Photographer Byron Newman and painter Aphrodite Papadatou collaborate on an art show that spotlights the trans community’s resilience over the past three decades
“One night in Paris, I asked a transgender sex-worker how she would describe herself. ‘As the Ultimate Angel’ she replied, and she was right.” Photographer Byron Newman is describing the conception of his photo book, The Ultimate Angels. Questioning what it is to be male or female, the book – which is a documentation of transgender communities in Paris 1980s – approached gender politics head-on before the word “transgender” carried the same ubiquity it does today.
At work during a wave of conformism, Newman realised first-hand how hard it was for the transgender community to own their own bodies. “I often wonder how many of the girls would be alive today,” reflects Newman. “There were botched operations, drug abuse, a high suicide rate.” In a bid to give transience to the “Angels”, whose lives were unnecessarily marginalised – or worse yet, lost – due to the regressive legislation that continues to confine the freedom of gay and trans individuals, Ultimate Angels was born. 35-years-on, Newman will give a new dimension to this narrative by way of a creative merger with London-based, punk-painter Aphrodite Papadatou. “Newman’s story was way ahead of its time,” explains Papadatou. “The world wasn’t ready for an exhibition like this then – but now, it is!”
The creative duo sees Ultimate Angels as a kind of visual dialogue, one that deftly flits between the figurative and abstract to capture the ephemerality of a community showing defiance in the face of historical restraint. “The muses I paint are strong. They are part of powerful communities and subcultures that are visible and defiant,” says Papadatou on her London-based subjects. “Although my paintings speak from a different time and place in comparison to Byron’s, they come together as one big phantasmagorical fist.” The show also acts as a precursor to the world we know today. While many LGBTQ+ communities around the world still struggle with acceptance, it is clear that we have come a long way, and Ultimate Angels seeks to aid that. As the work prepares to go on display in London, the pair tell us more.
Time frames the show, as we see studies of transgender representation in the 1980s-present day. How did you approach this?
Byron Newman: 35-years have passed since these photos were first taken but I do not think that they look dated. Since the legalisation of homosexual acts in the 1960s to today, radical changes have taken place and I do not see regression now. The trans community I worked with were very marginalised, they were cut off from mainstream society. I think this is more of an association with prostitution than an issue of gender and would imagine it is not too dissimilar today – or at least in certain countries.
Aphrodite Papadatou: Gender fluidity transcends historical context; it is simply a reality of human nature. We need to make sure our liberal ideas of freedom, fairness, and justice are reflected at all institutional levels. Pushing for a true equity across all communities and ensuring that our subcultures are represented in all of their beautiful dimensions. The “Angels” I depict all had a choice. They will go on to have their own magazines or head-up production agencies. They dress-up to perform, or party, many are professionals with careers. Byron’s girls were victims of circumstance and forced to cater to the fetishes of men to make money.
“They embody acceptance and love in the fullest form. Our ‘Angels’ break down identity barriers, and they don’t need an excuse in order to do so” – Aphrodite Papadatou
The images certainly throw up questions of identity. Did you ever find yourself questioning your own?
Byron Newman: The thinking for me was a little different. I simply recorded what I saw and offered a little guidance when necessary. So much of their life was lived out in performance mode, so it was my subjects who articulated for the camera, not the other way around.
Aphrodite Papadatou: I have always told stories, I painted them, I wrote them down. These stories were almost always about the human experience. Every individual tells a different story, one that is so rich and so unique. For me, in order to represent these experiences – whatever they may be – I must create a visual antithesis to the imagery, a discourse generated by social structures. This is a political as well as an aesthetic act. I do this in both my life and work. I call it “The Politics of the Senses”. The punks did it in the 70s, the performers of Sink The Pink, who became my collaborators, friends and muses do this now. I’m obsessed with human experience in its varying degrees, identity, resistance – these ideologies are part of my fabric and yes, I use them in search of my own identity.
Aphrodite, your paintings focus on present representations of transgender communities in London. Did you feel a sense of progression? And how can we combat future regression?
Aphrodite Papadatou: The muses I painted, are part of very powerful communities and subcultures, like Sink the Pink. It is this, their community, their numbers that make them visible and strong in London – specifically east London. Together they became one phantasmagorical fist fighting for their rights together. This is the progression. However, outside of this community, beyond the city, the tyranny of the institutional mind strives to force these communities into isolation. For this reason, I paint figures in isolation. Celebration and isolation for them are two sides of the same coin.
What do the words “Ultimate Angel” mean?
Aphrodite Papadatou: They embody acceptance and love in the fullest form. Our “Angels” break down identity barriers, and they don’t need an excuse in order to do so.
Do you hope that viewers will feel a certain way after seeing the show?
Byron Newman: I hope that the exhibition helps to encourage tolerance towards points of human difference. The photos are not completely representative of the work that I did with these people at that time. Many photos were not glamorous at all, but rather sad and depressing as befits a lifestyle that is so exploited and desperate. Let's remember that.
Aphrodite Papadatou: I hope they will feel humanism.
Ultimate Angels will run from 12 July – 23 July 2017 at the Herrick Gallery, London