The Reservoir

Conversations on Photography


Efrem Zelony-Mindell interviews artists from n e w f l e s h, their curatorial book project on experimental photography and identity

Efrem Zelony-Mindell    The theme that n e w f l e s h—my new publication with Gnomic Book, and exhibit at The Light Factory—deals with, namely: coming into one’s body and identity, is not a path navigated in a golf cart. It requires a machete and sunblock. What excites me about queerness is its philosophy and adaptability. It’s the reason I feel so deeply connected to it and it has motivated me to continue coming back to this body of work that’s focused around that one central theme; queerness beyond the body.

The works of n e w f l e s h are bright; they exude motifs that center around color and experimentation. They may not be what some would refer to as capital P photography. That’s ok—we still need fairy tales. We need art that challenges the preconceived and the normative. I’m tired of having to ask for permission to say something against the acceptability of any establishment. There are many organizations I hope to be against and to question with this collection—with this body. Below, I’ve tried to conduct an interview meant for one person with five of the artists from the Gnomic Book publication, some of whom are also in The Light Factory show. And true to n e w f l e s h form it is at times about the individual artist as much as it is about the body of work I’ve curated. Nothing is straight. We grow, mostly unevenly.

n e w f l e s h, published by Gnomic Book, 2019

Martin Wannam, Selvin Andrés Garcia, Colonia el Esfuerzo. 4 de Noviembre 2009, Guatemala, 2018


EZM    Your work deals with religion, community, and queerness. These societal ideologies influence interpretations of the body and the roles of what is queer. How does your work restructure the presumptions of these systems?

Martin Wannam    Well, first and foremost I see my work as resistance—resistance that we have to endure everyday in Guatemala just by being queer. Within my work I’m interested in disrupting, demanding, deconstructing and creating visibility for bodies that lie outside the norm, and have been rendered invisible or hidden. I do this with the hope of moulding these systems that are killing us. I question these systems and explore the full potential of how a queer body should be, and react, in a society shaped by homophobic, heteronormative, colonial ideologies. I look to create my own space and to cultivate my voice via artistic political resistance by refusing to follow or perpetuate a “Westernized,” heteronormative, racist, and classist culture. I’m currently in Guatemala for a few more days and to be honest I’ve mostly only experienced these normative and westernized ideologies.

EZM    How can objects and home reimage queerness?

MW    We mould them by creating our own vision for our ideals and not the ones that have been imposed on us as a community. In my work, especially in the piece included in n e w f l e s h, I have recontextualized the objects that have been precious to the Catholic Church and these communities as a way to talk about hate crimes that are happening in Central America. Religious views, and heteronormativity are strong with the majority in this region, and are a huge factor for the proliferation of hate crimes. I make these objects that are factors of our represión and segregación to engage in queerness by expounding and corrupting their social constructs and by talking about deaths and not letting names of people disappear. I’d also like to say that in my work I mostly don’t take pictures as an archive, but I construct everything I take pictures of. I find that more exciting and also find it to be a way to change things that are already in place.

EZM    How do you see your work fitting into n e w f l e s h?

MW    Well, I think that queerness is such an umbrella term that it can fit a lot of possibilities. As artists we create our own piece of queerness. In my case, I create queerness through my art that goes directly, in most cases, from an object to a system. I create or take pictures of objects that I deconstruct. My intention is not the physicality of it as an end goal, but the concept of queerness or as I like to say “El lado marica” to dismantle systems. I want to talk about queerness not just as a body and not just as an object, but also as a system. If my body engages in resistance, it goes beyond myself to talk about a collective and that collective stimulates an ideology that deals mostly with change. I believe queerness goes beyond the body.


EZM    I see you as someone who sees deeply past the surface of individuals because you’re concerned for the well being of marginalized folks. You strike me as someone who would drive the getaway car for a queer person in need, so to speak. How does your advocacy and humanity materialize in the work you make?

May Lin Le Goff    I do deeply care about the well being of marginalized people, and it truly warms my heart to the core that you see me as someone who would drive the getaway car—that is without a doubt.

[In terms of materializing humanity,] I believe it comes down to representation and subverting conventions where possible. Making people squirm a little, creating a conversation. Why does this make you feel a certain way? Just because it might not be something that you agree with, does that mean it doesn’t deserve to exist or to be heard? The simple fact that my work triggers a response opens up a space for conversation. The blurred lines between gender, sexuality, social molds, the conventional and unorthodox, is my advocacy at work. 

Exploring identity has always been a fascinating domain for me, and while I don't identify as queer, I understand the notion of living outside of social expectations. As a multiracial woman from parents of both the East and West, and growing up in the wildly capitalist Asian city of Singapore, shit gets confusing early on. Not looking like anyone in my entire family is quite the mind-fuck at times. To top it off, Singapore still has a conservative policy on same-sex marriage, non-traditional family structures (especially same-sex parents & single moms), LGBTQ civil rights, etc. All of these cultural restrictions were and still are extremely frustrating, and as I found my own identity being questioned from a homogenized education system where we were taught to conform rather than stand out. I understand the challenges of exploring a fractured identity.

May Lin Le Goff, It Is What It Is or What Is It, 2013

Moving to New York and getting to know myself with each passing day, de-programming and re-parenting myself has opened up my work to ask those big questions like “who am I?” and, “where do I belong?”

Asking these questions in my own personal life has led me to the community I was meant to find, the queer community, and it continually excites and inspires me. Seeing how this community unapologetically celebrates individual expression paves the way for everyone to be a celebration of themselves. The exploration side of my work, whether it's the hands-on aspect or the curation of intersections of identities and social constructs, lends itself to many positive aspects that contribute to queer ideologies.

EZM    In your work you’re photographing, cutting, gluing, rearranging, and reimaging the expectations of photography. Why is it important to you to push the assumed uses of photography?

MLLG    We live in an accelerating digital age that presents a challenging yet compelling twist in all artistic practices. With a plethora of tools and practices available through new media, I'm always challenged to adapt my creative process to these changing dynamics, whilst exhibiting my own distinctive style.

I find solitude from the relentless pace of our digital world through creating my own space in a blend of new and traditional media forms and techniques. In this space I can find my creative connection to my work through the practice of collage and photomontage. It is very important for me to come back to this tactile process, as that allows me to engage with my work on a physical level. I understand how I have shaped and formed the work with my own hand, rather than the immediate production of digital work.

Within this strong connection, I discover a rebellion from the moulds of conventional fashion or commercial imagery. If the conventional is where my ideas are birthed, then the task of deconstructing, displacing, and then reconstructing them into dynamic photo-sculptures, fractures the notion of the conventional. There is always more than meets the eye. I always love it when I get asked how my images get made, “are they actual collages or digital?” It’s somewhere in the middle, and that is why one is asked to explore the dimension the work exists in. Between the conventional and the unorthodox.

EZM    How do you see your work fitting into n e w f l e s h?

MLLG    I see queerness as the exploration of the infinite possibilities of identity, a rebellion against mainstream society and conformity to what is deemed as “normal”. There is no such thing as “normal” or “not normal”. I also think that identifying as queer really opens up the opportunity for the person to be able to have the space to move through their own lives without the restrictions of cultural, social, and historical constructs. Who you were yesterday doesn’t define who you are today. My process is all about exploration. Cutting and pasting, mixing materials and finding compositions, along with the construct of different identities within the studio imagery, all present notions of exploration of social norms. The rebellion of traditional ideas into a modern culture is queer at its core and my work is a reflection of this movement.


Ilana Savdie, Marital Troubles, 2015


EZM    Tell us about bridging the gaps between your photographic, painting, and sculptural practices.

Ilana Savdie    I worked for a few years in photography for the fashion and beauty industries, primarily as a retoucher. I was much more interested in the gestural aspect of nipping and tucking bodies with my fingertips and, having come from a background in painting, I was curious about the translation of fingertips into full body gestures. Within the beauty industry, I was often tasked with combing through stock photos to help define infuriating idealisms for marketing teams to sell back to us. Eventually, destroying these images became a form of sketching for me. I have always obsessively collected perfectly retouched images that serve to represent the beauty, health and hygiene industries. Sculptural works became about attempting to make tangible the textures and materials I was consuming behind screens and understand how these interacted with my own body in space.

EZM    How does an understanding of these mediums push you and your conceptual motivations for the works? And do you see this mixing and overlaying of mediums as a transgressive act?

IS    I always look to Gloria Anzaldua’s definition of defiance. She says it is the “freedom to chisel my own face, to staunch the bleeding with ashes, to fashion my own gods out of my entrails.” Painting and sculpture became another tool with which to protest the impossible textures of predetermined utopias. Material pluralities arrive at a truer texxxture for culturally complicated bodies like mine.

EZM    How do you see your work fitting into n e w f l e s h?

IS    I think of the queer body as one that arrives at a certain divinity through its own abjection and it is a major driver in my work. The bodies that shape shift to define their own boundaries beyond those imposed upon them, the identities forever in a state of becoming, kept intact in their state of flux. This is where I find form, what drives gesture and how I carve out flesh.


EZM    Your work seems so visually motivated by the unexpected and bizarre. Do you think it’s important to embrace the unusual and maybe even the undesirable? Why?

Jessica Pettway    It is so important to embrace the unusual and undesirable in art! Isn’t that just life? Laughing at pain? Having some weird “Charlie Brown moments” pile on top of each other that sometimes you just have to take a second and laugh at the gag of it all? In my work I have a lot of fun making jokes out of the mundane and calling attention to how unusual everyday life can be.

EZM    What scares you about your work or the things you experience in the world? Do you see your work as a way to push against anxiety?

JP    One source of anxiety is making sure I’m able to leave my mark on this industry as a Black Woman. I’m always grappling with the thought, “What is it like to move in an industry with only slightly more than a handful of people to look up to that look like myself?” All I can do is keep making work that I love and hope that I can help someone that looks like me.

EZM    How do you see your work fitting into n e w f l e s h?

JP    The photo of mine in n e w f l e s h allows for the possibility of the strange, and presents a fresh take on a bouquet of flowers or an all out garden party. In fragmenting the body, this photo alters our ideas of reality and welcomes the viewer to engage with the unfamiliar.

Jessica Pettway, Garden Party, 2016

KC Crow Maddux, Untitled, 2018


EZM    Can you talk about how you go about making a place or finding a history that speaks to your practice?

KC Crow Maddux    History is difficult for me, as very often we look to the past for what people in our communities were making. Being trans and on hormones I am living in what I consider to be a post-human body that is actually something fresh to history. I mostly look to canonized “art history”, which generally speaking is the history of CIS white men, for conventions to work against. The implied neutrality of many structural elements, the rectilinear picture format and the white wall for example, are representative of the naturalized state of the patriarchal gaze or voice. I intersect those conventions from a queer angle; disrupting them with invention. I am developing a trans format.

EZM    People talk a lot about art as a way to start a conversation, but I so rarely hear what that conversation is supposed to be about or where/when people should have it. Just that a conversation needs to happen. What are your biggest disappointments about the art community, and how are you using your work to ignite purposeful discourse?

KCM    It’s difficult, I think, to talk about the broader art world beyond my immediate community in which I have found enormous support. I think, I would have to say that the disappointments I feel related to the art community (or communities, because there are so many) would be the ways in which they mimic the general population’s discomfort around identity. Generally, people have difficulty identifying with others across gender/race/class/age etc lines. I’ve thought a lot about how if my nudes were clearly male or female there might be a completely different level of support. I am happy in the muddiest of waters, but that is not most of us. I think there is an air of exploration that is sometimes not actualized with real cross identification.

EZM    How do you see your work fitting into n e w f l e s h?

KCM    I am not a man or a woman; therefore, I cannot be gay or straight. I don’t need to believe those categories are not stable or contiguous, I am living in the gappy purple space between them. Queer.

The body provides the locus for many identities, while being outside the language of identity. I mean to say that dumb matter cannot generate the meaning behind identity constructs. We each have two bodies, one material and one that tethers us to the identity matrix. That second one is basically an image or a container of what our bodies mean to ourselves and to other people. It’s cultural, subjective, and mutable. I am interested in opening the written seams between proprioception and gaze, material and consciousness, being and naming. How does my understanding of my body in relation to the false gender binary apply to the rest of my experience? Because of my experience, I can see seams where others cannot.


Efrem Zelony-Mindell is a curator, writer, and artist. Their curatorial endeavors include shows in New York City and North Carolina: n e w f l e s h, Are You Loathsome, Familiar Strange, and This Is Not Here. They write about art for FOAM, Unseen, DEAR DAVE, VICE, Musée Magazine, SPOT, and essays for artists’ monographs. Their first book n e w f l e s h, published by New York’s Gnomic Book, is now available. They received Their BFA from the School of Visual Arts.