Transgender artists in the Netherlands
In this podcast queer art student Sam examines the experiences of transgender artists in the Netherlands. The first conversation with audiovisual artist Chris Rijksen examines the vision and working method of this successful maker. In this second episode, non-binary trans activist and art student Charly Ros shares their point of view on art education and the alternative art scene.
Or read parts of the interview below:
Charly, can you tell me al little bit about your history. Why are you an artist?
As a child and teenager I never thought that I could call myself an artist. I had a certain image of what an artist is and I thought that was out of my reach. Until three years ago. It started when I moved out of my parent’s place and studied in Cologne in Germany. Later I moved to Berlin, and that was a reawakening for me in more than one way— about what I want to do with my life. I started participating in different artist’s projects. I organized Berlin Zinefest and was helping out at graduation shows. I realised creating art was a very natural thing for me to do, so I went on to apply for different art programs. Unfortunately I didn’t manage to get into a university in Berlin at all, which had to do with my grades. I moved to the Netherlands. Once in this country, I began to have doubts about my suitability as an art student. I decided to study psychology, but after two years I got very bored. I really needed a creative outlet. So I still applied for admission to the Minerva Academy in Groningen and I was accepted there. I’ve recently been doing a lot of photography and filmmaking. But I like printmaking as well.
Can you tell something about your recent work?
An important experience this year was my participation in a recurring exhibition on Instagram, conducted by a group of feminists. The longer I was part of that group, the longer I figured out I didn’t feel comfortable there. It ended up being a group of people who were very cis, and they would constantly exclude Trans people even though they ‘didn’t mean to’. At some point it got so much, that I just told them… ‘Don’t you see what you’re doing here? It’s a bit inconsiderate.’ And that pushed them over the edge. The whole group turned a bit against me. I decided to show some art the next exhibition that really told them what I think about their behaviour. It became a counter response art.
Was that the work ‘Bleeding doesn’t make you a woman’?
Yes indeed. I wanted to use the same visual language used by these kinds of people. And by that I mean people who make very pussy-centric art, without thinking too much about it. So I used menstrual pads and embroidered them: one with the text above, one with the image of a trans woman and one with the text ‘Cis-normativity is not empowering’.
It was an interesting and educational process and it inspired me to organize an online exhibition myself.
My goal with this project is to investigate how artists on Instagram can get more attention and followers, how they can receive positive feedback and recognition. Moreover, this online exhibition is exclusively intended for trans participants!
It’s called, ‘Trans Isolation’. It has multiple layers to it, because we’re all isolated right now during this pandemic. But as a trans person you can also become very isolated within the general art world.
Would you call yourself an activist?
I would say I am an activist and I think my art is political. I’ve had a lot of discussions about about what is regarded as political with my teachers. Everything I make is from a very autobiographical point of view. It cannot be separated from my experience, from who I am. My identity is very political by itself, so I would regard that a lot of things that I make are like activism. I always try to make it very clear when I show my work, by explaining what are the thoughts behind it. So it’s not just like a pretty picture or something.
How do you feel the environment is in the Netherlands, as an artist?
I often have the feeling that it’s nice for an artist school or an academy to say, Look— this is our trans artist, we’re so inclusive! But then they do not engage with anything I say. So it’s very tokenizing that way. And I’ve ran into a lot of different issues with my school as well. Where, me speaking up has led to me being called to an office to talk about it
I haven’t found many people in my art school I can relate to, because they’re just so moderate. They always have the attitude of, ‘Why are you making an issue out of it?’ And they’re almost never on my side. So, it can be very lonely sometimes, that’s for sure.
As well inside as outside art school people want me to explain a lot of things about myself to them, and sometimes, it just feels like I don’t really have a choice. People will not stop being problematic, hurtful, or inappropriate unless you tell them ‘No, stop it. That’s why you shouldn’t do it.” And then they still argue with you about it. So it can be quite exhausting sometimes.
I expected art schools to be more open minded, but I’ve experienced racist situations where I was the only person confronting the teacher about it. We had a model drawing class and we always had white models coming over. And for the one lesson the teacher decided we should merge animalistic and human features, that’s when they brought in a Black guy. And I was like ‘I’m sorry— I do not feel comfortable. To draw a Black person as an animal.’ And everyone turned around at me and gazed like ‘Huh? What’s your issue?’ And I decided ‘Yeah. I’m just not going to do it.’ And the same goes for history class, and the way they talk about any culture that’s not European. For example how they make it to look like the African continent is inhabited by just one giant tribe that worships animals and takes drugs, I mean, it’s really horrible. I’ve talked to other people who are more affected by racism than me, and it’s also quite difficult to deal with because if you go to a counselor or someone higher up, they are not very understanding. They just say the teachers are allowed to express themselves however they want. You know, like that freedom of speech type of argument.
I’m from America. This is a racist country, you can’t ignore that. But I’ve noticed that in the Netherlands there seems to exist the idea that racism is an American problem.
The US didn’t become racist by itself, right? Last time I remembered it was imported from Europe.
Anyhow, I would encourage anyone who feels excluded – in the Netherlands or elsewhere – to organize their own events, their own clubs. Last year for example, the first pride was organised in Groningen. Some really cool people came together. They didn’t want to involve corporations into sponsoring, something that’s very common. Especially the oil corporations and companies that cause earthquakes in this region are eager to sponsor events like this. So these people did an amazing pride, but they received a lot of comment for being so radical. I think if people are so angry, they should organise their own events.
And another thing I want to say is, if you’re in art school and you find your teachers are wrong, you should always try to confront them. Art school is for developing yourself and definitely also for questioning and discussions. I think a lot of people appreciate it if you do that. Even if it can be uncomfortable.
What would you say to your younger self, or what advice do you have for other young trans artists?
Well, first of all I would say you don’t really need to go to an art school to make art. I just did it, because I felt like there was this pressure on me to do some kind of education, and I broke off my previous one so I felt really guilty about it. But there’s a lot of things you can learn online. Eventually all that matters is the connection you have with other people. You can already participate in an exhibition if you take part in a collective. And it’s all just about finding out what works best for you. For me, it only has advantages to be an artist. Making art sometimes can be very therapeutic, very soothing and calming. For me, it has always helped to put my strong feelings about something in art. Sometimes, really beautiful things come out. And sometimes, not so beautiful things come out but you still feel better. So yeah, just do it!
If you had your ideal world, what would you be doing in the near future as an artist or an activist?
I hope in the future, I will move to a bigger city, like Rotterdam. That’s my goal right now. I would obviously move with my chosen family, with my husband and my wife and my cats. I know that in those big cities you have some really cool collectives you can be a part of. I’ve tried to organize different things here in Groningen. Such as an art collective for queer people. That didn’t really work out. It’s difficult gauging what’s the interest, who the people are, how many there are of us, you know. So my hope is to live someplace where you already have a more established group and network. I would really like to work together with other artists and make beautiful things. That would be amazing.
That sounds great. I wish you all of that Charly!
Listen to the full conversation here and learn more about Charly’s work, the international artists they follow and their opinion on the established art world.
You will find Charly’s art project Trans Isolation on Istagram under the hashtag #transisolation2020. More of Charly’s art is showed on Instagram under @thatpolishqueer.