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Beyond pink and blue: Art explores gender identity

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 10, 2012 - “It’s a boy!” “It’s a girl!” The very first piece of our core identity is our gender -- proudly proclaimed at our birth (or these days, at the first ultrasound). It’s constantly reinforced in a lifelong barrage of trucks-or-Barbies, male-or-female checkboxes and pants/skirts restroom signs.

But there are many colors between pink and blue. There always have been. Scientific research shows that genitals are but one indicator of gender and can be in conflict with the gender of one’s brain.

Even so, tentative discussions about gender identity are only beginning to emerge.

Often a leader in social progress, the art world is at the forefront of exploring the blurred edges of gender. St. Louis native Sara Swaty’s gender-focused work is showing in a New York City gallery, and two local exhibits, at UMSL’s Gallery 210 and PHD Gallery, also examine the world beyond the male-female binary.

Social media drives ‘Half-Drag’

New York photographer Leland Bobbé’s “Half-Drag,” opening Oct. 20 at PHD, started out as an experiment that went viral. Intrigued by a a half-male/half-female, full-body image of burlesque performer, Bobbé began a similar project with one drag queen he met at a party and others he found through Facebook.

After Bobbé featured the photos on his website last June, he began getting emails from Brazil, Germany, Israel and dozens of other countries. Within a single week, his work was featured in Italian “Vogue,” on ABC News and on the Huffington Post website.

“Just from Huffington Post alone, it was ‘liked’ over 30,000 times and was shared 10,000 times,” Bobbé said.

Bobbé asked his models to arrive unshaven and not made up. They brought their own wigs, clothes and makeup, and got ready in his studio. Any re-touching was primarily done only to smooth the skin of the female halves.

What began as project about visual impact unexpectedly grew to have social worth.

“I started getting emails form gender-fluid people about how much these images meant to them,” Bobbé said. “These pictures helped give them confidence about loving themselves the way they are.”

‘Playing’ with male/female construct

In India, rigid adherence to gender stereotypes is a relatively new phenomenon, according to artist Asma Kazmi.

Kazmi’s exhibit, “Playing Gender,” opening Oct. 11 at Gallery 210, is a cooperative effort involving a trio of Indian hijras, or cross-dressing males, eunuchs and people who are intersex. Hijras, who today must often earn a living as sex workers and street beggars, were once held in high esteem and considered a third sex.

“Playing Gender” consists of two films, several photographs and life-size images of three hijras. Kazmi’s interest in hijras is two-fold. She enjoys collaborative work, and she seeks to explore marginalized people, having lived as an outsider herself. She was 19 when she left Pakistan for the United States.

In the first film, Kazmi is instructed by one of the hijras on the art of feminine movement.

“Even though I identify as female, they’re much more female in their performance,” Kazmi said.

Watching the video brings up interesting questions about gender, according to gallery director Terry Suhre.

“There is some masculinity in women and some femininity in men -- how do you determine where that break is and to what degree do you embrace it?” Suhre asked.

St. Louis native also inspired by experience as outsider

A trip to India prompted 2007 Kirkwood High School graduate Sara Swaty to began examining gender in her photography. It wasn’t the presence of hijras but her own outsider status there that refocused her work.

In India, Swaty was struck by the ways in which religion dictates gender-related behavior, something that also happens in the U.S. and other countries but people may not see it when they are immersed in their own culture.

“I came back to the United States and just really wanted to explore gender roles and responsibilities,” Swaty said.

Her work, shown this past June at the local Aisle One Gallery, is being exhibited at the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City as “In-Between & Outside.”

Swaty, who studied photography at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and now lives in Los Angeles, worked on "In-Between” for more than two years. It’s a multi-faceted project that also examines another issue closely tied to gender: traditional ideas about beauty and the impact of unattainable ideals.

In one photograph, a scrawny young man with long hair serves as a living example of reality in contrast with two mannequins representing male and female perfection.

“For a long time, I’ve had this interest in the perceptions of ideal beauty, whether in a man or in a woman,” Swaty said. “What I’m really curious about is where do these ideals about beauty come from and how did we get here? In India, I really saw that from the ground up.”

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