In 2017, the Human Rights Campaign issued a report accounting for the deaths of 28 trans persons, mostly trans women of color, due to fatal violence. This number was the highest ever recorded since such a record of such hate crimes have been kept. At the risk of delving into the murky territory that could be perceived as supposition and/or conjecture, one could this number may not accurately reflect the number of violent murders of trans people. Only crimes that are reported and verified are included in this type of statistical data. Given that the trans community that has long been persecuted, ignored, and/or invisiblized, it is not a far reach to think that many fatal crimes against the trans community go unnoticed.
Cruz acknowledges and integrates what limited (and sometimes non existent) media coverage there is on hate crimes against the trans community through the smaller figured-centric collaged works, which compositionally inform the larger paintings. He is an artist who is deeply interested in historical portrayals and narratives around queerness, and paintings for richard, expands upon that penchant for layering history unto itself. In the multitude of detailed small collage works, a cast of subjects are set against tiers of paper material such excerpts from contemporary media coverage, queer poetry, swatches from fashion magazines, and classic children’s literature, against flamboyant art historical imagery. The intention of these beautifully complicated and delicate collages is to demonstrate the long legacy of violence against the trans community; they serve to a means to illustrate the volume of violence that has been intentionally ignored.
As stated before, part of the challenge that the artist faced in formulating this body of work was finding the balance between the statistical data that spoke to the scale of violence without further invisibilizing those who have been murdered by turning them into a simplified data set. It is not only the number of trans people being sacrificed to the fear, ignorance, and blind hatred of their persecutors/murderers is that is significant; but it is also the acknowledgement that an a unique and significant light that had impact and influence on others is snuffed out. It is acknowledging that each and every trans life that is lost is not just a tick on a tally chart. Life is not a numbers game; real people with real connections to other real people do not fill the void created by the violent end of a loved one with statistical data; the real pain of real people is not lessened by the knowledge that the loss of a life was part of a large set of numbers; the tear is not repaired by the anonymity of roman numerals; a person’s life is not commemorated through the sterilized portrayal of them as a series of pronouns and one-dimensional identities.
It was these realities of humanity that Cruz wrestled with as he cultivated a collection that would not only acknowledge the loss; but also, celebrate the life of each slain victim. Cruz is perhaps best known for his striking paintings. Resplendent in delicious frosting colored shimmering pinks, and cotton candy fuzzy feather boas, each figure gazes at the viewer in a mix of what could be sensual seductiveness or stern stoicism. Each of their bodies is an collage of incongruous complexions, not as a means to reiterate that the bodies are beautiful trans bodies; but rather, to bring to light other intersectional identities that add dimension and nuance to the conversation around queer and trans bodies.
The convergence of race, socioeconomics, and gender identity are of the utmost importance in the particular conversation Cruz is presenting. This body of work predominantly features transwomen of color, who are often the most targeted and the most invisible. According to the HRC “it is clear that fatal violence disproportionately affects transgender women of color, and that the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia conspire to deprive them of employment, housing, healthcare and other necessities, barriers that make them vulnerable.”
In each portrait, the artist implements symbolic elements that speak to the array of intersecting identities that function to put transwomen of color at such inordinate disadvantage. In one image, TeeTee Dangerfield, green-faced and stoic, sits in a position that looks childlike, and perhaps even shameful. Her childlike position contrasts against the shimmering pink gown and the muted chandelier that gently twinkles behind her. Youarehereandiamherewithyou, body was taken from a Vogue feature recording artist Rihanna. Rihanna is not only a singer, but a fashion mogul, beauty icon, domestic violence survivor, and overall badass who doesn’t give any fucks. Cruz’s use of Rihanna’s body is a nod to beauty ideals, to wealth, to celebrity. The body alludes to the power and potential, which was lost when TeeTee Dangerfield was murdered in August 2017.
Another piece, wegivesomuchandgivenothingatall, shows Ava Le’Ray Barrin, the youngest person on record to have been murdered, propped up on their elbow on a chez lounge. Her honey hair in a soft and voluptuous curtain across their smooth brown face. Her expression, like the other painted subjects, is undefinable; sad, enticing, bored all at once. This beautiful brown face and hair are perched atop a White, nippless body, which is adorned in a silky wrap that hangs flirtatiously of their shoulder. The white body, like the other discordantly complexioned figures, alludes to layers and scales of privilege. Cruz questions the value of the white, presumably cis-male, body- does that body serve as a foil that may protect a transbody from harm? What are the advantages of being white and genderqueer? What is the brown queer body entitled to? Where on the scale of safety, privilege, and access, does a transbody fall if it is white? If it is black? If it is brown?
The question of privilege is an important one in this particular body of work, and one that the artist was extremely cognisant of as he created these works. Although he identifies as queer and much of his work deals with intersectional oppression of queer POC, Cruz is not a member of the trans community. The title of the show wegivesomuchandgivenothingatall, paintings for richard, is reference to a middle school schoolmate who was persecuted for being trans. Cruz, who was closeted in school, has spoken of his position as a bystander and/or witness of how Richard was treated. In being a witness, he expresses an emotion that lies in between sympathy and empathy- as person who was ‘other’ because he was queer and brown, but also as a person who could still ‘pass’ as ‘normal’ in his cis-body.
Cruz’s lens into the community is one of an advocate and ally, but not one of personal experience. Although portraiture is a genre that does not demand the artist is necessarily part of the community which he/she/they portrays; a great care needs to be taken when painting persons are marginal, vulnerable or ‘other’. Too often members of queer, black, brown, poor communities are portrayed with a voyeuristic or touristic lens. Too often they are rendered simply as entertainment fodder- they are rendered as anonymous others of an exotic tribe.
In creating these works, Cruz was put in the precarious position of contextualizing his work as a celebration and acknowledgement versus a spectacle. In some ways, the mashup of anatomies and complexions is a way that conceptually represents the idea that the people he has painted are complicated, they were multilayered, they were professionals, they were students, they were pageant queens, they were partners, they were makeup artists, they were sisters/brothers/mothers/fathers, they were regular people and they were special people. David Antonio Cruz’s wegivesomuchandgivenothingatall, paintings for richard, is for them.
– Jasmine Wahi (@browngirlcurator)