Vital Art Project

> About Me
> Affilitations
> Media Coverage
> Vital Art Project


VITAL ART: Transgender portraiture as visual activism

Zanele Muholi.

Zanele Muholi Mini Mbatha, Beulahs Series, Glebelands, Durban, Jan. 2010

The project has been funded by the Dutch Research Council (NWO- VENI scheme) for 2014-2018.

Short summary

While many people are familiar with the term transgender, knowledge is lacking about how transgender people experience and respond to social stigma. Through studying visual activism, and the media landscape in which cultural activists struggle, I will highlight the strategic role of portraiture in addressing discrimination.

The project primarily focuses on the collaborative portraiture practices of Elisha Lim (Singapore/Canada), J. Jackie Baier (Germany), and Zanele Muholi (South Africa), while also referring to the important works of micha cárdenas (Mexico/US), Raven Davis (Canada), Gabrielle LaRoux (South Africa), and Yishay Garbasz (Israel/Germany) amongst others.



My Dutch Research Council funded project, “Vital Art: Transgender Portraiture as Visual Activism” (Veni: 2014-2018) relies on participatory ethnography to engage with the worlds created in contemporary visual art practices that harbor at-risk trans subjectivity and critique the discrimination of gender non-conforming bodies. With this project I incorporate qualitative empirical research methods into my practice of formal visual interpretative methods. The resulting book, provisionally entitled Cherishing and Perishing in Transgender Portraiture, unfolds as a series of research portraits of the participating portrait artists, capped by discussions of faciality and opacity at play in contemporary trans portraiture. In it, I discuss “affective activism,” and flesh out my methodology for  studying visual stigma and its redress and reworking in trans media forms.

This project has been capped off with organizing the Art & Activism international conference (2017), with a forthcoming Routledge edited volume on Aesthetic Resilience (2020).

In already published articles and book chapters, I offer a critical vocabulary for collaborative political portraiture, which show how artistic portraits counteract negative media portrayals. These include two articles on the work of Heather Cassils (Canada/US) and Del LaGrace Volcano (US/UK/Sweden), book chapters on Doran George’s live performance of gender non-compliance, collecting creative transcestors for an art hirstory, gender non-conformity stigma in portraits, and an article in Spectator on the framing of trans* stigma in mediascapes. I also blogged about Jackie Baier and Yishay Garbasz’s photography, and wrote the exhibition catalog essay for Lorenzo Triburgo’s Transportraits show. My interviews with Indigenous Canadian artist Kiley May resulted in an article about weaponized cute aesthetics in trans “T-selfies” and cat selfies or “catties” in Angelaki.

I’ve presented this research in keynote lectures at international conferences on humanimal discussions (Uppsala, Sweden), performance and play (Leiden), the posthuman condition (Moscow, Russia), and queer/trans media studies (Oldenberg, Germany). I also gave research papers at major conferences on Trans Studies and Affect Theory as well as at SCMS, MSA, SLSA-eu, and NWSA. My invited talks on the research have been hosted by colleagues in UCLA, Central University of Catalonia, European Summer School for Cultural Studies, the University of Lorraine, and with a special session at the van Abbe Museum (Eindhoven).


Project abstract

The Transgender Murder Monitoring Project’s tracking of news reports in 60 countries provides statistical evidence of endemic discrimination, including an alarming number of minors killed in 2012-2013. A large-scale survey by Trans Media Watch shows that the lack of ethical media coverage given to transgender lives and deaths can directly contribute to hostilities. Quantitative approaches to studying transphobic violence are important responses to signaling the extent of the problem. However, they are unable to provide the necessary insight into the qualitative experiences of lived or mediated stigma.


J. Jackie Baier Miriam auf der Bülowstraße, Berlin, 2006

The goal of this project is to produce three key studies of transgender visual activism that address experiences of stigma and critique mass media portrayals. Located in visual studies and using theories of gender and representation, this study is the first to create an interpretative framework for a socially embedded analysis of transgender cultural productions. I concentrate on contemporary visual art portraits rendered by drawing, painting, photography and sculpture. Because the genre of portraiture foregrounds a subject’s personal experience and seeks to establish identity visually it is a privileged form for addressing stigmatized identities. My methodology is concept-based: it uses the interdisciplinary category of “portraiture” to bridge different objects of study: artistic portraits, media representations, and ethnographic studies of artists. My objective is to investigate how and to what effect these forms of portraiture yield archives of transgender experience.

By means of visual and discourse analysis, I map recurring patterns of portraying transgender individuals in and across news reports and visual art. Interviewing key visual activists amplifies their voiced experiences in ethnographic research portraits.


Elisha Lim The Illustrated Gentleman, Wall Calendar, 2011

The outcomes include 1) a monograph illuminating the role of visual art in minority power struggles, 2) an international symposium on visual arts and activism, 3) a journalist tool-kit for positively shaping public opinion about gender diversity through media platforms.

external-link-icon Official NWO press release

external-link-icon Official NWO results