Interview: Rowan Renee Examines Abuse and Gender Identity Through Photography [NSFW]

The artist opens up about reshaping the rigid narratives of gender and creating new ways to speak about abuse

Rowan Renee
From: Bodies of Wood © Rowan Renee

“I read somewhere that genius is the ability to imagine things we haven’t experienced,” says multimedia artist Rowan Renee. “I think in that idea there is the key to breaking the cycle of abuse.” Through photography, Renee, whose 2015 exhibition of nude wet-plate collodion portraits, Z, examined gender identity, is hoping to reshape rigid social narratives of gender and speak openly about their (the artist’s preferred pronoun) own history of abuse.

Renee’s current exhibition, Bodies of Wood, puts a microscope on the physical and psychological abuses from incest suffered at the hands of their father, a convicted pedophile who died in prison approximately five years ago. The exhibition, which is a mixture of self-portraits shot on color film and a piece of writing stringing together academic theory and narrative stories passed down to Renee, is a powerful exercise in acknowledging the violence endured by their female body, the legacy of abuse of many women, and the reclaiming of self through gender neutrality.

We caught up with the artist to hear about how their work relates to these very complex issues.

Rowan Renee
From: Bodies of Wood © Rowan Renee

Can you tell me a little bit about your identification as Rowan Renee for Bodies of Wood, and how it corresponds with your identification as Robyn Renee Hasty for Z (your Pioneer Works exhibition last year)?

Art has always been a transformative force for me. I am often steered toward projects by intuition of personal growth. But, I also believe the transformations contained in the art I make hold the possibility to generate change in the audience. The conversations I had during and after Z had a huge affect on my perspective on gender. It opened an entire vocabulary and set of theoretical positions that gave me the language to describe and legitimize issues that prior to that were very vague.

For one, the idea that the male/female gender binary is a social performance that perpetuates both compulsory heterosexuality and the “naturalness” of male dominance. To view gender as non-binary frees people to claim a complexity of performances and characteristics that may not correspond with the rigidity our society ascribes to gender roles. Some of those ideas are coming out in Bodies of Wood, which also deals with gender and dominance.

What’s changed for you over the last year? In what ways are you moving toward a life of gender neutrality while maintaining the female body you were born with?

The name change is two-fold. The easiest thing to say, is that I was named after my father and I no longer wanted to carry his name. Secondly, I wanted my new name to be masculine because I identify pretty strongly as masculine-of-center, but am generally read as female. I think the name allows me room to feel my in between-ness gender-wise, while also being a kind of ritualistic rebirth.

I do use the term gender neutrality, and I think that idea comes from a place of radical reimagining of society rather than a realistic assessment of where we are at now. I also think that a more just society can’t be limited to gender, it has to address inequalities of race and class. We have a long way to go, but I think it’s important to hold onto concepts for ways of living that aren’t yet exemplified in our world. The more clearly we can describe these ideas, the more we can try to shape our world towards them.

Rowan Renee
From: Bodies of Wood © Rowan Renee

In what ways do you feel your body is conveying, through photography, the psychological and physical abuses you suffered throughout your life?

That’s a hard question to answer, because the reality is I don’t think I have the words to describe that. Photography offers the possibility of expression without needing to abstract those feelings through language first. For example, the decision to make my figure primarily headless and faceless was one of the ways I was consciously trying to express the total dehumanization of incest. But, I also wanted to get to the parts that were much more subtle. Brutality is quite easy to depict, and also presents the danger of alienating an audience that might automatically shut down because it’s too hard to look at. I think that awareness led me to do something quite strange. The images pull hard in two directions: between the brutality of the experience and the elegance of how they are constructed as images. That pulling apart, the tension, the contradictions and the total discomfort of trying to untangle the fucked up parts from the beautiful parts is probably the best I could do to describe the process of coming to terms with how these abuses affected me.

Rowan Renee
From: Bodies of Wood © Rowan Renee

I think it is beautiful how you are able to be so vulnerable in your work. It’s a service to so many people who don’t feel they have a voice, or are afraid to speak up. How has your art helped you to work through your personal history as well as your questions about society in general?

One of the interesting things about Bodies of Wood was the ability to simultaneously work inward and outward. There have been a lot of things this show has opened up within my family—conversations with my mom and other family members. Also, because there’s such a taboo around talking about incest, there’s a real significance to opening up channels for us to publicly talk about it. Doing so brings resources and support structures to the healing process, and can possibly help us become more able to recognize and prevent childhood abuses while they are happening. One important realization during this show was that incest should be thought about as a systemic social problem, and should be included when we address larger systems of violence and the power inequalities they enforce.

Rowan Renee
From: Bodies of Wood © Rowan Renee

What is your intention in making projects about underrepresented or disenfranchised communities? I keep wanting to say activism, but it doesn’t seem like you’re trying to be their voice, but rather to commune with those you meet, and show them for who they are without trying to exploit for a cause. Am I on the right track?

I think you’re on the right track. I often think of my photographs as material artifacts of a moment shared. That’s one way that the unique image, and especially the collodion image, seems to lend itself to being in the moment. For me, photography is about conversation, leaving things open-ended and discovery. I am drawn to working with certain communities because they are actively challenging and reshaping dominant narratives, which holds a tremendous importance towards achieving broad acceptance of diversity and breaking down inequalities.

In what ways are you an activist in your life/art, if at all?

I’ve always believed that art and life are extensions of one another, and I try to live that way. If art is the way we imagine and give shape to possibilities that don’t yet exist in the world, I think living by one’s art literally opens up new ways of being in the world. I suppose that’s a kind of activism, one defined by acts, but it’s really different than the kind of political engagement and drive for legal reform that is the usual territory of activism. That kind of activism is so important, but my art practice is more shaped by transformations that happen internally, which is much harder to quantify.

Rowan Renee
From: Bodies of Wood © Rowan Renee

Do you feel hopeful that society at large is starting to embrace gender and sexual fluidity? What are you inspired by right now? Troubled by?

I don’t think I would make the work that I make if I wasn’t hopeful, but there is still a lot of work to do to make sure that safety, legitimacy and equality for gender nonconforming people is a non-contestable right. The recent laws passed in North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama that prohibit and even label it a misdemeanor offense for GNC people to use the bathroom that corresponds with their identity, is one such example of how there is still deep and troubling discrimination. Even more troubling for me, in the context of Bodies of Wood, is that the right-wing conservatives that support these laws label GNC and trans people as threats to women and children, claiming they are “predators.” This couldn’t be a more twisted (and plainly false) claim for concern for women’s and children’s safety. If you look at the statistics of inmates convicted of violent crimes against children, it’s more likely that the perpetrator will be cis-male, white, married, and/or religious and that the crime will occur within the perpetrator’s or the victim’s home.

But, I want to end on the upswing. There’s a lot I am inspired and ignited by creatively, and I feel grateful to live in a time where so many things we take for granted as fixed and unalterable are being challenged. Some books that have inspired me: Female Masculinity by J. Jack Halberstam, Worlds of Hurt by Kali Tal, The Art of Cruelty by Maggie Nelson, Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch. And a few artists that have inspired me: Zanele Muholi, Sally Mann, Ana Mendieta and Swoon.

Rowan Renee
From: Bodies of Wood © Rowan Renee

You are also an installation artist, writer, sculptor and printmaker. How do you balance these mediums? How do each of these art forms speak to you differently? And when do you choose one over the other?

It’s true. I’ve worked in a lot of mediums, and I’m still working on the balance. One of the threads that connects across mediums is that I aim to tie together form and content. I want the process of making to feel essential to what the work is about. Because photography, especially portraiture, is so much about interactions between people, I think it has a tremendous possibility to reflect on social systems. With sculpture and installation I think a lot more about how the process of shaping something is contained in the object, a holder of energy. Writing offers a kind of insight that can be much more descriptive, where object-based work is more impressionistic. I think certain projects make themselves clear what medium they would best be held within.

Rowan Renee
From: Bodies of Wood © Rowan Renee

Why was it important to write a (very moving) essay in association with this series?

The images are abstract re-stagings of events not meant to be literal narratives, so I think the essay becomes necessary to describe what actually happened, as a kind of testimony. The two seem to be doing very different things, but I can’t totally direct you to what those things are. I feel like without the essay the images might feel untethered from reality, and the essay helps people have insight into things that can’t be seen.

Also, the essay is available as a hard-copy zine that I will mail upon request. I can be reached through Instagram or through my website.

What are you hoping that the viewer might feel or learn when looking at your images, even if they don’t know your story?

I hope the images manage to underscore the possibility for transformation. I read somewhere that genius is the ability to imagine things we haven’t experienced. I think in that idea there is the key to breaking the cycle of abuse. I hope these images manage to convey the complexity, the brutality and the beauty of that process.

Rowan Renee
From: Bodies of Wood © Rowan Renee

What are you hoping that the viewer might feel or learn when looking at your images, even if they don’t know your story?

I hope the images manage to underscore the possibility for transformation. I read somewhere that genius is the ability to imagine things we haven’t experienced. I think in that idea there is the key to breaking the cycle of abuse. I hope these images manage to convey the complexity, the brutality and the beauty of that process.

In what ways did you and (curator) Walker Waugh work together to create this exhibition?

Walker has an incredible eye and an incredible knowledge of photography, and he is really good at giving feedback and putting things into perspective. When I proposed the show, I had a lot of doubts and I needed to bounce it off a person I trusted. Both Walker and Eric, the gallery owner, were really supportive and that has made all the difference. For a show that risks a lot by being so vulnerable, it’s a big deal to work with someone who has got your back and believes in the work and is willing to put the effort into getting it out there and making sure everything comes together tight.

Rowan Renee
From: Bodies of Wood © Rowan Renee

How did you find photography? And why is it important to you to photograph using analogue processes?

I started photography in 2010 with a wet-plate collodion workshop. So, basically I started with the beginning of photographic history and began working my way forward in time. The physicality of analog processes is very appealing to me. It connects me to uncertainty. It’s very generative to be able to embrace things happening that I don’t expect, and to be willing to let go of control. That kind of spontaneity, and also risk-taking, has become essential to my work. To be open-ended, responsive, change course and end up with something I didn’t set out to accomplish is something I look for in both my photographic media and my life.

In 2015, you won the Aaron Siskind Foundation Individual Artist Fellowship. That must have been a real honor. What projects did you work on with this grant?

Absolutely. I was totally taken off-guard. I was at work when I found out, and started leaping around the studio and shouting. Aaron Siskind was my first big award as an individual artist, so it was a really big deal. I ended up buying a few pieces of equipment with the grant, including my own 14×14 collodion camera. And, not surprisingly, I funded Bodies of Wood.

What’s next for you?

My next project is taking me to the Arctic Circle.

Bodies of Wood is on view through May 15 at Peninsula Art Space in Brooklyn, NY.