Before I had a chance to speak to artist Mavi Veloso, I had the opportunity to see a series of her images: Fingerprints_This Face is my ID Motherfucker which is hosted under the broader research project #iwannamakerevolution. The photos are, on the one hand, a documentation of Veloso’s bodily changes as she began hormone therapy. At the same time, the title calls the series into dialogue with state identification techniques, an aspect of trans people’s lives that has been a focus of political struggle in light of the dangers and traumas related to an ID that doesn’t correspond to one’s gender presentation. The images produced by Veloso bear little formal similarity to the photos we know from drivers’ licenses and passports. Instead, Veloso’s facial scans—her face pressed against the glass, parts of the images blurred—make explicit the distortions she also finds in the purportedly “clear” images offered through state forms of ID. Several images in the series are also accompanied by lines of verse reflecting on ritualistic daily habits including waking up, applying makeup, and preparing food. We reflect together on the ways these small, quotidian, domestic acts can offer sites of refuge, ways of finding peace in a violent world, and then continue to talk about bodies, the state, HIV, migration, and politics.
– by Nicholas D’Avella
Mavi Veloso: It's very nice to be interviewed by someone else for a change. Since October, I've been the one doing the interviewing! I have been speaking with other trans people about their voices. I don't know if you are aware, but the voice is one of the important layers of transformation during gender transition. It may happen different for Male to Female transition or Female to Male. In each circumstance and in each body it’s different. Estrogen, Progesterone and Testosterone acts in very particular ways depending on the case. The interviews I was doing are for the thesis for Master of Voice at the Sandberg Instituut in Amsterdam. Right now, a lot of the research on hormones and voice is very technical and scientific. I'm interested in looking at it from the lens of performance, the transition process in general and going through the elements of voice therapy. Maybe this approach is more interesting to me because I am a performance artist, dancer, and visual artist.
Nicholas D’Avella: I’ve seen your series of photographs, Fingerprints_ This Face is my ID Motherfucker, and this sounds related to that. Can you tell me a little bit about the series?
MV: When I started making those images, I was not planning that much. I was just letting it happen. I did one, then another, and another. Then I started transitioning, and I thought; “Wow, maybe this can be an interesting way to document a process over time.” I related the process of scanning the face, photographing the face, as similar to fingerprints, which are very strong identification marks that will never change. I was comparing the act of photographing the face with the fingerprint process.
ND: Can we talk about that? So, on the one hand, you have the stasis of the fingerprint, which is supposed to be enduring and long lasting, versus the changing of the face, right? So I was thinking about how, with the title, This Face is my ID Motherfucker, you are referencing state power through the ID, the ID card, the fingerprint. At the same time, you’re also sort of flipping it and making it into something different with the scans. The scan produces an image that’s very different from a government ID photo. Here, your process of scanning yourself, to me, seems to link up with struggles trans people have when it comes to the state’s supposed role as arbiter of gender. Along with bathrooms, ID cards seem to be this site of determination and struggle.
MV: For me the series is unfinished, an open process. I have not really shown them before. When I think about putting them out into the world, I hope these conversations follow, because yes, I do think about government and the struggle that we have with identification, which I see as a manipulation as much as my photos are. It's a lot of manipulation of the identification idea.
ND: Can you speak about the process a bit?
MV: I try to make a frontal picture and a picture from each side. I always start with a more serious, formal thing, and then I experiment: wearing a lot of makeup, or not so much makeup, seeing what parts of my body I could get in the image and other experiments with distortion of the image during the scan. It is very open and each time I do sessions it is possible to come up with a different ideas.
ND: In some of the writing related to the work, songs or poems, you mention needing to encourage yourself to get up, put on a dress, put on makeup and heels, to let yourself go. I was fascinated by that and about the way you describe your legs and your nerves and your muscles, while also talking about the food that you eat. These things inhabit the lines of poetry, along with mascara, lipstick, makeup, eyelashes, blush “Eyelashes, mascara, chicken and mushrooms, / eyeshadow, blush, rice, some salad and after a tea” you write in one of them. You are keeping us with a sort of quotidian, daily practice. You keep art close to the everyday.
MV: I mean, I am not sure how to talk about this. Maybe, let me say this, in Brussels, leaving my house, dressed as a female, and having a bit of beard, could lead to violence. And it happened. I was attacked several times. It broke something in me. In these moments, I felt the need to sort of document myself, or try to take those confronting experiences to work them. Maybe that is where this impulse to capture not only an image, but details, comes from.
ND: The urgency comes through. There is a sense of the violent and the spectacular, but also the everydayness, the unspectacular.
MV: Yes, a mixture of what you're saying; a daily aspect but also the spectacular. Because I had often experienced a familiarity of living out in the world, having this violent confrontation with then trying to stay home, protecting myself and doing these daily things.
ND: This is interesting because performance is part of our daily life, right? But also, it is part of your specific artistic life. Which is something that is included in the images, a viewer can see a microphone and a pair of heels. Did you understand those to be extensions of your body?
MV: Yeah. At that moment I was considering them also part of an identification process. Again, I bring it back to my situation in Brussels. They were things I was using to process what I was dealing with. The heels were to pick up on the sweetness, the drag, the feminine body that was so provocative to other people. They were extensions of my body, which made me think that they were part of my fingerprints.
ND: And the microphone? Were you performing at the time?
MV: Yeah, I was working, dealing a lot with sound and silence. Then I started manipulating sound from the microphone. Not to sing but to create sound in other ways. Singing is something that came after.
ND: I love this idea of manipulation that you've mentioned a few times around both images and your body. I thought of the way that your scans and especially the way that you press your face up against the glass are part of that practice that makes us conscious of the images’ means of production. We know that you are scanning your face. And with this in mind, it is easier for us to realize that the state ID is also part of a process of production, even though that is not made apparent. The state ID is supposed to be just you. But obviously, it isn’t, it’s the state’s depiction of you. I think that is one of the reasons I like what you are doing with the manipulations of the images. They read as manipulated, as if to make us conscious of the way that you are a practitioner of your own image. It's almost like you're marking our access to reality. You're making us know that we're getting an image.
MV: Mmmm, maybe.
ND: Do you think of your work as political? I think the answer is “yes,” but can you say more about that?
MV: Yes. Well, it's a very delicate thing. For a long, long time, I refused to think that my work would be political because I didn't have a political engagement in the streets and in social projects. I didn’t think of my work as political in that narrow or traditional sense, but eventually I came to understand that being political is not necessarily just that. There are many ways it could look.
ND: I was thinking about politics in relationship to HIV in this sense, too, and thought we could talk about this in relation to your work. It seems to me that a lot of our understandings of HIV and politics, even in the art world, are very grounded in language and formal politics: street protests, signs, and political movements that are very language-based, rooted in statements, manifestos and speeches. But for me, I am often more interested in how HIV can and should be explored as political in the more expanded sense that you speak of. I see this reflected in your work in the ways it brings us into that intimate, quotidian space.
MV: I started getting more interested in performance, discussing the body and questioning the body when I discovered I was HIV [positive]. I was dealing with a very micro-level politics. On one hand I wanted to hide, even from myself, what I had. I would only accept to confront the fact when I would go to doctors to get medication. That was my terrible day. There was this relationship with hiding it, but at the same time I was also talking about it, even if in a manipulated way, in the performance practices I started doing. It was blood, skin, organs, sex, and the touch of the other. Somehow the politics of this thing was always present there. I later started to see that the politics are inside the small acts that you do, that some politics are in the plaza but others are in this other part here [in herself]. We have to occupy different parts of our state.
ND: I was thinking of your work as part of what it might look like to expand our understanding of what it means to engage with HIV politically but also in this sense of the everyday that we were speaking of in relation to your work. There's an Instagram account, @takemymeds, by Carlos Morenx, who takes a picture of himself taking his medication every day. I love it. It feels very resonant with the things that you say about bringing art close to everyday experience. Here he is, doing this very everyday thing, this almost intimate thing, but that brings this whole corporation and whole medical corporate structure into his mouth every day. So, what does it mean to think about that as a sort of political act, a meditation on what it means to hold close this medical regime in your mouth every day, then also project that and produce an image of that?
MV: Yes, like Fingerprints, it’s about a body in transformation, the documentation of a process. Living with HIV is dealing with so many things: people, intimacy, and stigma. So, it is so strange when it comes together in a random encounter. I am thinking specifically of this time I met a guy, he was in my house, he was sucking me very hard and his teeth did a scratch on my skin, on my penis. After I said, “Hey, watch your teeth.” He said he was sorry, and then later I got this text, “Do you have any diseases? Because I have a girl.” I said to myself, I don't have to tell him anything, but I said something to him, in my own way.
ND: Yes, exactly. These moments in which the everyday and HIV come together, and you have to figure out how to interact with both the mundane and exceptional.
I was thinking about this feature of your work, too, in relation to my own ceramics practice. I have begun to experiment with identifying myself, at least in part, as an artist. I make pottery, pots and things. I created a page at the Visual AIDS Artist Registry, and as part of the process you upload images of your work and title them. I never had names. When I had to title them, I started thinking about how to make legible what I see as the politics of my work related to HIV in the way we’ve been talking about. I started thinking about the very everyday worlds of care that are produced by my work: “This is the plate on which I make food, and I give the food to my friends.” “This is a pot that this plant lives in, and the plant makes me feel good.” And to valorize that and say, “That's something!” It's part of how I survive. I started giving them these titles that were very much about these caregiving relationships, “This is the bottle that David told me he wanted that I wouldn't give him.” Or, “This is the plate that I sold to Sam, and then he made me dinner on it at this party and I met this boy there.” These kinds of things to sort of expand out a little bit the circle of relationships that surround and penetrate the object. So, thinking about your work, what we are doing maybe is thinking about the politics of HIV beyond the realm of big P politics. Does that make sense?
MV: It's very interesting. The pot and the plate. Because they are... I don't know if it happened to you, but it happened to me when I discovered I was HIV positive. The first thing that comes to your mind is this idea of a tragedy and that you can no longer touch. The touch changes; touching other people has changed for me.
ND: Yeah, or touching cum even.
MV: Oh my god! When I found out I was positive, I was super afraid of these things. When I tell people I have intimate relationships with about it, there’s this recoil from touch, then you have to explain, you have to educate. Those are politics, too.
ND: And it’s exhausting to do that work, again and again! Which is why I like my plant. I don’t have to explain HIV to it, which is a relief.
MV: Yes. And this is where I can return to your question, maybe. I think I became more engaged when I realized that we have to occupy different parts of our state, or our culture. Nowadays, I am a transgender person in an academy. When I arrived here, I didn't see other trans people around. Now I see more of us, and I started to see that politics can be inside the small acts that we do, like showing up.
But also being here, I see that different places have different ways of doing and seeing politics. In Brazil, the situation there, the fights, and the blood in the eyes, is much stronger than here in a way. In Europe, it seems like people are much more silent. The way of doing and activating the politics here seems to be about being inside boxes. When I go back to Brazil, my sisters are singing and shouting, saying many things in songs and aloud, exploding. It's a very engaged and very activist way of being together. I try to do it too in my songs; I talk about personal experiences, about what people are ignoring. It is in the drama that I see resolution, maybe? We have to make noise, otherwise nobody talks.
In talking about it, I realize when I started accepting things, like my gender transformations, my HIV, and the fact that my work does have a politics, it was then I think I became more of an activist.
ND: Well, maybe related to that, do you think of yourself as a Latin Americanista?
MV: Latin Americanista? I think of myself as a Latin American girl.
ND: But is it something you carry with you? I was thinking a lot about you as a Brazilian artist who circulates internationally. I was thinking about both how powerful that is, but also how much of Brazil, of course, may not circulate with you, right?
MV: I think it has many different layers. Because, for example, when I first left Brazil to come to Europe, the first question was around how my work would transform because of the contextual changes. And it was a good question, because it happened immediately. So, yeah, I am a Latina, I am a Brazilian, not only Latina, but all the mixtures that you always hear about in my country. I started feeling lost while being here in Europe. For others, I am clearly a non- European. It's in my hair, my skin, it’s in my face, motherfucker. Whenever I enter a place, people look at me and say, where are you from? So, now I have started asking myself, how will the context here affect my performance research?
While I was in Brazil, my body work, my performance work was very much related to all the crazy, fast relations that we have, the way we are speaking, dressing, looking at each other, addressing each other on the bus, and on the street. It is something I think about now because it is completely different here in Brussels from where I used to live and in Amsterdam where I'm currently living. For me, it is overwhelming.
ND: I think it's really important for North American and European audiences to recognize that translations are always incomplete. There are aspects of yourself that don't shine as easily in Europe as they shine in Brazil.
MV: Actually, nowadays it's a very crazy thing. Because I'm living out of my country for already more than three years, when I go back there it's not the same. I don't manifest myself the same way as I would if I was living there. It's a very crazy thing. It's hard feeling as a body not belonging to one place, or another.
ND: I have lived that life as well. I think about it a lot through the lens of circulation. I saw on your blog, a comic book illustrator who was trans who worked in Brazil and whose work maybe doesn't get recognized as art in the way that some of yours might. I was thinking about all the everyday people around us and the people I know in Latin America who don't get treated as part of the art world but who are, I think, producing art all the time but maybe in a more limited sphere. As you are in Europe, do you think about cultural producers in Brazil—HIV positive or trans or nothing or something else—who you could never imagine gaining circulation outside of Brazil? Or, whose work isn't recognized as art by an international community?
MV: There are several artists in Brazil that are references for me. I think the cartoonist is Laerte Coutinho. Yeah, that's a person that has a remarkable presence in Brazil. Back in the past as a man, she was a very important part in newspapers. Now, she is transitioning around her 60s. Yeah, I like to point to Laerte with the whole long story that she had as a cartoonist at the newspapers. Now, as a trans woman, she's bringing a lot of visibility and helping create a community to gain voice for trans people.
There is also José Leonilson, visual artist who lived with HIV in the ’80-‘90s. Actually, he died in '93 of AIDS. I think that I took a lot from him in my drawings, something in the lines and style... I got really influenced by him. In visual art circles, he's a very, very strong name, very intimate work.
I would also like to highlight what these girls are doing in Brazil. Transgender girls that are making music. They are bringing very popular media things, which unfortunately the visual arts, the performance arts, the dance universes, they stay in the dance universe, in the visual arts universe. Fortunately or unfortunately, the music scene, when it reaches a high level of visibility, more people listen to it. These girls they are taking the power to talk about...to bring our existence and living aspects in their lyrics and in their songs. Linn da Quebrada or Linker, As Bahias e Cozinha Mineira...
ND: I will tell you about one of mine. My friend Marlene Wayar is a travesti woman, I don’t think her work would be in a museum but she’s an important political and cultural figure. She did this interview with the newspaper that I really loved, in which she took her wig and she offers it to the world. In the picture, she's bald holding out her wig and she says, “Te regalo mi peluca,” I give you my wig. The idea is that everyone in the world could put on her wig and start to become uncomfortable in their bodies. I was just thinking about her and I don't think she would go in a museum ever, but she's very important to me for thinking about these questions. Her politics is very obviously performative.
MV: Yeah, this action you just described for me was the most amazing thing. That's the best performance ever.
ND: To just think about that, right? This seems to me very much what your work is about—that we're surrounded every day by quotidian, everyday politics, action, and performance that inspire us and that help us keep these issues present for us in a very special way, not reduced to either the things that we think of as big-P political or necessarily as big-A art. Thanks Mavi.
MV: Thank you, Nicholas.
Mavi Veloso, #16 april 1, 2017, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
Nicholas D’Avella is an anthropologist, writer, and potter living in Brooklyn, NY. He is interested in the relationship between bodies, technology, politics, and exchange, paying particular attention to how these themes emerge in Latin America. He is the author of Concrete Dreams: Value, Practice, and Built Environments in Post-Crisis Buenos Aires (Duke, 2019), and his work has been published in several journals and edited volumes. Currently a visiting scholar at the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics at New York University, he is also a participant in the collective What Would an HIV Doula Do?
Mavi Veloso is a Brazilian performer based in Amsterdam who works transdisciplinarily, integrating visual art, dance, theater, and music. Her work explores performativity, the relationship between performer and audience, trans feminism, and decolonization. As a transgender migrant from South America to Europe, Mavi seeks to embody and appropriate the transformation process, psychological, social, and physical, conflicts and cultural adaptation procedures, as well as fashion, queer, trans, and drag queen elements to question gender technologies, notions of identity, sexuality, placement and displacement. She is currently developing the project #iwannamakerevolution and has presented her work in venues and festivals including the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Kampnagel in Hamburg, Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels, Les Urbaines in Lausanne, and the 31st Biennial of São Paulo.