This article is part of Hyperallergic’s Pride Month series, featuring an interview with a different transgender or nonbinary emerging artist every weekday throughout the month of June.
For the second installment of our monthlong series, we’re shining a spotlight on the work of Tara Asgar, a Bangladeshi trans woman, asylum seeker, and artist currently based in Brooklyn. Born in Dhaka, Asgar became involved in local LGBTQIA+ community organizing to push back against the conservative and state-sponsored persecution of queer people, helping mobilize Bangladesh’s first-ever Pride Parade in 2014 and create safe spaces for at-risk individuals. She identifies herself as one of the first openly queer visual artists in the country.
In 2016, the artist witnessed the murder of LGBTQIA+ activist Xulhaz Mannan and friend Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy by an Islamist militant group. She narrowly escaped the attack and spent three months in hiding before she was able to relocate to the United States through the Artist Protection Fund residency and aid program. Since then, Asgar has earned an MFA from the Art Institute of Chicago and moved to New York; she explores trans identity and her own experience of coming out at a young age through public performance, text, video, and activism.
Hyperallergic: What is the current focus of your artistic practice?
Tara Asgar: I am currently interested in understanding loneliness and its embodied experience as a trans person. As a survivor of trauma, not only do I find freedom in sadness, but sadness also makes me think of the impermanence of our time. Loneliness and sadness are very vital for trans queer survival — there is obviously joy that exists in parallel, but I believe my radical self-acceptance came through experiencing a deep sense of loneliness. In my current practice, I am focusing more on the experience of the everyday and mundane, thinking about how to find a space where my body, my gender, my immigration status, and my experience of surviving death and trauma is not exceptional.
I enjoy taking very long walks near the ocean and feeling unnoticed, somehow camouflaged in between the ocean and its landscape. The video series I started working on, Home is a Foreign Place, is an extension of those beliefs, feelings, and experiences. It’s kind of a daily recording of a lonely and sad person who wants to claim the feelings of loneliness and expresses their embodied experience of sadness through movement and gesture within the backdrop of the ocean. I am currently reading the book Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation (2019), which is making me think deeply about how loss and sadness are associated with immigration, displacement, diaspora, and assimilation.
H: In what ways — if any — does your gender identity play a role in your experience as an artist?
TA: Gender and my sexuality became very important from the very early days of my practice. In a way, I had no other option but to make work about it. I grew up with constant bullying for being a very effeminate child; I have struggled with being too fem as a male at birth and not enough fem to be considered a female. It has created this constant anxiety about my gender performance, and making art about it in a way offers a refuge where I get to build my own narrative about my identity. The performance series I worked on in 2016, Shameless, was a way for me to address the anxiety around assigned gender and society’s expectation.
I did a series of very long durational performances in which I combined mirrors, self-reflection, and drag as a metaphor to conceptually question what we are conditioned to be and how we actually belong as queer people with our bodies in a heteronormative society. Very recently, I performed an iteration of my ongoing project A Private View at the Montalvo Arts Center, where I combined food, melancholia, drag, and Fox News footage of Tucker Carlson to propose an environment in which an intersectional body and its gendered representation of desire connect with the audience through contrasted visuals, smells, and metaphors. In a way, this complicates our linear idea about gender and how we are prepared to experience it every day. Gender is an experience that is constantly shifting in my work as well as in my life.
H: Which artists inspire your work today? What are your other sources of inspiration?
TA: I really enjoy looking into the work of Vaginal Davis, especially the video works, and learning about their drag and other methods they have incorporated into their practice. I am also very influenced by the late Bengali gender queer filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh. In a way, Ritu was my first queer icon and a reference to understand my own queerness. My other sources of inspiration are speaking with plants, working in a garden with friends, going random grocery shopping, and taking very long walks near oceans.
H: What are your hopes for the LGBTQIA+ community at the current moment?
TA: My hope for the community is we all learn as a collective that survival is never a singular journey, and that we allow each other to fail but still hold each other close.