LGBTQ+ issues have made headlines over the past few months from Trump’s attempted ban of trans people joining the military, to India’s only openly gay prince turning his palace into an LGBTQ+ centre. But for New York-based photographer Mariette Pathy Allen, transgender communities across the world have been a key focus of her work for the past 30 years.
Mariette’s insightful work has been collated into a number of impressive publications over the years, including Transformations: Crossdressers and Those Who Love Them (1990), The Gender Frontier (2004) and TransCuba (2007). In her latest photography book, Transcendents: Spirit Mediums in Thailand and Burma, Mariette collaborated with professor Eli Coleman, a renowned sexologist, to capture the gender-fluid spirit cults of south east Asia. “Beauty was everywhere; in their surroundings, their adornments and their personal dignity,” Mariette tells It’s Nice That.
Transcendents is a celebration of the non-conforming gender identities that embody mystics in the Thai and Burmese communities Mariette visited: “The spirits that possess mediums may be male, female, or androgynous, if it is an element of nature. The gender of the spirit is not related to that of the medium. When mediums participate in an event, they are all adorned in feminine attire. They wear make-up, flowers in their headdresses, jewellery, and gorgeous, refined fabrics. I asked one of the mediums, who are usually presented in a more feminine way, how they identified. They said they didn’t care. It didn’t seem important, one way or another.” Mariette’s fascinating photographs of gender fluidity are an important reminder that there is no natural necessity in the social classifications of our culture. Her book is a compelling illustration of the transience and contingency of sexual identification.
“Capturing these photographs required letting go of Western ideas based on science and preventing cynicism from getting in my way. I wanted to depict both the beauty of the celebrations as well as show the mediums in their private places like their homes,” the artist explains. Mariette’s photography refrains from judgement. Her images embody an anthropological curiosity that tries to understand how different cultures work from within. By observing and recording Thai and Burmese lives, Mariette’s art turns a mirror to the West and challenges the preconceived ideas of gender binaries that have defined its history and culture.
Fluidity and hybridity is not confined to gender identities. Transcendents also highlights the ways in which the spirit mediums mix ancient rituals with modern digital technology: “The spirit mediums have kept their ancient traditions and the beliefs of their communities intact, while also connecting to the modern world of technology. They have cell phones and motorcycles, and those who are well off, have modern houses and cars. Technology and tradition are not in contradiction to each other. They show us that in order to be up-to-date, we don’t need to let go of our traditions.”
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