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"We have to think intersectionally"—Yishay Garbasz on the politics of allyship and solidarity

Nine Yamamoto, Yishay Garbasz30 October 2015

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"For people who also are trans, it is our basic humanity that is challenged. Anger is the only sane response." Nine Yamamoto-Masson interviews Yishay Garbasz about the politics of allyship, solidarity, cultural memory, institutionalised oppression, visibility and survival

Yishay Garbasz
is an artist and author whose main artistic interest is the inheritance of post-traumatic memories. British-Israeli and based in Berlin, she works across multiple media: “I'll learn whatever I need to in order to get the job done,” she says. “Mostly I use photography; I was trained as a photographer and as a dancer, but I also use video, installations, kinetic sculpture, light installations, performance. This is something incredible that my teachers taught me: if I can see it in my mind, and I have enough experience and confidence, I can make it in the real world.” 

Garbasz was in conversation with Juliet Jacques at the Representing Trans: Acts of Self-definition event at the Tate Modern to launch Jacques's Trans: A Memoir. Both trans women, they discussed the importance of resisting sensationalist representations of transgender people, and how their artwork and writing addresses the question of representing trans lives as lives. They left a deep impression on many of the attendees, echoing in fragments on social media. One fragment in particular, from Garbasz, seemed to hit a nerve: “There are no allies, only actions. There is no magical status – only a readiness for action”.

- Eat me Damien, Yishay Garbasz, 2010: Sculptures, Formaldehyde protected testicles removed during surgery, Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York. "This has nothing to do with gender," she said at the Tate Modern. 

While some agreed, others seemed frustrated about Garbasz' stance that actions alone make you an ally, not the self-designation as such. Vexed allies, let us call them, speak of ally-shaming, ungratefulness, being divisive, and argue that the self-designation as ally itself should be recognised and celebrated. This kind of response, which may be termed ‘ally fragility’, is a common defence mechanism in the politics of solidarity. If intersectional politics is an attempt to recognise our own personal location in networks and layers of privilege, it often seems as if ally fragility is the evasion of this responsibility, to recognise that personal accumulations of privilege complicate relations of solidarity and allyship. 

In light of so many intersecting complex identities, individual stories and corresponding oppressions; in light of a struggle that we have recognised as a common one, what is it that we mean when we say “solidarity”, when we call ourselves “allies”? If we know that language can be both violent and emancipatory, when does intention transform into material reality, when do words translate into action – what is the matter of saying that these lives matter? What does solidarity mean, what does it mean to be or call oneself an ally; how is solidarity enacted, manifested and nourished?

I met Garbasz in her Berlin studio to talk about her work and how it relates to her intersectional identities. We exchanged notes and thoughts about allyship, solidarity, friendship, visibility, resistance against institutionalised oppression, and survival. The first time I met her, not so much by chance, was at the Wikipedia Art & Feminism Edit-A-Thon she co-organised in Berlin, a collaborative work session on International Women's day. Aiming to improve the dismal coverage of women on the men-dominated online encyclopedia, participants brought a few articles related to women's work in art and activism that they wanted to create or expand on the website. We had both brought names of women artists and activists who are key figures in the solidarity struggle calling for justice for the former so-called “comfort women” (women and girls from the former Japanese colonies forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese military during the Second World War), a topic central to my artistic, academic and activist work. In this way, our first meeting was not just a simple coincidence: rather, it was a serendipitous manifestation of our similar approaches to our entanglements, roles and responsibilities within transnational, transgenerational solidarity work and multiform resistance against intersecting oppressions, including, but not limited to, patriarchal and racist systems of discrimination. 

From there we developed an ongoing dialogue about everyday resistance, a dialogue that, for me as a cisgendered university-educated woman, is also a practice of active listening: to her critique of tokenism, how to work together towards a more emancipatory visibility and empowered voice for people who are transgender, particularly trans women.

- Portrait of Yishay Garbasz working in the Fukushima nuclear exclusion zone for her show Ritual and Reality, Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, 2014. By Toshifumi Taniuchi.

For a few years now I've continually asked curators I meet if they know of any trans women in a museum or a major collection. Mostly they answer that they don't—but they do “know this amazingly sensitive cis person who did this amazingly sensitive project about Trans women”. Very often funding for projects about trans women will go to a cis persons making work about trans people! Or, on occasion, to a transmasculine person. But not to trans women making work about trans women. It's not like there are no trans women artists—but we are erased. 

In Berlin, 90% of museum shows are by men; only 10% by women, most of whom are white and middle-class. And if there is any trans and queer presence, it'll usually be transmasculine, while transfeminine is completely erased. Trans women are erased. We have been completely erased from the Berlin art scene in three years. In 2012, there was a major trans exhibition at the Schwules Museum that only had cis women and trans men artists, and only one token trans woman artist. Now, three years later, Deutsches Historisches Museum and the Schwules Museum* present another show without a single trans woman artist. Curators and the keepers of history in Germany and Europe will refer to the catalogue of this exhibition as a reference work for queer sexualities in art—and in that reference work, no trans women artists will be present. People are afraid to point out this erasure of trans women, because then they're accused of undermine ‘the cause’, of being divisive in a supposedly bigger, more important struggle. 

Nine: So the erasure itself is being erased... 

Yishay: It keeps happening: it's not a coincidence. It's like exhibitions that have no people of colour. It says something about how these curators view the world.

Being an intersectional, living, breathing human being, the more intersectionalities you have, the further away you are from the centre: the chances of you being seen are exponentially less.

You're invisible: your responses or actions are not seen, your words are not heard, your visual art is not seen, your body is delegitimised, your thoughts are delegitimised, it's not even counted, it's automatically rejected. Then, one out of the whole range of marginalised people is selected, as a token.

And if you're vaguely heard from, in your tokenised form, it will be via somebody closer to the centre who appropriates you in order to get their own message across. It's not the cis middle-class white person who should speak for everyone. Get somebody from the margins to speak, bring somebody who's lived their life, not just studied it abstractly in some introductory 101 class. We have to start centring the most intersectional voices.

Given how exclusionary institutions are, I make books as a way to bypass them and subvert collective memories by putting these books in libraries. I learnt to read at the age of 25 due to dyslexia, and that's also why I'm so happy to have books. The American radical librarians from the 1970s subverted libraries by buying certain books. They looked so innocent and harmless, but they were not – they are role models. 

Nine: You were saying that it was a surreal experience speaking with Juliet Jacques at the Tate Modern, one of the most renowned art institutions worldwide, in an area where twenty years before you used to be homeless. Class privilege is seldom acknowledged or addressed in the British and Western art institutions, because of their domination by the middle-upper class.

Yishay: Institutional exclusion is not just due to class inequality—it's always an intersection of many things. If we try to separate one thing from another, we're eliding everything else. It's class, yes, but it's also race, it's also cis-status, it's also gender. All of these things are always together, always compounded.

Nine: Do we need institutions? How do we deal with this dependence on institutions, recognising their power, while knowing how far from perfect they are, that they are not welcoming to many people? In her book Plantation Memories, Grada Kilomba writes: 

The concepts of knowledge, scholarship and science are intrinsically linked with power and racial authority. What is knowledge? What knowledge is acknowledged as such? And what knowledge is not? What knowledge has been made part of academic agendas? And what knowledge has not? Whose knowledge is this? Who is acknowledged to have the knowledge? And who is not? Who can teach knowledge? And who cannot? Who inhabits academia? And who remains outside at the margins? And finally, who can speak? [...] These questions are important to be asked, because academia is not a neutral space. [...] Within these rooms we were made the objects, but we have rarely been the subjects.In this sense, the academia is neither a neutral space nor simply a space of knowledge and wisdom, of science and scholarship, but also a space of v-i-o-l-e-n-c-e. [...] our voices [...] have been systematically disqualified from being valid knowledge.

Yishay: The institutions are the guardians of our collective memories: they write history and that's why history looks like this: white, heteronormative and male-centered. Is it really true, that this is our history? I don't think so. I think the truth lies in who curated it.

Nine: An artwork, a piece of fiction, a poem, a novel, a song, a blog can be vessels of resistance against (and disruption of) monolithic, one-sided tellings of history, and contribute to disrupting and diversifying the narrative of Empire. But cultural institutions are structurally, by essence, selective and exclusionary. 

Many people closer to the centre will be unaware of the margins or even deny that there is a disparity and inequality in access to the centre. Those of us who have privilege of some sort must also acknowledge that there might be things that we're not aware of that we might be missing, that there are unknown unknowns. 

Yishay: That’s why there is no such thing as an absolute, eternal "state" of being an ally – there are only actions in allegiance. Everything else is magical thinking. In the absence of actions in allegiance, there are no allies. There are no allies: there is only action. We have to train ourselves for constant action. I don't care what people's intentions are – I care about what they're actually done. 

Sunset over Northern Limit Line, Dragon’s Teeth, Baengnyeongdo, 2013, Severed Connections: Do what I say or they will kill you, a body of work based zones of conflict including the Koreas and West Bank.

Yes; it shouldn't be a magical label you give yourself that then absolves you from acting and lets you remain passive but profiting from the cultural capital it gives you. When “ally visibility” trumps the visibility of those who are marginalised... It shouldn't be that the main currency circulated within an economy of cultural capital is the ally-label, publicised as absolution or fix for privilege-guilt, if it's without the readiness to make space for the less privileged. Solidarity is not to expect to be educated for free; it's also a practice of reading and listening, and a readiness to also work—do homework, inform yourself. 

Yishay: I disagree: people can be illiterate and uneducated and still perform amazing actions in solidarity and support. I think it's important to look at the actions, not just the thinking and the words – because the same person can do incredible and terrible acts at the same time. 

Nine: It's particularly hurtful if self-proclaimed allies remain passive and fail to call out or call in those who say or do bigoted things, but instead publicise their allyship and often speaking for and over the people they claim to be allies to. Being humble is an important part of being a supporter who acts in solidarity; knowing when to keep quiet, to listen, to take a step back. The thing with allies is that sometimes even one ally, friend, or supporter actively being there and intervening in a situation of oppression can make a huge difference. 

Yishay: This is what I mean: if they don't come through, if they don't act, they're not allies. The only time I'm an ally is when I'm actually taking action. When that action stops, that's it. It's done. I don't care about people's intentions, because that's magical thinking, and it's not enough. I prefer the word "solidarity" over "ally", because it always implies action – standing in solidarity, doing things in solidarity. All of us need to start learning to act, not just "like" things on Facebook. We need to always question ourselves about our actions, not only our intentions. What have we done, how are we using our minds, how are we using our bodies. We have to think intersectionally. It's not simple black and white, it's a lot more complex.

I want to see a man give up space if there is none for women. I want to see a cis person give up space for trans people. I want to see a trans man give up space for trans women. I want to see a white person give up space for people of colour. And more, and more, and more. Liberation for all of us, not some of us. 

Nine: These multiple degrees of erasure, and reclaiming or fighting for more visibility is a complex issue. While on the one hand there's the need to be visible and heard, on the other hand, hypervisibility or tokenisation is also very problematic. Hypervisibility can expose people to danger and hate, and being referred to as a “trans artist” and not just an “artist” can be pigeonholing or patronising.

Yishay: Hypervisibility is also a way of silencing, as is raising one token and simultaneously silencing the other experiences. This is important to me: I don't say "I'm a trans woman", I say "I'm a woman with a history of trans", or “a woman who happens also to be trans”. There are many reasons for that that I learnt from the Civil Rights movement in the US, because language matters. The reason you say "woman of colour" is because the woman is first, "colour" is one of the flavours of the person. So celebrate the personhood. 

For people who also are trans, it is our basic humanity that is challenged. Second wave feminists deliberately misgender and exclude trans women based on genitals, while still maintaining that for women "biology is not destiny"—with the exception of trans women. In regards to intersectional identities: if you're of colour and also have trans experience, you're pretty much dead.

Nine: And when then your anger and hurt are pathologised on top of it, it's basically people telling you "go kill yourself". There are no neutral discourses. “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor,” said Desmond Tutu. 

‘Objectivity’ is a myth created by people at the top of the pyramid to justify and maintain their position, while silencing and discrediting the discourse of others by saying, "you're being irrational", as if they were the arbitrators of rationality. 

“My anger and your attendant fears are spotlights that can be used for growth in the same way I have used learning to express anger for my growth,” Audre Lorde writes in The Uses of Anger. “Women of Color in America have grown up within a symphony of anger at being silenced at being unchosen, at knowing that when we survive, it is in spite of a world that takes for granted our lack of humanness, and which hates our very existence outside of its service. And I say symphony rather than cacophony because we have had to learn to orchestrate those furies so that they do not tear us apart.“ 

Yishay: Anger is the only sane response to this. Just for us to have survived to this day—that's a huge accomplishment. Trans women of colour have an average life expectancy of 35. To be honest I never expected to reach even 30. So every day we're alive – that's a big deal; that's a big accomplishment.

Yishay Garbasz finds significance in numbers, often using them to frame aspects of her personal history, memory, and imagination. Garbasz, who also is transgender, previously explored issues of identity during her sexual reassignment surgery, documenting her body in the process. “I’m a very tactile and kinesthetic thinker, this is how I enter things, I enter the world through a very personal space, through my heart.” She is the author of Becoming: A Gender Flipbook and In My Mother's Footsteps, in which she documented the path of her mother’s path to a Nazi extermination camp, counting the number of steps and photographing her progress periodically, and branded her arm with her mother’s prison camp identification number. These numbers constitute abstracted markers of real-world experiences that Garbasz translates back into materiality through her performances and documentary photographs.

Nine Eglantine Yamamoto-Masson is an artist, curator and PhD candidate at ASCA (Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis). In academic research and artistic practice, her work examines historical memory, ideology, resistance and counter-narratives at the site of their encounter with socially engaged art as a critical forum.

Split (Taipei), Nine Yamamoto-Masson, 2014 (film still)

Filed under: feminism, interviews, trans