Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Vital Art: Transgender Portraiture as Visual Activism

In what ways can visual art play a vital role in countering the discriminating stigma experienced by transgender communities?

2014 - 2018

The Transgender Murder Monitoring Project’s tracking of news reports in 60 countries provides statistical evidence of endemic discrimination, including an alarming number of minors killed. A large-scale survey by Trans Media Watch shows that the lack of ethical media coverage given to transgender lives and deaths can directly contribute to hostilities. Quantitative approaches to studying transphobic violence are important responses to signaling the extent of the problem. However, they are unable to provide the necessary insight into the qualitative experiences of lived or mediated stigma.

The goal of this project is to produce three key studies of transgender visual activism that address experiences of stigma and critique mass media portrayals. Located in visual studies and using theories of gender and representation, this study is the first to create an interpretative framework for a socially embedded analysis of transgender cultural productions. It concentrates on contemporary visual art portraits because the genre of portraiture foregrounds a subject’s personal experience and seeks to establish identity visually, hence it is a privileged form for addressing stigmatized identities.

The methodology is concept-based: it uses the interdisciplinary category of "portraiture" to bridge different objects of study: artistic portraits, media representations, and ethnographic studies of artists. The overall objective is to investigate how and to what effect these forms of portraiture yield archives of transgender experience. The outcomes include 1) a monograph illuminating the role of visual art in minority power struggles, 2) an international symposium on visual arts and activism, 3) a journalist tool-kit for positively shaping public opinion about gender diversity through media platforms.

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