These days, I’ve had a lot of reasons to be grateful — for my community, my health and safety, and for the ability of artists to constantly speak to some of the most pressing issues of our time, all while fearlessly challenging the status quo. For this fifth edition of Meet the NYC Art Community, I had a chance to catch up with fellow born-and-raised New Yorker Kia LaBeija, whose 2019 performance Untitled, The Black Act remains one of the most compelling I’ve witnessed in a long time — so much so that we named it one of our top shows of last year.
A multidisciplinary artist, world-renowned Voguer, dancer, and former Overall Mother of the iconic House of LaBeija, she is best known for her dynamic, autobiographical portraits and live performances. LaBeija’s work explores themes of womanhood, beauty, memory, the transformative possibilities of Voguing, and the experience of growing up with HIV. She has exhibited and performed at the Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, the Studio Museum in Harlem, MoMA PS1, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the International Center for Photography, among others. LaBeija has received commissions from institutions and publications including Performa, W Magazine, i-d, and Triple Canopy, and she is a graduate of the New School.
These days, LaBeija’s sights have been set more internally. We chatted about her current focus on stillness, her morning routine, and telling her own stories, as well as the ways in which she’d like to see the art world do better.
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Where do you consider home?
New York City
What brought you to New York/what has made you stay?
I’m a New York girl through and through. What brought me here was my parents — my mother is from the Philippines and my father is from Brooklyn, by way of Harlem and the [US] South. I was raised in the center of midtown Manhattan, Hell’s Kitchen. As a kid I never imagined leaving this place. When you grow up among the hustle and bustle of the city, constantly engaged and challenged by its diverse population, why leave? There’s never a dull moment in here, except maybe these past few months which have been I Am Legend unreal.
I [first] got an opportunity to leave the country in my early 20s. Until then I couldn’t fathom how grand the rest of the world was. The city to me was already the whole world, just a condensed version of it. But once I realized how exciting other cities could be and what they had to offer I wanted more. So I’ve been traveling a lot lately, back and forth from the east coast to the west coast and to Europe. There’s so much more I am dying to see. But somehow no matter how long I’m gone for, something always brings me back. It must be the energy; the way the streets sing and glisten during a rainstorm; the accessibility; the feeling that even though you can be by yourself here, you never need be alone. There’s adventure around every corner and opportunity down every street. There are so many intersecting lives — humans walking around in this crazy microcosm. Everyone engaged in their own reality and somehow melting into the vibrations of the city. I love New York.
Tell me about your first memory of art.
It’s really hard to say. My parents are both artists, so I’ve been exposed to the arts in so many ways since I was born. My first memory of art would probably be going to the theater, but to me it just felt like an extension of life. One sweet memory I can think of (in terms of visual art) is learning about Keith Haring in my elementary school art class. Art was obviously my favorite subject. I remember my teacher showing us images of his paintings, and being so excited to learn about these dancing figures I’d seen on Sesame Street. The simplicity of his work is what made it so relatable. I could understand it so quickly, and that was a gift. I couldn’t say that in that moment I could grasp anything conceptually about art, but it made me light up. In that moment I felt joy. Now, she for sure didn’t show us the explicit art that Haring made — it wasn’t until I got older that I saw it and gagged!
How would you describe your practice?
Where I’m at currently, I would describe my practice as ritualistic and intuitive. I’m interested in how the body relates to space as a marker of time and what it is we do with the time we have. I’m always thinking about how we record it, how we mark a beginning and an end. I’m captivated by the stories that exist in both the physical space and the emotional, cerebral space. Memories are so subjective, so there is so much exploration there. I use myself as a subject, a human constantly in search of somewhere to belong. This yearning has led me to create my own space of belonging in my work — a place for myself to live forever. I believe in the power and importance of telling our own stories, through our own eyes. This is the most powerful thing to me.
What are you working on currently?
Currently, as always, I am working on myself — who is it that I would like to be; what do I want to experience and leave on this earth once I transition into another space? I’m investigating what my womanhood looks like, feels like; what my humanness means. This is a journey that takes a lifetime. I feel quiet in this moment and I am interested in where this stillness will lead me next and how this will reflect in the new work I am embarking on.
Creatively speaking, what keeps you up at night and what makes you get out of bed in the morning?
Identity, mostly. I’ve always felt like I live at the intersection of so many identities. It’s overwhelming. So when everything goes dark my mind wonders endlessly. I am constantly sifting through memories, looking for clues about myself. On most days I am living somewhere in between the past and the future, but many times it does not feel like the present. I’m swaying back and forth in some kind of alternative space, searching for the tools to live completely free in the moment, not weighed down by my old triggers or fears of what is yet to come. So at night when my mind should be quiet it’s usually racing. I let myself face my traumas somewhere in my mind to hopefully make some sense of experiences I’ve had and how they shape me now. And with all of this that happens while I’m off dreaming, I’m a fairly early riser!
I think the prospect of a new chance to try again at life is what gets me up. Even if I have no where to go, I try to be prepared for anything. I have my morning routines and rituals, like taking a long bath as soon as I get up — there I can debrief, meditate, center myself again. I’m excited about life generally. I’m a pretty optimistic person, so I look forward to each day. It’s truly a gift to be alive, so I’d like to take advantage of that.
What are you reading currently?
I just finished The Lonely City by Olivia Laing. It was especially interesting to read during this time, being in NYC. Laing’s portrait of loneliness is romantic and brave and offers such great insights into different artists’ relationships to being alone. Right now I’m reading The Body Keeps the Score by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk. I’ve been seeing this book for a few years at the Strand or Barnes & Noble and had been wanting to read it! A very good friend gifted it to me and it’s been a great investigation into trauma and how the brain works. Also Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Maree Brown and New York: Club Kids by Walt Cassidy (these were also gifts!). I like to rotate between a few at a time, obviously.
What is your favorite way of experiencing art?
I love an immersive experience. I love to feel with all of my senses. Sometimes I feel really intensely and [other] times I can feel this nothingness. Both waves have the power to frighten me to my core. I can have a hard time connecting with people because of fears and traumas I’ve collected — which trust me I’m working through. But seeing art makes me feel so alive and so connected to the human experience. I can feel so deeply there. I can breathe again, see again, re-center myself. So when I come into a viewing experience and it takes me somewhere else I feel absolute bliss. This is probably why I love live theater — it just takes you there.
Favorite exhibition you’ve seen in the last year?
I honestly can’t even think back to last year. Crazy right? I can live so far in the past, but can’t even remember a few months ago. The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion curated by Antwaun Sargent at Aperture. Work, yes — that exhibition was so incredible! I felt so celebrated viewing this immaculate selection of work by Black photographers. Everything about that show — and the book of course — was just phenomenal. Yayoi Kusama: Everyday I Pray For Love at David Zwirner was also amazing. Kusama is an artist who over the period of a lifetime has actually created an [idea of] infinity. This durational practice just penetrates me.
In the creative circles you’re part of, what questions do you want to see more people asking?
Fuck. Is this the part where I make a list of demands?
How do we dismantle the Patriarchy? PERIOD.
How do we define who lives at the top of the art hierarchy?
Why don’t we see more women of color in institutional spaces?
Why are galleries stealing money from artists?
Why is the art world so unregulated — like what bullshit system do we run off of?
Why do rich people need a bigger discount when they buy art?
Why are we still holding space for those who abuse their power in the arts? Keep your fucking money.
What is up with exploiting artists for their trauma, especially if they’re a person of color?
How do we value whose art matters?
If museums are dominated by the work of men, how can we say that art reflects the world?
How do we support artists emotionally when they sell their work, because they are selling a piece of themselves?
How do we support artists financially? It’s time to kill the starving artist trope.
How do we stay true to ourselves, our art and our integrity when we are constantly being fed by machines?
How can we emancipate ourselves from the slavery of only uplifting important voices when they start to trend on social media?
If I get one more email from an institution telling me how important it is to support the Black community and fight for equality I am going to scream! We’ve been here for fucking ever. How do you just want to support us now?
The list is endless. These are also the things that keep me up at night. Shall I keep going?