first thing you have the ability to change as a trans person’.
Claye described the performance as a demonstration of ‘both the absurdities of the questions asked by the NHS and the physical experience of societal representations of being trans’. Throughout, an audio piece is played in which trans individuals repeat the mundane and sometimes odd questions asked by the NHS throughout the assessment process, such as ‘how is your life?’, ‘what did you do today?’ and ‘where do you define your gender, from princesses in big dresses on one side to the Incredible Hulk on the other’. They show the absurd lengths you have to go through to get NHS treatment, says Claye. In the end, he had the surgery done privately, through crowdfunding and support from other artists, or it might have been two or three more years of waiting. Having trans people read out loud the questions was a form of reclaiming their experience, after experiencing similar waiting times.
The stories of trans people who have been marginalised or unrepresented within dominant cultural narratives have been explored by numerous writers and practitioners in recent years, including Juliet Jacques’ 2015 Trans: A Memoir and Maggie Nelsons’ 2015 The Argonauts (in which she documents her partner’s transition), and the publicised experiences of trans celebrities such as SOPHIE and Elliot Page. Through ideas of queer gossip and history-making, archiving has been reframed as an act of regaining – a gesture of invisible material made palpable. This is a political message that runs through Bowler’s work, for which ‘the destruction of archives has played a big part’, and explains to some extent why he uses his own life as a queer and trans person. In his practice the body functions to subvert existing archives, and as a moving, ephemeral space of reimagining and reclaiming. He explains that for him, ‘archiving is concerned with the consistent destroying of queer and trans people’. In his piece ‘Live Archive’ (2019), for example, he investigates the archive as a form of recognition, and radical history building of the past and present, to consider how queer archives might be a form of performativity and protest: ‘It was a way of telling stories, and different body parts, or different objects I had, and accessioning those live on stage’. Each object was explained as to why it was queer and worthy of collecting ‘comments other people might have made about my jaw and shoes… I’m also interested in how this is a form of storytelling, and the different codes queer people use between one another’.
Similarly, ‘Fine, I’ll do it myself then’ (2020) is a visceral, resolute series of sculptural performances that directly explore the experience of chest dysphoria and trauma during lockdown. During the performance, Bowler enacts violence upon the plaster cast of his chest, which he wears against his own body. The severity of body dysphoria and the suffering caused by delayed treatment are made real through the deep marks and slashes. The artwork is an archive of Bowler’s experiences and prolonged wait for surgery, further demonstrated by cutting his long hair for ‘Measured Transition’. The removed hair will be kept at the Museum of Transology, an archive at The Bishopsgate Institute, along with the tissue that was cut away from his chest. Bowler explains that this archiving is in part politically driven, because there is a precedent for destroying queer history and records of hormone treatment (the historical Institute for Sexology in Berlin, for instance, had extensive documentation of hormone treatment but was burnt to the ground by Nazis): ‘At the Museum of Transology, people are trying to archive the medical history of trans health care… the hair is part of this archiving, against the violence of archiving being destroyed historically’.
Nwando Ebizie’s work reformulates our presumptions about lived reality through ritual, ‘opening perceptions and creating luminous spaces for people beyond their usual experience’. Blending experimental music, performance, theatre and African diasporic ritualistic dance, her wide-ranging practice is infused with an eclectic sense of history and communal experience. ‘Distorted Constellations’ (2019) is an immersive sensory environment that reflects Ebizie’s rare neurological disorder, Visual Snow (in which vision is filled with swirling coloured translucent dots), rendering it as a kind of moving Pointalism with glowing auras and light bursts. Her performance celebrates strong Black women while raising awareness of neurodiversity. The work is designed to demonstrate how perception and reality can differ from normative experiences of the world. Moving away from a scientific diagnosis of neurodiversity, Ebizie pays close attention to how perception can manifest in myriad ways through the senses.
In the video ‘I Seduce’ (2021), the pop persona Lady Vendredi – a Blaxploitation heroine from another dimension – appears enigmatic and playful, both fierce and subtle in her movements and presence. The experience is fast-paced and kaleidoscopic, the complexity of identity presented as a challenge to white patriarchy. This is reinforced through the fragmented faces that re-appear throughout the video, representative of those who have been overlooked and marginalised in an oppressive system. ‘I Seduce’ is a call for radical change, challenging her audiences’ perceived realities and world views. As in Octavia Butler’s essay, ‘Black to the Future’ (1993), the artist imagines an alternate political future for herself and other women living in a marginalised world. The artist creates a utopian future of African dysphoria and the Black Atlantic where the past can be mended, if only fleetingly. Many of Afrofuturism’s visual tropes, including sci-fi and futuristic imagery, and bold alluring colours, also feature within Ebizie’s palette.
Her commission for YSI’s Summer Programme, in partnership with The Hepworth Wakefield, is an aural piece titled ‘The Garden of Circular Paths’ after Jorge Luis Borges’s 1941 short story The Garden of Forking Paths. The ‘circular’ in her title refers to the route of visitors through The Hepworth: ‘It is a circle of ten galleries, which is fundamentally connected to Hepworth, the symbol of the circle and her spirituality’. This also ties into sculpture for Ebizie, in the geometric, three-dimensional experiences that can be created, and the way that a circle is often the shape of communal gatherings. Also, the sound in the installation is ‘binaural’, what Ebizie explains as ‘something that surrounds you, almost like a sculpture’. In these ways, the work acts as a linking to communality and ritual practice.
The piece is comprised of field recordings taken in the Yorkshire landscape and in and around Barbara Hepworth’s home in St Ives. When Ebizie travelled to St Ives to create the recordings, she felt ‘most connected to [her] through the landscape’. She draws on sculptural memory through Hepworth’s personal connection to geological features, in particular the Chun Quoit standing stones in Cornwall. The site has parallels with the Basin Stone on Walsden Moor (that Ebizie admits having an obsession with), a natural monument that has been felt by human hands and used for collective gatherings throughout time, including anti-church and revolutionary meetings. Sheep climb on it and rain has bored holes in the stone, and like Chun Quoit it embodies a deep social and geological history that highlights the relatively small scale of human time.
Bowler and Ebizie’s work show that the intricacies of art and lived experience can be deeply connected, and that the creation of new archives and histories can be a political, ritualistic act. Through varying forms, performances and installations, both artists challenge audiences by representing marginalised identities and our different experiences of time. Ebizie observes that one of the problems in our society is a lack of access and understanding of different experiences, arguing ‘if we opened up this box we could change a lot of the problems we created’. Through the collective, immersive experiences created by these two artists, we can attend to the individual needs that make up our societies, and see oppression, gender and the natural world afresh.
Yorkshire Sculpture International’s 2021 Summer Programme took place across Leeds and Wakefield 10 July – 31 October. Nwando Ebizie’s ‘The Garden of Circular Paths’ is at The Hepworth Wakefield until 27 February 2022.
Hatty Nestor is a writer based in Leeds.
This review is supported by Yorkshire Sculpture International.