ARTIST SEYI ADEBANJO TALKS BODY, SPIRIT, AND GENDER
September 10, 2019
Look and look closely. Feel what you are seeing and hearing. Do not look away. This is the attention that Seyi Adebanjo’s art commands. By mixing still photography with audio and dramatically interspersed video, the multimedia artist invites the viewer to engage with their subjects’ humanity.
This the reaction I had when I watched Adebanjo’s seven-minute short film, Trans Lives Matter! Justice for Islan Nettles (2013). The film captures the sight and sounds of a community vigil for Islan Nettles, a trans woman beaten to death in Harlem in 2013, and who would become a symbol of the constant threat of violence that trans women live under. There are voices tinged with sorrow at the gathering that Adebanjo documents, but also defiance and bravery. For the trans people in attendance, this was not only a memorial but a rally: Their cause? The fight for their right to the same basic dignity, respect, and safety that cis bodies enjoy. There comes a moment in the montage/slideshow when the film breaks into video action. Trans activist Mariah Lopez is the focal point of this action. “’She!’ Lopez exclaims when Nettles is referred to as “he” by a male speaker. “And don’t do it again! Gay men of African descent should not be speaking for trans people. Period.” Lopez is angrily, passionately, objecting to the misgendering of Nettles by the speaker. The moment is tense, the pain Lopez is feeling is visceral. If the viewer has any empathy, it is impossible not to feel something. For this community, this is not a mere matter of words but life and death.
I’m ashamed to say that until I spoke to Adebanjo at AFROPUNK’s Brooklyn offices on a rainy August afternoon, I did not fully grasp the gravity and the violence of misgendering a person. My own attitudes and ideas of trans people have evolved from the regrettable — and, too often, willful — ignorance of my younger self; yet reading about how something makes people feel is different than looking a person in their eyes and seeing their seriousness, or hearing the urgency in their voice as the sound bounces off the walls of a sterile, white-walled conference room.
On the day we met up, Adebanjo, who is non-gender-conforming and uses they/them pronouns, was wearing white from head to toe, dressed in masculine Nigerian attire. They spoke clearly and passionately, with sentences often punctuated by a “you know what I mean?” Because they really want to you to not only hear them, but to also feel what they are saying. We met on the occasion of their film recently screening at Brooklyn Academy Music, and the “Trans Lives Matter! Justice for Islan Nettles” photo exhibit on view at Space Works in the Bronx until September 14th, to discuss spirituality, their approach to art, and about the need for more nuanced stories of Queer life to make their way into the world.
Tell us who you are and what you do.
My name is Seyi Adebanjo. I use they/them pronouns. I’m queer, I’m gender nonconforming, I’m of Nigerian descent and I’m an artist. I mostly do documentary filmmaking, but I also do multimedia [work]: photography, writing, and now I’m experimenting with performance in the work that I do. All of the work that I’m doing is grounded in bridging [the gap between] spirituality and social justice. All my work has political themes. I usually do work around the queer community, people of color, women of color, transgender folks, gender-nonconforming folks, people who might be gender fluid. I’m looking at immigration, white supremacy and also looking at culture and thriving, and creating the world that we live in. Everything that I do has some type of political theme within it and/or spirituality.
Talk about the intersection of spirituality and politics as you see it because I don’t often hear people say that.
Inherent in spirituality is [the] political, so people always like to take spirituality — and especially religion — out of the public sector. They always say it’s a private affair and that’s how it’s been colonized. If you look at spirituality — especially if you look at spirituality within communities of color — it’s always been something that is public. It’s always been something that we’ve come together to do; to honor the divine by whatever name that we call the divine. It’s also been used as a tool that we’ve used to create and organize our communities. And when we needed to be resistant, we’ve used it as part of our resistance. So especially in western cultures, you might have a church and prayed to this white Jesus who should be a person of color and then you go home and you keep everything [else] private. But once you see theology as something that’s a weapon that you can use to organize and heal yourself, then that makes you dangerous. So it’s really about making sure people remember that those two things go together and [do] not forget how people have used the land, how they use Mother Nature, how they have used spirituality to liberate themselves. If you look at before in Brazil—
…and Haiti. I’m half-Haitian, so that’s what I was thinking immediately.
Yeah, right before the uprising [that led to the Haitian Revolution] people prayed, they worshipped, they created a plan, and then they went and they killed some motherfuckers. So spirit, wherever that spirit may come from, brings us together; and then if you put a political lens to it, it frees your ass! Not just in the spiritual world but also in the physical world. So I’m always talking about those two [things] and how spirituality is also the face of activism, the face of love, the face of justice, and they all have to go together. It’s not a private conversation, you know?
How did you arrive at this place as an artist? To say, “I want to combine these things?” Usually, our life experiences inform how we approach whatever we do, so how did you get there?
It was already in my DNA as someone of Yoruba descent born in Nigeria. [People from] my mom’s line were Orisha practitioners, or Yoruba traditionalists, so it was always there for me. And then. when I came back to New York in 2003, I started working at this organization called Casa Atabex Ache, which translates into “The House of Women’s Power.” Working there and coming into a place where I was co-executive director, we were really like looking at bridging that spirituality and social justice [gap] in a deeper way, and making sure that it encompasses all of us. So when we came into leadership roles [at the organization], we made sure queer, gender non-conforming folks, and trans folks were part of that conversation because it used to be a cis-run organization. That got me to think about my political framework in a different type of way; making sure that spirituality and social justice were bridged together before it became sexy. Now, everyone’s like burning sage and they’re like, “Yeah, I’m political!” I know it’s another conversation, but that [kind of faux spiritual activism] has no integrity and no real foundation. Mixing together the work I was doing at Casa and also like my own work as a Yoruba practitioner that started just being more defined in, not only my organizing, but also in my art.
How have your personal experiences — inhabiting the body you inhabit — informed your work?
As someone who’s Yoruba and a practitioner, [I know that] there’s always gender fluidity within the Orishas, and that’s something that gets left out in the western construct of religion. When you look at Yoruba, Lukumi, or Candomble, it’s something where these deities would embody all the different gender manifestations at the same time. [Deities such as] Oya. Ogun, and what have you. Having that in my lineage — a place where there’s these deities, these, elements of nature that I can point to and always knowing that within my body I embody masculinity and femininity and to be that without anyone policing me or telling me who and what I am — it’s been a fight.
[It’s been a fight] to be able to be like, “This is who I am and I don’t have to explain to you why I am, just that this is who I am and that I exist. Either support me or move out of my way.” Just seeing like different representations of gender, like at home, was also something that was supportive.
Because you know it’s rooted in something that predates the way this current society is set up.
I’ve known since I was a child that I’ve been just fluid in terms of my gender representation. Now I look more masculine because I’m on testosterone and I got like [facial] hair growing but it’s like I’ve always been, I guess, masculine-of-center since I was a child. This society is uncomfortable with gender and something I’ll say is, gender is the final frontier. People are more accepting of [differences in] sexuality, they’re like “Oh, we get gay.” And then when you add to that gay, cis, heteronormative-acting white gay folks, they’re like, “Oh yeah, Ellen [Degeneres] and them, we get them.” But then when you talk about how you’re not a man in a way that they think that you are or that you’re non-binary and then you see how people just get like upset.
It’s like they recoil from you a little bit.
Not only recoil, but they get to a place where they’re like, “I’m going to hurt you, because this is something that I’ve been taught as a child is, and now you’re telling me that there are more than two genders and you’re telling me, whether you have taken hormones or not, that you are something different than I say you are.” You see how people get so violent. And then they start talking about these religions or spiritualities that support their violence.
Like some forms of Christianity?
Christian or different things like that. They start pulling out texts and it’s like if we look at all these, like, healers and deities, all of these entities, they have their own fluidity and their own gender representation. Look at Black Jesus [for instance] — Black Jesus was not hyper-masculine. Black Jesus was, very much feminine and masculine. You know what I mean? Gender expression and gender fluidity are like the last frontier in terms of the violence that people are facing it because they’re like, “I can’t accept this.” I call it the third wave of lynching that’s happening to, especially, Black trans women in the U.S. You don’t really hear about trans-masculine folks because either they get forgotten about or misgendered, and also because it’s not sexy [to talk about them].
I never hear about that community.
Barely. You might hear about one or two cases that might get reported in the news of someone being murdered or hurt. What’s unfortunate [is] there’s visibility in media around trans feminine folks, or Black trans women, but there’s still a conversation that is forgotten about trans masculine folks of color. I think there needs to be room for all these conversations to happen, not only about the violence that’s happening to our bodies, but also about how people are thriving and how they are succeeding, and how they might be mourning and joyful at the same time because we’re human beings.
And all these things exist within us.
It does exist within us. I see gender as like…it’s still gonna take time for this complete society to come on board.
Now that you say that — actually the moment you talked about people’s discomfort with accepting gender and gender fluidity — it immediately made me think of this movie I was watching about Marsha P Johnson—
The one that was on Netflix [“The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson”], which I hear is problematic. Right?
Yeah, it is. It is.
There’s a clip in there where [trans activist] Sylvia Rivera is at, I want to say Washington Square Park, and she had to fight her way to the stage to talk at this Pride rally that was held by white, cisgender gay people. That shit almost brought me to tears to see that the vanguard of the Gay Rights movement was being suppressed and fought against — like physically fought against. So when you talk about the violence that comes out, I’ve seen examples of that even within the supposedly equal queer or LGBTQIA community.
Oh, it’s not [equal]. I don’t know why I engaged in it, but I had an argument with an older white gay cis man who was like, “No, you can’t be like ‘Stonewall was started by trans women of color.’ I was at Stonewall. We started it!” No, your white ass was not at Stonewall getting beat, motherfucker! But like white folks have co-opted that narrative for themselves, so that they can be celebrated, so that they can say we’re the same as cis folks. We’re not the same! That’s why people are being murdered. So even in, the queer or the LGBTQI community, there still is this notion like “If like trans folks or GNC folks just acted right—”
Gender non-conforming. [The attitude is], if we “acted right” and blended in, we wouldn’t have this problem. And it’s like, you wouldn’t have a movement without the trans and gender-nonconforming bodies, because every day like it’s my body, it’s folks like me, who are being policed.
You’re on the front line of all the aggression.
Yeah. If you can pass within that [male-female presenting] binary, people aren’t paying you any mind, but if you can’t pass that, all the tension is on you. That’s why it’s important to have this conversation and not only talk about the body but to talk about how society — whether it’s the most marginalized of society, or the most affluent in society — is still using white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism to continue to hurt people, and say who they can and cannot be. So it’s important to have these many-layered conversations within cis society, especially Black cis society, because, you know, I don’t go to church a lot, but when I do, I see different types of queer and GNC bodies up in those pews. But people are like, “Oh yeah, no, they don’t exist.”
That’s the long answer to your question in terms of my journey, but it’s just been a journey of just looking at and being who I am, having the words to tell other people who I am, and then being able to make sure that my expression can be a lived expression, and is also part of the films that I’m making. And because of the conversation we’re having right now, I don’t see the different layered conversations in a lot of media. Like trans is sexy now!
Trans is “sexy” now?
Like, look at it. There’s more TV shows where there’s trans characters.
Like “Trans Parent” and “Euphoria.”
A lot of fictional films are coming out of festivals, or documentaries, where it’s all these different types of just tropes or whatever. So there’s money to do trans narratives but then, who are the people doing those trans narratives? Are they of trans experience? Are they gender-nonconforming, or are you giving it to cis folk? And within these narratives, what are the stories we’re telling? It’s still kind of like how there’s one Black story to tell, so now there’s like one trans story to tell. Usually, a Black or Latinx trans person who’s disappeared or was murdered and it’s like, there’s more to our lives than that.
I feel you, ‘cause like the Black cis body parallel to that is the “slave movie” or the “hood movie.”
That’s it. [Either] we’re dying or we belong to someone else. And it’s like, that is part of the story but it’s not our entirety. It’s not our whole herstory in this world. So even though trans is “sexy” it’s still limited, it’s still a monolith in terms of the stories that are allowed to be told.
What are some stories that you want to tell?
One of them is “Afromystic.” It’s looking at priests and priestesses and practitioners who practice Yoruba spirituality, whether that’s from Nigeria, Cuba, or Brazil. [People] who are thriving and living. What has been their experience? How did they come to a place where the divine love them? Did they find an opening within Yoruba spirituality or did they have to create that space for themselves to be able to be a part of this community and be a practitioner? Trying to tell that story and look at it from different continents, and look at it within, like, queer Orisha mythology, right? In that gender fluidity that exists. So that’s one of the stories that I want to tell. Another is an everyday story of just, like, someone who is trans or gender-nonconforming, and who just kinda gets up and lives a day; what does a 24-hour period look like?
You use a lot of still images with audio underneath it to tell your stories, and you’ll interlace some film or some moving images as well. Why do you approach it like that?
That’s been newer. Because I’ve been loving the idea with photography that you can have these still images, and a lot for me I wanted the audience to be able to sit and look at these different bodies. Right? A lot of times we don’t get to sit and be with folks of color, trans folks, gender-nonconforming folks, come into people’s world and be with them. And so, I like the stillness cause you take a breath and pause, versus sometimes in moving images if it’s cut really fast, we don’t get a moment to be with them. I’ve been enjoying that, and at the end of the day, my work is lyrical or some people might say experimental, but it’s layered. And I want there to be an element of all these different things that are a part of people’s lives that are happening simultaneously. Right? Like the spirituality piece, the gender piece, the ritual piece, the being a person of color. These things all exist at the same time. So layering in the lyrical form of my films, allows people to come to the world and the story that I want them to experience.
With Trans Lives Matter!, I wanted people to feel what was happening. To be at this Islan Nettles vigil honoring her, and for her to be misgendered [there] and continue to have violence happen to her. I wanted people to feel the energy and everything that was happening in this space, and the stills couldn’t fully get that. So it was important for people to then be kind of like shook by the action of her [Mariah Lopez] moving. Her words are powerful, but it needed to be more a moving moment within that. And that’s why I like to intersperse the moving and the stills because you get those moments where you can be with people and I was like…”time to move!” [snaps fingers] Like, “Can you feel it? Do you see what’s happening?” And engage people’s senses in different ways, and also their hearts and their brains, and they’re like, “Oh, snap, I didn’t know that’s what was happening.” But I think like with Trans Lives Matter!…everyone is moved by it. Whether they agree with it or not, it moves them. That’s one of the reasons that that was an important piece.