Currently, a search for “Tourmaline” on the Getty Museum’s website yields two, decades-old papers: one on the makeup of sand samples taken from the Mogao Grottoes in China’s Gansu province, and another on the mineralogical composition of clay casting cores for Renaissance bronzes. However, that search query will soon generate more than references to the borosilicate mineral. Los Angeles’s Getty Museum has acquired its first work by Brooklyn artist, trans activist, and 2021 Guggenheim Fellow Tourmaline. Though it’s too soon to say when the new acquisition, a photographic self-portrait titled “Summer Azure” (2020), will go on display at the Getty, it can currently be viewed in the group exhibition Born in Flames: Feminist Futures at the Bronx Museum.
The stone black tourmaline is known for its healing properties — for repelling negative energies, providing emotional grounding, and supplying strength. Tourmaline’s art is likewise concerned with healing. While her work recognizes and honors pain, it chooses pleasure: a radical act that is interrelated with Black trans liberation and futurity. At once future-minded and historically rooted, her recent work has explored Seneca Village, a 19th-century community of free Black landowners located in what is now Central Park — eminent domain was deployed to force these landowners out in 1857 — as well as Black-owned pleasure gardens, verdant enclaves for play, relaxation, and socializing among Black people, located in Lower Manhattan in the 1820s. Seneca Village was founded around the same time as these pleasure gardens, in 1825. For context, this was two years before slavery was abolished in New York, and four decades before the 13th Amendment was ratified, officially abolishing slavery throughout the United States.
In an interview for Artforum, Tourmaline said: “If you, as a Black person in the 1820s, were going to own land when slavery was still legal and no one was selling you land, you had to deeply and fundamentally reshape your beliefs about what was possible in order to be the realizer of a dream that would seem otherwise impossible.” Land ownership was about more than property in and of itself; at the time, it also conferred the right to vote.
“Summer Azure” hails from a body of photographic self-portraits from 2020, each named after a different kind of butterfly (“Coral Hairstreak,” “Morning Cloak,” and more). The photographs, which were displayed in Tourmaline’s first solo show, Pleasure Garden, at Chapter NY from December 2020 to January 2021, take on the theme of the Black pleasure garden, putting the artist — rarely depicted in her own work — at its delightful center. In “Summer Azure,” Tourmaline rockets upward into a cloudy blue sky, holding an astronaut helmet to her head, a bit of magenta braid peeking out. Barefoot, she dons an all-white outfit with ample leg slits. The ensemble evokes space suits (and reclamatory Afrofuturism), the white clothing donned in protests for Black trans lives, notions of spiritual newness and rebirth, and the luxury of summer leisure wear. Despite being in mid-air, behind the visor of her space helmet the artist seems totally at ease, even relaxed: she belongs there.
“I’m not satisfied with Black trans lives mattering,” Tourmaline wrote in a shimmering essay in Vogue in 2020, the same year she made “Summer Azure.” “I want Black trans lives to be easy, to be pleasurable, and to be filled with lush opportunities. I want the abundance we’ve gifted the world — the art, the care, the knowledge, and the beauty — to be offered back to us tenfold.”
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