Rae Senarighi: art beyond the gender lines

When we as Anestetico Urbano began to work on the project of the urban exhibition “Beyond the transition”  we wanted to start right from the voices of the trans community in order to deal with all those institutional, emotional and ordinary aspects of the trans experience. 

At a certain point of the search for international transgender artists, we stumbled upon this video: a Netflix journalist was interviewing several transgender actors and actresses while, beyond a heavy and thick curtain of red velvet, the artist Rae Senarighi, covered in colour up to the elbows, paints the most intense and vibrant portraits we’ve ever seen (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhk6QJDMIDo).

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Then the search continues and the profile of an implacable artist, a passionate activist, a trans man who has survived cancer and who donate himself and his whole life so that the trans community from the characteristics that have always distinct them: the courage, the resilience, the vibrance, the power, and the strength of those who face every obstacle to finally embrace the dream of being themselves.

Rae’s personal goal as artist, trans man and activist, is to tell trans and non-binary stories, sharing their witnesses through visual art.  It is possible to garner respect for the trans and non-binary community through the listening and comprehension. As Rae says, <<trans and non-binary community have a great lesson to teach, but to teach they have first to be SEEN>>.

Which artists inspired you the most and why?

My work has been greatly influenced by a whole host of Black artists who I see working to create accurate and celebratory representation for the Black community. Artists such as Kehinde Wiley, Harmonia Rosales, Amy Sherald and Titus Kaphar. My artwork is a direct response to the great lack of representation that exists of the trans / nonbinary community in the fine art world and in art museums. I see these artists doing the same thing that I am trying to do, which is expanding the representation of their community. The use of color in my paintings has been influenced by artists working today like Thomas Evans and Okuda San Miguel and historical art movements like fauvism. 

What is the meaning of “diversity” to you? And how important it is to preserve the right of “being diverse” nowadays?

Having diverse representations is incredibly important to me. As the saying goes, a child cannot become what they cannot see. It is of huge importance to show the vast diversity that is the human experience. Our experiences as human beings, and our expressions through gender or art or any myriad of things IS diverse. And the lack of representation of this diversity does us all a disservice. 

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Your paintings have mainly transgender characters. How did social networks help you in carrying out your work?

My work would not really be possible without the advent of social media. I am a completely self funded artist and even though I would love to travel the world and take photos of my subjects to work from, I don’t have the capacity to do so as of yet. So I have relied on existing photography and I have connected with nearly all of my subjects through the use of social media. This has allowed me to paint folks from all over the world who are living their lives openly and telling their stories in their own unique ways.  

How do you imagine the future of the LGBTQIA+ community?

My hope for the future of the LGBTQIA+ community is that we continue to broaden our understanding of who we are. There are still many parts of our community who are struggling to survive, let alone thrive. It is imperative that we address racism and the ways in which systemic issues of racism compound issues of homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, etc. We must provide much more support and resources to those most negatively affected by these systems of oppression. Black trans women and nonbinary femmes are the most at risk for violence, discrimination in housing and heatlhcare, as well as limited access to equal opportunities in employment. There is no liberation for the LGBTQIA+ community without liberation for the most vulnerable among us. I want to create a world where my Black and POC trans sisters are free to live their lives fully and with all the opportunities and access that the white, cisgender world has access to. I want Black trans women’s life expectancy to be 90+! (instead of the current 35 years old, which is tragic and terrifying). We, as a community, must continue to fight for the rights of ALL of our community in every country and in every town. 

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We really appreciate your constant work as an activist and we believe that the more the artists are involved in fights for human rights, the more powerful their message is. Has your art always been so strictly intertwined with political activism?

I have been searching my whole life for ways to use my art to benefit the communities of which I am a part. In my early 20’s I made a show about hate crimes here in the United States. After painting their faces on large wood panels, I hand wrote their stories over the paintings and it was one of the most difficult shows I’ve ever created, spending most of my time painting in tears. I also did a show consisting of LGTBQ portraits of friends of mine and incorporating words that they chose into the chalk pastel portraits. Shortly after these two shows, I returned to school to get my BFA degree in Graphic Design and spent many years focused on commercial art. For about ten years I was a scientific illustrator and this experience of drawing and illustrating the inner workings of the human body was an amazing way to see the patterns that occur in nature and greatly informed the work that I create now as a portrait artist. I took a break from fine art during that time and returned to it after surviving cancer in 2015.

What is your opinion about “labels”? Do you think it is still necessary to use them to avoid confusion or are they an old-fashioned concept that must be overcome?

Labels are ever changing, as our language changes and evolves constantly. I think this is something that humans do in order to make sense of the world. We want to categorize things to understand how to interact with them. So, even though at times labels can be insufficient and / or outdated, they seem to be part of the story-telling process that our minds use to comprehend the world and our place in it. 

Has there been any episode of discrimination related to the content of your works, regarding both the concepts and the characters they represent?

I have received some backlash / trolls commenting / etc.. on my social media, but I’ve found that it is most often directed at me when I post something about my own story, rather than directly on the images of my paintings themselves. I have also traveled quite extensively with these works, and I have had largely very positive reactions to the portraits. Even folks who may not “understand” the transgender or nonbinary experience, they seem interested in engaging with the works and learning more. My work is intended to be a door, so to speak. I want people to view these images and understand our humanity. From there, if people want to know more about the individuals represented, I include their social media handle so that people can go and start to understand their stories directly from the source. My story telling is through the paintings. And then I feel it is my job to get out of the way and allow people to tell their own stories in their own ways. Telling stories is our path to understanding ourselves and to helping others understand us. 

As reported in your bio, you live in Madison, Wisconsin. Have you ever lived in small towns? And have you ever been afraid for you and your family?

I grew up in a small city called Missoula, Montana, so being in Madison feels familiar to me. In my early 20s I moved to the larger city of Seattle, WA, and later to Portland, OR, both of which are fairly liberal and open places. We just moved to Madison last year. I remember going to Pride marches in Montana as a teenager and it definitely felt scary at times. I say Pride march, because it was much more of a march than a parade in some instances, like when the Pride celebration was held in Great Falls, MT, which is a very small town. There were only a few hundred of us for the state-wide Pride. When Pride was held in my hometown of Missoula, which is a big liberal city for Montana, it felt much safer, though the feeling of hypervigilance really never goes away. Even in a large liberal city like Portland, there are pockets of “Proud Boys” (a racist white supremacist group) and other hate groups who have caused harm to our communities and hate crimes have risen here in the United States since 2016.  

As a transgender father, how do you describe the relation with other cisgender and, more generally, non-LGBTQIA parents?

I am a cancer survivor and had to go off of HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) in order to remain on the recommended cancer treatment (which I need to be on for ten years). So my body has really changed back into the shape it had been in before I went on HRT. That being said, most strangers misgender me and view me as a lesbian woman. My children are young still, but I can see confusion on my 3 year old’s face when this happens because I am Papa. I’m sure this will become more pronounced as my kids get older. But we are already having open (age appropriate) conversations together about these issues. We have many friends who are LGBTQIA+ parents and it is good to have supportive community surrounding us. I find myself not being as outgoing when I am around cisgender heterosexual parents. I am always friendly, but will not go out of my way to try to strike up conversations because of the gender misconceptions that seem to abound. I tend to try to suss out their reactions to me before engaging much. I think this is a protective impulse of mine that comes through. 

Your artworks are powerful and vibrant portraits of transgender folks. And the colourful palettes you choose for painting them perfectly reflect this sense of vibrancy and dream, but it also represents a strong, proud, and courageous community. In your case, what role did art play during your path of self-knowledge and self-acceptance?

Art has been an integral part of my life for as long as I can remember. My mother was an artist and I got to watch and learn from her from an early age. Art has nearly always been the one thing that I could always count on. I don’t know what I would do without art because it has quite literally been the way that I could always express myself, even when words or other types of self expression might not come so easily. I used to do a lot of self portraiture work and in looking back at those, I can see themes that came out around gender and exploration. 

What would you say to all the people who decide to face and start now their path through the transition?

I would say trust your intuition. No one else can tell you who you are. Find ways to get quiet within yourself and trust what you feel. I like to go on walks or meditate. I also have done plenty of therapy and recommend having someone you trust to process these questions and feelings with. The other thing I want to say to every trans and nonbinary person is this: You are beautiful and whole and sacred. Right now. In this moment. And even as you go through changes (or not) you get to love yourself TODAY. That can be hard to do when we are in a body that may not match what we know to be true internally. It is okay to have goals. Having goals is natural and what we, as humans, do! But I guarantee that once you reach the goals you set today, you will set new goals for yourself! And that’s okay. 🙂 Please. Don’t wait until “someday” to start loving yourself. It is okay to change your body if you need to or want to. But you get to love yourself THROUGH those changes. You get to love yourself today. And try again tomorrow. You are beautiful. You are whole. You are sacred. Never forget that. 

Right now in the States several riots caused by violence and discrimination spread across the country. Being marginalized and discriminated often produces resentment and violent reactions as much as the actions that caused them. How many times in your life have you let this feeling prevail?

I have definitely been reactive to injustices in life, whether they are happening directly to me or to communities I love. I think that anger has a purpose and can help us to take action. When I survived cancer 5 years ago, I made a promise to myself that 1) I would create art for ME every day (even just for ten minutes) and that 2) that artwork had to be based in love. So, a lot of times I will find myself feeling reactive, feeling angry, feeling sad about the injustices and violence that I see. And I allow this to affect me and to help me understand the world. Then, I channel those emotions into my artwork in one of two ways 1) continue working on my portraiture series (a slow process), which focuses on UPLIFTING the community and is, in itself, a direct reaction to the oppression faced by my community or 2) if I am feeling stuck about painting, I will often create typography artwork instead. Creating words or quotes is a much quicker way to express myself at times and it helps when I am feeling particularly reactive, to have a way to express myself that is more immediate. 

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We would like to ask you several more questions, but we promise that we will stop torturing you with our curiosity with one last question. What would you like to suggest to all the parents with trans and non-binary kids?

Parents of nonbinary and transgender kids: Your support of your child directly affects whether or not they will survive. Having just ONE adult who supports them increases their chance of survival. On the flip side, family rejection increases the odds of suicide attempts and/or substance misuse by 50%! Your kid is who they are. You can’t change that. Often parents will have strong reactions of fear, shame or embarrassment when they notice that their child is gender non-conforming in some way. This can lead parents to perpetuate harm against their child, instead of supporting them. They often fear that their kids will be hurt by others, when the rejection from their own parents is what harms them the most. If you care about your child, educate yourself. Do some research. Seek out experts on the subject and find someone to talk to who is knowledgeable. This will help you deal with your own fears and begin to understand how best to support your child. Ensuring that your child is referred to by their chosen name and pronouns is an easy, yet CRITICAL factor in creating a safe environment where they will thrive. To sum up, please just love them for who they are. 

The pictures are property of the artist: https://www.raesenarighi.com/.

Rae’s artworks and fine prints are available at the link: https://www.raesenarighi.com/queerartprints/aodhn

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/transpainter/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/transpainter/?hl=it

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