Wu Tsang and The Mythologies of Mourning and Community

(I was invited to write a piece about the work of Wu Tsang to be included in the publication to accompany the Museum of Transgender Hirstory & Art’s exhibition Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects: Legends and Mythologies, which opens March 21, 2015, at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles. Hope to see you there.)

Communal mourning, by its very nature, is an immensely complicated text to read, for we do not mourn just one lost object or other, but we also mourn as a “whole”—or put another way, as a contingent and temporary collection of fragments that is experiencing a loss of its parts.”                                                                  -José E. Muñoz

Wu Tsang and R. J. Messineo,  Approximate Alter (Life Chances) , 2011, Wood, spray paint, photos, frames, plastic flowers, Rhinestone clutch, 44 x 36 x 13 3/4 inches

Wu Tsang and R. J. Messineo, Approximate Alter (Life Chances), 2011, Wood, spray paint, photos, frames, plastic flowers, Rhinestone clutch, 44 x 36 x 13 3/4 inches

The altar is red and we all have our dead. Blood, risk, passion and community histories rendered in three dimensions just as Wu Tsang invokes a soul-gutting statistic from the GLBT non-profit industrial complex’ quarry of data in his essay for the Whitney Biennial 2012: the average age of a trans person of color is 23 years old.

The altar, much like the Silver Platter and Wildness, maneuvers as a site where several mestizo spiritual practices are staged. These initial contended colonial encounters introduced the concept of altar as a marker of the new and prevailing spiritual logic in the Américas; aggregating syncretic affinities on top of each other performing a type of Catholic drag for indigenous polytheisms in response to a resilient formation that rarely ends with post- as the prefix. Oftentimes these practices flirt with the fraught settler colonialism we are all anxiously enacting in pursuit of queer utopian once-befores. What it once was before we arrived. Our altars call our ancestors, the ones who were here before and that survived well enough to be remembered.

What does the altar alluding to but having never lived inside Imprenta Transgender Law Project, the legal and social service-oriented drop-in center attending to trans women of color, and known as Wildness’ “mini-institutional appendage,” do? What function does it serve within its perpetual onus of remembering, honoring and more importantly—raging? And how can queer club nightlife continue to offer a temporary salve to the traumatic burden of remembering?

On first thought this work connects with a mythology of mourning as solely an act of private loss void of its attendant structural implications. The altar here triggers the collectivizing of righteous grief, a catalyst for movement towards a futurity that coalesces in the absence of violence; an animating force that advocates for the dead.

Our dead trans people of color. Never mind that it is we who belong to them even when “community” fails at being the apt receptacle for our desire to belong. Community fails the way that we fail each other and what we mourn is communal possibility of collective benefit foreclosed by the pragmatism of the non-profit industrial complex; a boring hierarchy where only few benefit and the rest experience trickle-down community engagement, creative place-making and other funder world buzzwords and phrases.

Wu Tsang’s work with Wildness and Imprenta compel us to consider the mythology of community. I call this a boon to our weary guilt complexes and non-profit day job enervation. It is this psychic exhaustion that requires us to question how exactly does community fit within the continuum of institutionality and philanthro-capitalism? And is this really the only way we can enact a fiscally sound community organization when trans people of color are rarely placed in positions of decision-making power but so deftly placed in the cross-hairs of non-profit fundraising campaigns?

As of this writing another trans woman of color was murdered a few days ago in San Francisco. Her name is Taja Gabrielle De Jesus. Her death occurred just as members of the LGBT non-profit arena converged in Denver for the Creating Change conference. At this conference an action led by trans women of color demanded that cisgender lesbians, gay men and bisexuals activate on behalf of trans women of color. They demanded that the more privileged members of the queer spectrum—economically and socially speaking—assume the mantle that brown and black trans lives matter.

The altar in trans centered community spaces produces a constellation of memory, and the living come together to tend to one another’s psychic wounds by changing the water, throwing out the flowers, and when payday allows there are luxurious offerings with the occasional shot of rum, a tube of lipstick. It is the earthly anchor; apart from being an unwelcome material signal that violence—the random and the institutional—is more than a spectral presence but a daily reminder. The altar is what remains.  And each year the altar will grow.