Tourmaline’s film Salacia captures the riotous life of sex worker, rebel, and Black trans woman Mary Jones in 1800s NYC. Here, the photographer lenses her community in the city today
With the US presidential election around the corner, there’s never been a more pressing time to speak up. In Dazed’s autumn issue, we’ve spotlighted ten activists and artists as chosen by New York filmmaker Tourmaline. Her visionary film Salacia – recently acquired by MoMA and executive produced by Keanu Reeves – celebrates the life of Mary Jones, a trans woman who was outed by the New York press in the 1800s; Mary of Ill Fame, its follow-up, is on the way. The filmmaker happened upon her subject when her sibling, Che Gossett, found Jones’ court transcripts while working on Tourmaline’s previous film Happy Birthday Marsha!, which tackles the legacy of legendary gay rights activist and drag queen, Marsha P. Johnson.
The driving force behind Tourmaline’s work is to put Black trans people and Black trans history in the spotlight – like her 2016 film The Personal Things, which celebrates Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a Black trans Stonewall activist. For this feature, the imagemaker highlights members of her queer NY family – those who use their creative work as a platform to have their voices heard. To celebrate the radical resistance of this group of creatives, there was no better location than Central Park – right where the free black community of Seneca Village used to be.
PAPI JUICE, ART COLLECTIVE
“Our bodies, music and art, we felt, were not given a proper platform in queer spaces as we had experienced them up to that point,” say Papi Juice, the Brooklyn-based art collective known for its carefree, diverse parties celebrating queer and trans people of colour. A lot has changed since DJs Adam Rhodes and Oscar Nuñez and illustrator Mohammed Fayaz first formed Papi Juice seven years ago.
Now, the collective has evolved from the occasional free night at a local dive bar – spread exclusively through word-of-mouth – to sold out monthly bashes with hundreds of attendees and performances by artists like BbyMutha, Princess Nokia, and Yaeji. But that’s not all: in recent years, the group has taught workshops at MoMA PS1, partnered with the Brooklyn Museum, started a residency at New York’s Elsewhere, and partied behind-the-decks at Frank Ocean’s PrEP+. Right now, they’re focusing on fresh ways for artists to showcase their craft in a crisis, with recent projects ranging from a digital Pride party in collaboration with Club Quarantine (co-hosted by Laverne Cox) to a series of online panel talks for Black Trans Lives Matter. As for any future plans: “If you need us, we’ll be on the dance floor.”
JOSHUA ALLEN, ARTIST, WRITER AND ACTIVIST
For Joshua Allen, the personal is political. Having co-founded grassroots organisation the Black Excellence Collective with Cece McDonald in 2016, Allen uses direct action, art, and education to uplift and empower queer, transgender, and gender non conforming people of colour. “We wanted to create a platform where all people in our community could have a voice,” they tell us. “Where we are empowered to connect with each other and create the conditions where we can do more than survive, but thrive!”
A recent project is the Black Trans Lives Matter Youth Fund, which Allen founded after two organisers were arrested and brutalised by police at a peaceful protest in the South Bronx this summer. “We wanted to have the resources on hand to provide relief to those fighting on the front lines of our generation’s freedom struggle,” they explain. The fund, while providing people with meals, car rides, water, mental and physical treatment after arrest and legal fees, also functions as a place of solidarity: “I am a rock and resource. I’m the one you call if you need somewhere to stay, don’t have something to eat, need to be bailed out of jail, or just need a shoulder to cry on.”
JAMIE LEE, MEMBER, BLACK TRANS FEMMES IN THE ARTS COLLECTIVE
For Jamie Lee, it’s simple: “Black trans women and femmes deserve a life beyond loss,” she says. As a principal member of the Black Trans Femme in the Arts collective (BTFA), founded by NYU postgrad Jordyn Jay in November last year, Lee envisions a world where “love and care are central to the ways we comes into ourselves”, where trans narratives aren’t synonymous with hate crimes and statistics, but rather joy and love. Art, in this context, is a means for liberation; a way to empower from the inside-out, removed from invasive power structures that claim otherwise. “We actually don’t need anyone’s attention, we need a new world; a new social structure; new ways of being and doing gender within such violent times we are living in and under,” she explains.
In June, amid the killings of two Black trans women Dominique Fells and Riah Milton, an Instagram post about raising money to support Black trans protesters went viral – the collective went from 800 to 40,000 followers seemingly overnight. That, paired with the launch of the BTFA arts directory for both Black trans femme artists as well as those who want to support BTFA with a skill, talent or resource, suggests that things might be changing. Lee adds: “I am proud to be a part of a collective of brillant, fierce, and unstoppable femmes, who seek to liberate our communities by any artistic means necessary.”
maya finoh, POLICY ADVOCATE AND ORGANISER
“I manifest radical resistance in my work by moving with the intention of not just trying to liberate myself, but with a greater commitment towards liberation for all Black people,” says maya finoh, their words evoking the late Toni Morrison: “If you are free, you need to free somebody else. If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.” An activist, cultural worker, and occasional model, finoh describes themself as giving off “Big Claudia Jones ‘left of Marx’ Energy”, which, considering their abolitionist philosophy, and commitment to radical social change, is spot on.
Speaking to finoh, you get the impression of someone who’s well read, bright not bookish. Their Instagram is peppered with brightly coloured images: maya on their 25th birthday with ash blonde locks and a septum piercing; maya in an animal print top and a lime green face mask, paired with a teensy bag in matching tones. Scroll down, and you’ll see messages of Black liberation: “My work aims for the abolition of all forms of systemic oppression, so I try to challenge inequity in every space I enter or engage in,” they explain. “My politicised identities – my Blackness, my queerness, my fatness, being non-binary – all drove me to activism because I have a personal stake in seeing a world in which I can be completely free!”
MUNA MIRE, WRITER AND COMEDY PRODUCER
At school, when all the other kids were dreaming about becoming astronauts and pop stars, Muna Mire was going to be a writer. “I think I got diverted along the way because I’m the child of immigrants and that was scary for them because they didn’t understand it,” they pause. “But, ultimately, I ended up where I was meant to be.”
Born in Toronto, Mire moved to New York to pursue their writing, which they balance alongside their day job as a comedy producer (“I work with some real ballers, comically speaking,” they grin). Their work has a strong focus on identity – what it means to exist outside of societal signifiers like race, religion, and gender. “I’m most interested in the ways that we get to dream and create art outside of the constraints imposed on us by centering hollow representation or warped notions of identity,” they explain. “What does it look like when we do our own thing as Black people, as queer people?”
MICAH BROWN, PHOTOGRAPHER
Growing up, Micah Brown was obsessed with flicking through family photo albums. “My favorite picture was of my older twin siblings. It caught them just how they are – stubborn and always bickering,” he pauses. “I used to dream about being there in the moment so I could bicker too.” When, amid a move to North Carolina, a storage container of “every single family memory” was lost in a mixup with an identical container from Manhattan, however, he recounts: “I had no idea what I looked like outside of my other relatives’ photo books.” Perhaps it was fate, then, that Brown, who moved to New York a decade later, would pick up a camera for himself – only this time, to document his chosen family.
On paper, Brown is a social sciences student at Brooklyn College, though anyone who knows him well knows him best behind the lens. “Immortalise gay shit,” reads a caption, like a manifesto, under an image of a Minolta analogue camera. “I wouldn’t be able to see decades of immortalised queers without someone who has that impetus. It reminds me of who I am,” says the photographer, whose intimate, fuzzy snapshots of friends and lovers have a sense of closeness that could easily convey generations in a family line. Plus, “the gays don’t get gassed up enough,” he adds of his style. “Rooms are intimacy, beds are intimacy, silliness is intimacy, bashfulness is intimacy, sex is intimacy. I like it all.”
SARA ELISE, ALTERNATIVE CATERER AND ENTREPRENEUR
There’s a quote by Black feminist author adrienne marie brown that uses octopuses as a metaphor to describe how we must break free from capitalism, and the learnt behaviours associated with it. Like an octopus relinquishing its form to escape prey, brown explains, we must “pull away from the institutionalisation of things and from the idea that structures have to stay a certain way”. But, cephalopods aside, “the idea of literally changing and distorting my physical form, marking it with cuts and bruises and imprints from rope, reminds me that I can change any aspect of me at any time,” says Sara Elise, a Brooklyn-based entrepreneur and queer BDSM practitioner. For Elise, BDSM, or more specifically bondage, is a tool to surrender ego, insecurities, and fear, in the place of pleasure and self-healing. “Instead of feeding into the power dynamics present in our society, I choose to question, disfigure, and dismantle those, and decide which power dynamics I want to consensually play with,” she adds.
Elise applies a similar approach to her companies Harvest & Revel, an alternative catering company, and Apogeo Collective, which hosts bed and breakfast experiences for LGBTQ+ and POC travelers. Both serve as an antidote to the Goop-ified, white girlboss feminism prevalent today. She explains: “By using these mediums as a tool, I focus on my deep and overarching life work of helping folks (and primarily Black and indigenous people, femmes, LGBTQIA+ and gender non-conforming people) access pleasure, celebration, and well-being.”
JARI JONES, MODEL, ACTRESS, AND ACTIVIST
Back in June, Jari Jones became the first Black trans plus-sized woman to be featured in a Calvin Klein ad. Emblazoned across a billboard on Lafayette Street, in New York’s lower Manhattan, the ad – unveiled on Juneteenth, an annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the US – was embraced by international press as a historic moment, but this was never Jones’ intention: “I want to live in a world where trans models, Black models, and plus size models aren’t taboo or such a big surprise when they appear on billboards or major campaigns,” she tells us. “This campaign opened the conversation and represented both the radical idea that trans people, that Black people, that fat are worthy of that praise and that uplifting and that celebration and in the same breath, why that even needs to (be) acknowledged.” Strip back the spectacle, however, and Jones’ success represents so much more than only visibility – but radical self-love and acceptance.
Make-up Mariko Hirano using Marc Jacobs Beauty, talent Joshua Allen, Micah Brown, Sara Elise, Mohammed Fayaz, maya finoh, Jari Jones, Muna Mire, Jamie Lee, Oscar Nuñez, Adam Rhodes, photography assistant Ali Esposito, styling assistant Ashley Alcantar, make-up assistant Yuka Ito, onset production Leonel Becerra, special thanks Universal Standard