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Wachowski's art captures lost trans lives in vivid emotion
by Gretchen Rachel Hammond

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With 2017 only eight days old, two transgender individuals have already been slain in the United States; Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow of Sioux Falls, North Dakota, and Mesha Campbell of Canton, Mississippi.

The exhibit "Say Our Names," on display at the Howard Brown Health Sheridan Road clinic until Friday, Jan. 20, has thus further expanded in profound importance.

Set against a turbulent black-and-white backdrop, the startlingly beautiful portraits of the transgender heroes fallen to violence in 2016 are rendered in a spectrum of hues from ethereal to striking.

Their faces, captured from photographs and as much information about their histories as is available, force the viewer to confront the magnificent potential encompassing each individual life abruptly stolen from this earth with a callous disregard for their humanity in a seemingly endless epidemic of brutality that is as much ignored by the media as it is fueled by it.

Say Our Names creator and award-winning filmmaker Lilly Wachowski started work on the paintings last August.

"I was just feeling overwhelmed," Wachowski told Windy City Times. "There was a rash of murders of trans people in the United States. It seemed like it was every week. I was a year-and-a-half into my transition. I was being present in the world and, reading the stories about these people, I wanted to connect to them. I had been painting for a while as an artistic outlet and I was really enjoying it."

Wachowski found a picture of Mercedes Successful, who was gunned down in May, 2016 in Haines, Florida.

"It was an amazing photograph," Wachowski recalled. "She looked beautiful. So I ended up painting this portrait of Mercedes and I kept doing it, one after another."

As work progressed, Wachowski scoured the internet for each life history.

"The internet is a funny place because we have these online personalities that are these echoes and vibrations of ourselves that exist after we're gone," Wachowski said. "They're like digital ghosts of who we were. I would find as much information as I could about each person, try to connect and put that emotion into the paintings."

"Researching the people was incredibly hard," Wachowski added. "It was super emotional. I would read about the person and choose a photo of them that captured something about them that felt like their true selves. In doing so, you find the friends and relatives who loved them. Even after they were gone, people were still posting on their Facebook pages saying how much they missed them. It was really hard to process."

Recalling the tremendous significance carried by each life caused Wachowski's voice to break.

Then there were those individuals about whom no information could be found.

"That was heart wrenching to me as well," Wachowski said. "Being a transgender human being, there is a part of you that is in isolation. You have a fear of connectivity and I have a sense that it's why there is nothing about some of these lives. They were unable to connect because of their transness. So I was crying whether I found a wealth of material or crying if I wasn't."

Yet, there was a kinship felt with each person through Wachowski's own experiences.

"I am aware that my hardships are nothing compared to other people because I have a very privileged life," Wachowski acknowledged.

That said, the affinity between artist and subject was to inform each work.

"I wanted to have a palate that created vibration between colors that would bring the portrait to life," Wachowski noted. "So, in a lot of cases, the faces are blue, yellow, red, purple or pink. I also tried to use colors that are in the trans flag but it was the feeling that was important to me."

Wachowski added that it was too important to create only a partial number of images of those lives taken in 2016. Everyone had to be included.

However, there was an initially weariness of displaying the images publicly.

"The Trans Day of Remembrance was coming up," Wachowski said. "Myles Brady-Davis and [Howard Brown President and CEO] David Ernesto Munar came over and looked at the portraits that were up on my mantel and asked if I wanted to display them at the Howard Brown."

The question of why violence against transgender individuals continues to be so prevalent is something Wachowski feels is as complex as the answer.

"How do we deconstruct prejudice and racism?" Wachowski wondered. "The inherent bias against trans people and this idea of the binary is ingrained into the language. People enjoy a binary point of view because it's simplistic. They don't want to think about how issues can be more complex than us and them or right and wrong. When I sit here and I say 'I'm neither a man nor a woman, I'm in between', people can't wrap their heads around that."

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