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Queen Mary welcomes transgender artist changing the landscape of contemporary art

Queen Mary University of London’s Sexual Cultures Research Group hosted a special evening with the visual artist, Cassils.

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Image of the visual artist, Cassils
Image of the visual artist, Cassils

The event, supported by the Wellcome Collection as well as Queen Mary, took place in association with the launch of Being Human, a new permanent exhibition of art about trust, identity and health at the Wellcome Collection in London.

Cassils is a visual artist working in live performance, film, sound, sculpture and photography. Described by the Huffington Post as “one of the ten transgender artists who are changing the landscape of contemporary art”, Cassils discussed their work in the context of the wider political climate in both the UK and United States.

The politics of representation

Cassils has never shied away from tackling difficult or contentious issues and considers it to be an obligation of artists to intervene critically in the politics of representation.

Cassils provided an overview of their work to date, which included political moments such as trans violence as well as personal and gender identities. When discussing their own identity, Cassils does not conform to rigid definitions of gender and considers being trans to be “a continuous process that embraces indeterminism.”

On the subject of self-identification, Cassils does not want to be defined by gender. “It comes from the idea that the state will reward me if I behave ‘the right way’ – I do not want any of it. If people ask if I am male or female, I say both.”

At a time when gender and trans issues in particular, are in the news regularly, Cassils provided a historical insight. “We have always been around and our legacies are ancient,” said Cassils. On the subject of violence against minorities, Cassils highlighted the fact that trans people of colour are by far more likely to become targets.

A wider climate of hostility

Reflecting on the current era of Trump and the so-called rise of populism, Cassils argued that the arts and live performance can be a way to protect the erosion of rights across the world. “We are living in an era of anti-intellectualism, anti-arts, and anti-ideas. The term ‘elite’ has now expanded to include someone with a degree, or even, in some cases, a salary.”

Cassils also shared some experiences of the Pride movement which has become a celebration of diversity for some, and continues to be a protest for others. Cassils said: “It is like being at a party and watching them celebrate a victory that you have never felt.”

Cassils hopes that arts and culture can be used to effect positive change and wants to create “visual art to inspire a culture of resistance and inspire political action.”

About Cassils

Cassils achieved international recognition for rigorous engagement with the body as a form of social sculpture. Drawing on conceptualism, feminism, body art, and gay male aesthetics, Cassils forges a series of powerfully trained bodies for different performative purposes. Cassils uses these expressions to construct a visual critique around ideologies and histories on a range of topics. 

About Queen Mary’s Sexual Cultures Research Group

Founded in 2016 by Queen Mary’s School of English and Drama, the Sexual Cultures Research Group actively fosters and develops cross-disciplinary conversations about methodologies, cultures, texts and practices related to sexuality, sex, gender, identity, and both intimate and public cultures.

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