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Jamaican Fruit and Flowers Bloom in Chicago
by Ana Serna

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Cris Avery's anatomy brought him and Armani Dae together in 2014. The two artists officially met for the first time at a Community Kinship Life conference in Philadelphia, where Dae lived at the time. Avery, a cofounder of CK Life, conducts conferences nationally for the organization that aim to educate the trans community on gender-affirming treatments and surgeries, health and wellness in the trans experience. Their objective is to create a "space for trans people to come into their best possible self," a mission that Avery and Dae have embraced to the fullest.

One of the many types of conferences that CK Life offers members are surgery Show-and-Tells, where people can see how different bodies heal after transitioning procedures. It's done "in a respectful way," said Avery. "Nobody touches [and] there's no catcalling." According to Avery, those conferences are the most beneficial in areas where people who have not had surgical procedures feel more alone or would need to travel several states away to see a doctor. It was in that setting, after Dae had gone to a few conferences led by Avery, where the two began sharing more of themselves with each other.

"I walk in and I get my seat, and the first person up [on stage] showing and telling is Cris," said Dae of one of his first times at a Show-and-Tell conference, "I was like, is Cris taking his pants off?!" The two had been running in the same circles for months but hadn't properly introduced themselves until then. When they found out they were both creative, a friendship blossomed organically.

"As I learned things [about gender-affirmation surgery], I helped other people," said Avery. "I have a background in insurance counseling, so I used that to help people get their procedures covered by insurance." Dae became one of those people.

For Avery and Dae, one thing led to another—helping each other through their individual journeys led to them sharing their art with each other.

Jamaican Fruit is a three-book autobiographical series written by Avery. Jamaican Fruit, Ripe Jamaican Fruit and Real Ripe Jamaican Fruit follow him through his transitional experience up until the gender-affirmed man that he is today. As the titles suggests, growing up with a Jamaican cultural background plays a big part in Avery's identity and personal expression.

"I kept all my art … my writing, in a box for 12 years. I was focusing on my own medical transition," says Avery. "That's what kept me alive," he said, referring to his art. The Jamaican Fruit served as an outlet for Avery to purge all the feelings he was struggling with during his transition.

Similarly, Dae's photography and paintings helped him deal with the body dysphoria that often accompanies the trans experience. "The majority of my artwork is about celebrating our journeys … and our bodies. There's no prototype of person. There's no one way to look," said Dae. "Regardless of race, sexuality, whatever it is, we're all beautiful. It seems like, often, trans bodies are the last on the totem pole."

Dae has four published books: Exposed Truth, which is a black-and-white photo book, and his three-part series titled after wildflowers, Hyacinth, Bachelor's Button and Touch Me Not. Exposed Truth is a compilation of photographs and stories featuring only trans bodies of color. The WiLd series is a more personal project, as it is a collection of poems, lyrics and messages to those who try to censor trans experiences. Dae's visual artworks as well as his writings capture the journey of struggling to, and then finally, embracing the body that the subject lives in.

Dae, who also comes from a Jamaican family, faced rejection from relatives both when he came out and when he came out as transgender "I said to myself, 'you're going to live your truth now or you're going to kill yourself'," said Dae. "And I wasn't going to do that."

It makes sense that Avery and Dae are showcasing their work together, as even though they create pieces in different mediums, their message is the same. Avery brings the Jamaican fruits and Dae brings the Jamaican flowers—blossoming concurrently. "I chose to … be myself out in the open," said Dae. "You can choose to tell people, 'this is my truth; this is who I am. You can either take it or leave it'."

The "Jamaican Fruit & Flowers Artistic Experience" will take place Friday, Sept. 7, 7 p.m. Mind + Hand, 5400 S. Pulaski Road in Chicago. Admission is free with a book purchase or preorder, or $10 without one at the door. Avery and Dae say to expect a variety of everything: dance, singing, hearing passages from both artists' books, visual artwork, as well as education on the trans experience.

Avery and Dae hope that the audience leaves their exhibition with a newfound appreciation for the beauty of each of their unique bodies. "When you're born, you're naked. Before you have to hide [your body] and layer it with clothes, makeup, wigs—you're naked," said Dae. "Celebrate your body as it is."

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