Grills, tricked out cars, and leather battle armor is what first comes to mind when imagining 36-year-old artist and and LGBTQ icon Rashaad Newsome. This is the image of the artist gleaned from King of Arms, a multidisciplinary work that is simultaneously a party, parade, video artwork. It’s also the apex of Newsome’s obsession with heraldry. The symbols of rank that ruled medieval Europe embody Newsome’s 15-year grapple with dynamics of institutional power and the lack of representation of marginalized cultures.
When I visit his Bedstuy studio, Newsome is not armored head to toe, but wearing a simple light blue t-shirt, comfortable-looking sweats and sneakers, and his lucky apron. The space is piled with boxes and seems like it’s under construction, but Newsome has already taken to it, just as comfortable bringing new art into the world here as his lounge attire would suggest. You’d never know he moved in the week before after suddenly being priced out of a Long Island City space he occupied for three years. In a crunch, the new space seemingly found him, a good omen for the artist fresh off dominating headlines at Art Basel 2015, adorning the cover of Paramour magazine, and moving forward through a busy 2016. The studio has large, open windows, space to pace between the two work benches, two desks, and couch, and sits in a complex less than a five-minute walk from the G train I take to get there.
The projects dominating Newsome’s walls and tables come from a show called STOP PLAYING IN MY FACE, opening at Chelsea’s De Buck Gallery next week. The show is built on a series of interviews Newsome did with a variety of trans women, both inside and outside of the voguing performances he’s been producing for years.
During our conversation, Newsome works alone, cutting up magazines, building digital sculptures on his computer, and editing video clips into video art—there are no gallery assistants taking work off his plate. Paper cutouts of glamorous jewels, vibrant flames, and body parts litter the desks in what look at a glance like chaotic piles. The stacks of meticulously-labeled drawers suggest a method to the madness. Time was spent cataloging and organizing the images. It isn’t an improvised explosion of images, but precise bursts.
At one point, he stops what he’s doing to show me a video of YouTube personality named Samantha James who’s known for her candor about what it’s like to be a black trans woman. The clip is a seven-minute explanation of a new phrase she’s coined, “Stop playing on my face.” Basically, it means, “Don’t be fake, don’t mess with me.”
“Bitch, why you playin’ on my face?” she asks emphatically, many times throughout the video. “Bitch givin’ you Harlem cunt, giving you Brooklyn cunt, Staten Island cunt, uptown cunt, Queens cunt, that’s right Bronx coverage cunt, giving you New York City full television coverage cunt, stop playing in my fucking face!” At one point, she waxes eloquent about the subtle differences between “playing on my face” and “playing in my face,” the latter being a much more heinous version of the former that leads to violence. “This was really the foundation for the show,” Newsome explains. “I was thinking about her whole idea of, ‘Stop playing in my face,’ and comparing that to old ideas of feminism and agency, and how they’re conflicting. I feel like what the new idea would say to the old idea is, ‘Stop playing in my face.'”
“An early diagnosis of transexuality was that you have multiple personality disorder. I wanted to address that,” Newsome continues. “This work is all about different ideas of agency, so for the music I’ve been taking stuff from bell hooks, Gloria Steinem, Cornell West, Lena Dunham—all these different sources from intellectuals to people who are on social media, like Samantha James.”
Newsome says STOP PLAYING IN MY FACE has required a caution and delicacy he hadn’t felt necessary for other projects. In straying from his own history and identity and explored deeply in the street processions of King of Arms. His recent work instead addresses the agency of women and transwomen of color. These groups have been arguably more marginalized than the black and gay cultures with which Newsome identifies, if you can quantify centuries of discrimination and prejudice.
“This is me asking [myself] a question that I really hate. Which is, ‘What is your work about?’” Newsome says. He’s fueled by a determination that deeply ingrained ideas about identity politics not be the focus of his work. It’s always been about agency. Now, he’s turning to women and transwomen of color fighting to maintain their own agency.
“I’m thinking about the limitations of agency given certain privileges,” he says. “I’m thinking about how at the core of feminism is agency. Older ideas of feminism are very conscious of the male gaze and there’s a lot of writing about that. But to me, these girls, a lot of whom I know and have interviewed, are very aware of their bodies and how their bodies exist in the world. And there’s a reclaiming of that, which I think can be a form of agency or power.”
This idea is pivotal to both STOP PLAYING IN MY FACE and Newsome’s current ideological bend. He admits that some disagree, calling female empowerment through sexuality, “a fantasy.” At this point he’s still in the questioning phase, he says, “But even talking about it is kind of a trap. Let’s say your girlfriend wants to photograph herself looking really sexy. And in her mind she really wants to celebrate her body, but someone could say, ‘You’re just responding to the male gaze.’ How do you defend against that?”
Newsome doesn’t know. I don’t know. This isn’t an issue neither he nor I personally have to face. But for Newsome, this line of inquiry is the only way forward. “It’s important for you to be in spaces like that because it helps you understand the politics of difference,” he says. “Listening is only way to help the people you want to help.”
By Beckett Mufson
All photos by Charlie Rubin