Becoming‑with and together: Indigenous transgender and transcultural practices

Dulcie Stewart, Portrait of a colonised land, 2016, Digital print on paper. Courtesy and © the artist

Blak Dot Gallery’s Midsumma show Tran‑Sational uses, as one of its key video installations, a montage of archival interviews of trans and gender‑diverse Indigenous community members. The interviews are cut together from footage taken during the Kunghah retreat held in November, a gathering that hosted gender‑diverse Indigenous people from all over Australia and ended on Transgender day of Remembrance. The video installation, much like the event itself, is a reminder that the trans identity is a culturally contingent one; a well‑travelled word. For Indigenous trans peoples, there is a struggle to understand our gendered and sexual identities in relation to colonialism, to our relationships with religion, and our place within the queer community at large. 

Trans day of Remembrance is an event often marked in cities like Melbourne by the mainstream LGBT community with a ritual memorialisation, an annual reading of names using data collected internationally on deaths by murder of trans people. There are rarely any Australian examples on the international map (it is even rarer for the Australian examples to be Indigenous people), which may be due to under‑reporting or the failure to recognise the trans status of the victims recorded in the data. This problem of misrecognition raises bigger questions about how the mainstream trans community recognises trans- others, why there is a bigger knowledge gap between Indigenous and non‑Indigenous trans people than between non‑Indigenous Australian and US‑based trans communities, and how we conceptualise trans identity in community settings, when this designation is a historically and culturally problematic one in the first place.

Transgender communities are in constant intercultural dialogue. I speak here to the more obvious cultural differences between trans people as a disparately connected group with many members in the international community, as well as to the less articulated cultural disconnects as linguistic, generational, regional, and class‑based differences, which reveal trans- itself as an identifier with increasingly unstable and politicised meanings. Trans realities are shaped in large part by historical contingencies: the legal, medical, political, and psychiatric discourses which govern the deepest intimacies of our lives at any given time and place. Additionally, recent Indigenous queer and trans scholarship elaborates on the historically and colonially constituted meanings of transgender identities in settler‑colonial countries, linking the formation of LGBTI identities in settler states with the establishment of settler colonial sovereignties and Indigenous dispossession, and identifying the colonising effect the settler‑colonial LGBTI community has on Indigenous peoples.[1] Susan Stryer and Paisley Currah, transgender historians, conscious of their impact, therefore remark on the need to be “attentive to the transnational circulations of ‘transgender’ as the outright resistances to that term as well as to its adoption, dubbing, hybridisation, and strategic use, with all the complex negotiations of power and culture those crossings and roadblocks imply.”[2]

Ira Fernandez, Modern Filipinas, 2017, photograph. Courtesy and © the artist

The problematics of transculturation in trans community can be expressed in the ways that the younger and older generations of trans people are able (or unable) to communicate due to the erasure of Indigenous gender diversity in the writing of transgender history, or the subsuming of those same subjectivities under the identifier of trans in the first place. To speak to trans is always to perform a translation, to take part in a field of cross‑cultural contact. Given the sudden increase in trans visibility in media and arts, and the attention to trans Indigenous artists in a few key exhibitions held recently, I want to begin to theorise this field of contact and translation in curatorship practices. 

To take another approach, rather than only articulating trans identity as a categorically imposed colonial assignation, trans can be positioned as a constitutive mode of seeing and relating. In transgender terms, trans is argued as a situated knowledge, a knowledge from the body as “a form of consciousness—a way of perceiving or knowing that occurs between and across bodies, cultures, and geographies.”[3] In their introduction to the “Tranimalities” issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly, Eva Hayward and Jami Weinstein note “that trans* is not a thing or being, it is rather the processes through which thingness and beingness are constituted. In its prefixial state, trans* is prepositionally oriented—marking the ‘with’, ‘through’, ‘of’, ‘in’, and ‘across’ that make life possible.”[4]

In this way, trans is directly linked by Hayward to feminist theorist Donna Haraway’s interspecies articulation of “becoming with” as a “practice of becoming worldly” in relation to others. In doing this, Haraway sought to examine the mutual transformation experienced in an inter‑species encounter which provided a rereading of the power‑relations between species, speaking to forms of intercultural dialogue and mutual compromise. Biologist and transgender theorist herself, Eva Hayward follows Haraway’s “becoming‑with” to locate transgender bodies in a field of interrelation with animals and various other “others”. Thus is the transgender body produced in a field of “shared vulnerability … open to the planet”, reliant on the becoming of others in order to become.[5] Articulating the contact zone of gendered and cultural engagement in this way, for trans Indigenous art, “becoming‑with” can signify a meeting point in a landscape of shared “geopolitical trauma” and mutual transformation opening space for relationality and mutual dialogue which comes to its participants through a shared experience of horror, and a shared mode of seeing.[6]

Tama Shaman-Favell, Sur, 2012, lino print, black ink on Kozo paper. Courtesy and © the artist

Hayward’s view of trans “as a form of perception” which can occur across temporal and geographical distance leads me, as a trans and Indigenous perceiver, to First Nations literary scholar Chadwick Allen’s “trans‑Indigenous” as a mode of examining Indigenous cultural products. The trans‑Indigenous is Allen’s mode of seeing global Indigenous media, visual arts, and literary work alongside one another across disciplinary boundaries, as well as temporal and geographical locations. Allen examines the uses of trans- as a means of looking at Indigenous aesthetics across time and geographic locations as expressions of global Indigenous politics. Rejecting the lens of the “cross‑cultural” in favour of the trans-, Allen reaches for a means of describing global Indigenous arts out from under what he calls the comparative “watchful eye” of the objective Western scholar.[7] Importantly, trans‑Indigenous theory is intended to acknowledge the mobility of multiple Indigenous cultures and the interactions of Indigenous movements across continents through cultural and political collaboration, positioning Indigenous nations as locations of dynamic intellectual and cultural influence, able to speak in a self‑consciously global dialogue. This methodology for the study of Indigenous media, arts and literature, more accurately described as a mode of seeing Indigenous products within a global settler‑colonial context, has interesting implications for the curatorship of trans and Indigenous cultural products. Without explicitly referring to transgender identities, Allen provides a scope for theorising Indigenous and non‑Western transgender engagement with curation, where curatorship also operates as a means of looking at otherwise disparate things (cultures, objects, identities, histories) alongside each other. 

Curatorship operates as a focal point of understanding and making meaning of Indigenous peoples as art makers, and plays a role in the reading, reproduction, and recirculation of identities within cultural institutions. This relation between artist and curator is of course not free from colonial tensions. As Torres Strait Islander scholar Martin Nakata notes, the incorporation of Indigenous identities into colonial institutions (he speaks here to educational spaces, but provides comments relevant to the introduction of Indigenous knowledges into any institution) creates what he terms a cultural interface, or a meeting point between knowledges, which must be practiced with care.[8] Such an interface can provide an introduction between two or more ways of knowing, wherein “one embodied language does not replace another but befriends it, critiques, it, touches it, transfuses it”.[9] It can also be a site wherein a colonial system of knowledge requires a degree of intelligibility from its others, a demand which itself is indicative of colonial epistemic violence.[10] Correspondingly, claims of cross‑cultural or transcultural curation by museums and artistic institutions can call to mind histories of racist positioning of Indigenous cultures alongside each other. 

Frances Tapueluelu, What Label Shall I Wear Today?!, 2017, fabric and mixed media. Photo: Blak Dot Gallery. Courtesy and © the artist

Despite this, to return to Haraway’s objective of intercultural contact as a means of “becoming worldly” or “becoming together”, trans- curation has the potential to express “a more just and peaceful other‑globalization” in which trans Indigenous arts can be placed in productive dialogue within the gallery space. The prefix trans- in its barest form takes centre stage here, aiming to bear, as Allen argues, the difficulties of “complex, contingent asymmetry and the possible risks of unequal encounters.” If trans- is taken to be a mode of perceiving, what kinds of curatorship might be produced through this way of seeing? What kinds of gallery spaces might be organised through this trans- gaze? What new communities might be able to gather around it? The trans- may function, as Allen writes, to read women, trans, queer, and first nations communities while holding difference within those markers and fostering a collaborative and transcultural community of arts practice. Through this lens, Allen argues, the gallery space and exhibition catalogue become a different kind of “border” or “contact” zone. Not the frontier site of “cultures in conflict, not the colonial site of assimilation … but rather a site of travel, exchange, and collaborative production.” 

While Allen’s project is a hopeful one, he cautions that this contact must happen without merely comparing cultures in the same flattening way in which colonial institutions have done; to move away from comparatives and into trans-. 

In emerging Indigenous art spaces, organising transculturally in curatorial practice has been a means of bringing together some of these difficult (“complex, contingent”) asymmetries within queer, feminist and trans‑centred curatorship. An earlier example of this is Blak Dot Gallery’s 2016 exhibition Fifty Shades of Blak, which featured artists of a variety of migrant and Indigenous backgrounds, curated through a global focus on First Nations women. Articulating the exhibition as “An inter‑cultural exchange between Australian and global First Nations women”, the curators of Fifty Shades of Blak made their focus “issues of stereotyping, colour coding, racism, identity and societal perceptions of First Nations women and women of colour”. The description of the participants as “global First Nations women” and the focus on experiences of racialisation aimed to create a productive dialogue focused on commonality between Indigenous and non‑Indigenous peoples in settler‑colonial Australia. In making a shared experience of racial oppression the lens through which the artists were viewed, rather than cultural difference, the exhibit reconceptualised Indigeneity as a global politic which also includes non‑Indigenous women of colour living in settler colonial Australia. This also signals a strong engagement with Indigenous peoples in neighbouring Pacific nations and Aotearoa, an important field of transcultural engagement often overlooked in Australia. 

The meeting points or contact zones described by Allen and Hayward have also been elaborated on in more specific relation to transgender Indigenous peoples in two recent Midsumma Festival exhibitions in Melbourne. Pila Darling and Peter Waples‑Crowe curated Other Other for Wyndham Arts, representing “The queer First Nations” as well as those of other cultural and racial backgrounds, going further to include peoples marginalised on the grounds of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other kinds of social “othering”. This practice again made its focus an underlying basis of racial marginality, this time with an explicit focus on transgender people of colour and Indigenous peoples as objects of “double marginalisation”, or racialised people who experience further marginalisation on the basis of sexuality and gender. By doing this, the show placed heavy scrutiny on the racism of the LGBTI community and attempted to bring attention to the artistic talent of the trans Indigenous community, as well as aiming to create a community around experiences of alienation where racial and sexual oppression were not explicitly compared or made separate. 

Katherine Gailer, Three Races, 2016, oil and genuine gold leaf on linen, Courtesy and © the artist

Blak Dot Gallery’s Tran‑Sational, also part of the 2017 Midsumma Festival, aimed to bring together First Nations queer and trans artists for an exhibition which would amplify the voices of the trans Indigenous community. This was done with a degree of cross‑cultural engagement; the majority of artists were from Indigenous nations, some were people of colour from other places, and some of the artists were cisgender. The exhibit followed Kunghah, a trans and gender diverse national Indigenous retreat held at Blak Dot, and showed some of the material produced during the camp. The broadly trans focus served to draw the eye of audiences to the experiences of trans community, as well as providing a platform for holding inter‑cultural engagement; both the nationally transcultural, in light of the multiplicity of cultural experiences of Indigenous trans people across the country, as well as the transcultural in an international frame through the inclusion of Indigenous peoples from outside Australia. In this instance, curation became a means of calling attention to trans Indigenous artists without explicitly framing the engagement in terms of marginality or otherness. 

There is a conscious deployment of the identifier of trans visible in these examples which approaches Stryker’s description of the strategic uses of trans identification. As a negotiation of power dynamics in the gallery or catalogue as a contact zone, trans is entangled in the discussion of racial and colonial marginalisation. Additionally, in a transcultural space, non‑Indigenous people of colour may be transformed through their invitation into the Indigenous space as a party to the global First Nations. In the transcultural transgender space, an empowered positioning of Indigenous peoples encourages an interruption to the presumed universal western LGBTI attachments to language. It is a reminder of the contingency of our identities on the structures that surround them, and the need for urbanised white LGBTI communities to understand trans within its white cultural location, implicating viewers and participants in a network of inter‑relationships. Holding differences together through a lens of shared trauma and marginalisation can also make possible incitements to political organising. Through this trans (and/or trans) practice, curation also becomes facilitation.


  1. ^ See Damien Riggs, ‘Possessive Investments at the Intersection of Gender, Race and Sexuality: Lesbian and Gay Rights in a Post-Colonising Nations’, in M. Allen and R.K. Dhawan (eds), Intersections: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in Australasian Studies, New Dehli: Prestige Books, 2007, 111–25; Andrea Smith, ‘The Heteronormativity of Settler Colonialism’, in Qwo-Li Driskill et al. (eds) Queer Indigenous Studies: Critical Interventions in Theory, Politics, and Literature, Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2011, 43–66
  2. ^ Susan Stryker and Paisley Currah, ‘General Editors’ Introduction’, Transgender Studies Quarterly 3, no. 3–4, November 2016, pp. 331–32
  3. ^ Cáel M. Keegan, ‘Tongues without Bodies: The Wachowskis’ Sense8’, Transgender Studies Quarterly 3, no. 3–4, November 2016, pp. 605–10
  4. ^ E. Hayward and J. Weinstein, ‘Introduction: Tranimalities in the Age of Trans* Life’, Transgender Studies Quarterly 2, no. 2, January 2015), pp. 195–208
  5. ^ E. Hayward, ‘Transxenoestrogenesis’, Transgender Studies Quarterly 1, no. 1–2, January, 2014, pp. 255–58
  6. ^ Keegan, Op Cit
  7. ^ Chadwick Allen, ‘Introduction: Ands Turn Comparative Turn Trans’, in Trans-Indigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies, Indigen Ous Americas, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012, xi–xxxiv
  8. ^ Martin Nakata, ‘The Cultural Interface of Islander and Scientific Knowledge’, Australian Journal of Indigenous Education 39, 2010, pp. 53–57
  9. ^ David Gramling and Aniruddha Dutta, ‘Introduction’, Transgender Studies Quarterly 3, no. 3–4, November 2016, pp. 333–56
  10. ^ Brendan Hokowhitu and Aileen Moreton-Robinson, ‘Monster: Post-Indigenous Studies’, in Critical Indigenous Studies: Engagements in First World Locations, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 2016, pp. 83–102.

Maddee Clark is a Yugambeh researcher, freelance writer and educator currently completing a PhD at the University of Melbourne.

Tama Sharman‑Favell’s Sur (2012) was exhibited in Other Other curated by Pila Darling and Peter Waples‑Crowe for the Wyndham Art Gallery in 2017. All other artworks on these pages are from Fifty Shades of Blak, curated by Kimba Thompson for Melbourne’s Blak Dot Gallery, as part of the 2016 Melbourne Fringe Festival.