26 January 2021
This conversation between autumn 2020 artist-in-residence Manauara Clandestina (supported by Inclusartiz) and London-based artist Victoria Sin (who presented two works at part of the Delfina Foundation-produced performance programme for the Venice Biennale of Art in 2019) took place over Zoom in October 2020 and has been edited for publication. Their candid discussion covers the effects of COVID-19 on their work and communities, the current challenges faced by trans and non-binary people in the UK and Brazil, and how they relate and respond to chaos.
Victoria Sin: So, maybe a good place for us to start is the journey that brought you here to London to be an artist-in-residence at Delfina Foundation, and what you were doing more recently in São Paulo before you came. I’d also love to know what you are working on now you’re here – and how, with the global pandemic and lockdown and everything, things have changed for you this year?
Manauara Clandestina: The trajectory that brought me to London began, I guess, when I started to perform in the night time of São Paulo. I started off doing that alone, then soon after I joined a collective of performers called Animalia. In more recent years though, I have increasingly dedicated myself to collaborations of fashion and photography, but I never feel performance is far from these creative processes and I still love to perform.
I often work in collaboration with the stylist Vicenta Perrotta who I met several years ago at a fashion fair. In general, I really enjoy to work with others. I started as a model for her work, participating in fashion shows – which served as a transition from my previous performance work. Later I started directing the catwalk performances and I now also work at the stylist for many of our collaborations. We have realised several large performances together so far, including: Travesti Viva (2016) – asserting and celebrating the travesti community’s existence and right to existence, and our very being alive against the odds; Transclandestina (2019) – discussing the migration processes of northern trans people to southern Brazil and their consequent marginalisation; and most recently Brazil: The Travesti World Champion (2019) – in which we reclaimed the use of the colours of the Brazilian flag, which had been appropriated by the extreme right. That was the last performance I worked on in Brazil. A very powerful group came together to make this project happen, subverting with life what is rotting the nation and it was an incredible thing to be part of. Then, earlier this year, the pandemic hit Brazil and it forced a change to my way of working, as it was so socially-based, and so I spent a lot of time in the studio before I came here.
Since coming to London – especially when I just arrived and the restrictions due to COVID-19 were a bit lighter – I started doing research with practical clothing, those used by construction workers and people working on the streets. Together with fashion designer Murilo Tadashi we started upcycling cheap high-vis clothes and I am working on a video outcome from this.
And what about you? How has this year been for you and what has it brought in terms of your practice?
Victoria: I mean this year has been completely different to what I thought it was going to be! I think that’s a universal experience. For me, it’s been a chance to pause and reflect on the direction that my work was going and the ways that I want it to go. I’ve been able to think about my work in new ways; in terms of my own personal experience – which always comes into my work. I think this is something that you can attest to too right?
But to be more specific, for example, I’ve been thinking a lot about masculinity in myself, in my performance work, and in my everyday embodiment, and considering what it can do in my work. That’s been a really important thing for me this year. I’ve also been thinking a lot about this quote by a writer called Ocean Vuong. I was actually just sharing this with a friend before we started talking, so it’s on my mind, but I keep on coming back to it: “The most beautiful part of your body/ is where it’s headed. & remember/ loneliness is still time spent with the world.”
So, I guess I’ve been using this year to kind of allow myself to embody things that previously I haven’t given myself the space to and that is now coming out in my work. And I think it’s not only undoing gender binaries for me, but also moving forward, of life into other binaries and death, self and other, dreaming and waking. I feel like I’m kind of sitting still, but also expanding outwards.
Manauara: As someone who has only recently come to the UK, and for the first time, I’m very interested to understand the political experience for trans and non-binary people here. I have managed to make some connections with queer and trans people living in London, but due to the pandemic, my exposure has been somewhat curtailed. I would love to know more about the situation here. Culturally I noticed a lot of differences too, but I expected that!
Victoria: And equally, I would like to understand what the process is like and what the situation is for trans people in Brazil. I understand it’s not great. I mean, it’s not great here either. For non-binary people for example, our gender is not legally recognised.
This year , trans rights have been essentially rolled back and very much attacked. There was a move to reform the Gender Recognition Act that would have allowed people to self-identify their gender without having to go through the years of waiting that it takes to do so through the medical system here, it’s violent and outdated. However, these plans were dropped.
Another issue being faced by the trans community in the UK is that if they are on hormones, they often have to access these privately as you wait years to access hormones on the NHS [National Health Service]. Recently there was an article published in the media which attacked the main online private healthcare that trans people use to get hormones. It was basically fear mongering saying children were being pushed to transition because they were being prescribed puberty blockers. Somehow the result was that overnight many people lost their access to hormones.
There is this powerful movement in the UK of trans exclusionary feminists that’s growing and getting a lot of mainstream media coverage and its persecuting trans people in the same way that gay people were persecuted in the past – by accusing them of being a threat to children.
The situation is bad. Every trans person I know who has a public persona suffers incredibly detrimental attacks on their mental health online, this is especially bad for trans people of colour. There’s just such an environment of fear and hatred towards trans people in this country. And physical attacks have been higher this year, statistically it’s getting worse.
Manauara: I see. So, at the moment, it’s almost like there is a rollback in term of rights, safety and health of the trans community in the UK. Before coming here, I had thought the situation was perhaps a lot better than it actually is. But it seems there is a lot of fighting still to be done, a lot of battles to be won.
In Brazil the trans community faces a lot of violence too. But actually, I wanted to ask that question to you, because we recently had municipal elections in Brazil and many trans people have been elected to office. This gives me so much hope, for many women. It shows this genocide of our community attempted by the extreme right wasn’t successful. And people continue to re-emerge and breathe and dream again and hope again. It was a very good day.
Victoria: Yeah. I mean, I feel it’s so difficult. I find in the environment here everybody is scared and there’s so many different reasons to be scared. There’s a saying “hurt people hurt people.” And I think in this country this year, fear has spread a lot of insecurity and then hatred, unfortunately. And I for sure can see that people on the margins are people who are suffering the most because they were the most precarious to begin with.
For this reason, I didn’t make any art for most of this year. I found myself totally unable to produce works or even think about this because so many of my friends weren’t doing well. Several of them wanted to die. It’s been a really, really intense year.
But I think hearing this news from Brazil, and also in the recent elections in the US, where they recently got their first trans senator, it gives me some hope. I’ve dared to feel optimistic – and I have felt a drive to push forward with my work in new directions, and to try to reach out for community, even when it’s difficult.
But I want to ask then, how has it been being so far away from your community right now?
Manauara: I would have loved to be in Brazil to celebrate together this moment, and to be in the street, to meet my friends. I miss this so much, especially at this time. But I take comfort in knowing these communities still exist, regardless of being far away from each other.
To be honest, I don’t want to go back to Brazil right now, because of the insecurity of living there. It’s so violent and I have lost many friends.
The outcomes of these recent elections brought hope as it shows trans people can be visible and flourish in a way, but still there are many places of misery. For example, the process of the transitioning in Brazil is already very hard. But these representatives have managed to build something and will try to help others now and this brings light.
Victoria: Definitely. I think this never-ending process is something I’ve been thinking a lot about this year. The idea that we and our identities and our positions could ever be one single thing, could ever be static, is a lie because everybody is always constantly changing, transforming. And I think that subverting the idea of what’s normal, that’s part of it. It’s normal that people are changing, are constantly in flux.
I think that trans people appear to pose such a threat because we embody that. We embody that possibility, that reality, that everything is always changing and nothing can ever be static. Humans seem to love to be able to put things in boxes and understand them, but the reality is that that’s impossible. I think that is really also the power of being trans. I think that’s something that I do, and is also something that you do too Mana, in your work, is we hold up a mirror to other people and that’s what makes them so insecure. That’s what makes them lash out at trans people, because we’re saying, “I’m not abnormal. What is normal anyway?” This challenges their whole identity.
Manauara: Yes, the base of our oppression is this system of cisgender hetero-normativity, which washes out transgender lives and everything else that could question or challenge it. Our trans community is in never ending fight, in fact it’s more like a war than a battle, given it’s on so many fronts. For example, that of self-representation. The fight to represent for ourselves our lives in media – like on TV and in cinema.
Victoria: Yeah, definitely. There is this problem of representation. For me, I think that it’s so much about understanding representational violence. The oppression of trans people is so much to do with, first of all, how being trans is represented as an illness. The idea that trans people might not want to emulate cis people is something that cis people can’t deal with.
I think it’s really important for us as artists to represent our experience. Not just our images, but also our narratives, because I think that’s often the problem in the violence of representation, that our stories are not told by us. For example, in mainstream media, trans women have been represented as men, or even men who want to assault women. This representational violence then turns into physical violence and the systemic murder of trans women.
Trans people fight violent narratives perpetuated by people who know nothing about our experience every day, in every aspect of our lives. Definitely as artists in our work, as we were saying before, our work comes out of a personal experience. But this violence is everywhere, it happens with our families, our friends, our peers. There’s this constant resisting that we have to do.
Manauara: Wow. I think we are having a very necessary conversation. I needed to have this conversation with you.
Victoria: I agree. Mana, I want to ask you, because this has been such a necessary and emotional conversation – I want to ask you about the relationship of what we’re experiencing – these very intense feelings and experiences – to your own process of making art. How does this relationship function in your work?
Manauara: This relationship is pretty chaotic to be honest, between our experiences and making. Sometimes I feel like a truck is running over my body, because I really cannot understand what is happening. Things really affect me. One day I hope to be able to expand my practice into other fields for example, but right now it’s everything is chaotic in my mind. How about for you?
Victoria: The same. I feel just so much chaos and so much work is needed to make sense of the chaos. I feel like everything has been unfolding, but I feel like also the chaos is a reason to push forward. Don’t wait until the chaos has subsided. Use it. Because similarly, all there is or ever is, is transformation, and transformation is chaos. I think that’s something that we’ve been really faced with recently, but it’s something that I’m trying to learn from this year – to use and to sit in the chaos and sit in the transformation and sit in the not knowing and welcome that into my sense of being and my work. Be confident with your chaos!
Manauara: [Laughs] Let’s definitely continue this discussion about chaos sometime soon. In Brazil there is this trans singer who has a song about chaos. I’ll share it with you…
A special thanks to Hena Lee for providing simultaneous interpretation during the artists’ meeting.