Deaf Artist Chella Man Talks to Us About His Newest Exhibit

What many might not know about you is that you’re an artist, curator, actor, writer, model, and advocate — being that you’re so creative, what role do you feel the arts at large have played in your life?

I believe art is inextricable from my life. I define art as the creation of something from anything, and that’s something I’ve had to do my entire life. I’ve had to build that framework for my own life because there’s been no blueprint for being a deaf, transmasculine, Chinese Jewish individual, especially where I grew up. There was a great scarcity of seeing that level of multifaceted identities when I was growing up, so the idea that people can find beauty within the lack of framework and create it for themselves drew me to art as a child. Without having the language to articulate my identity, I was trying to find a pathway and guidance, and there was none. And art is similar in that way. There’s no specific, set way one should make art. There’s no framework, and you’re creating everything from nothing. And I love that because that’s what I’ve been doing since I was young — existing in a world that diminishes the value of our very being is art.

Most artists choose to channel their creativity into one medium. What compelled you to create a career dedicated to using multiple mediums to speak up?

In terms of mediums, when I was younger, I didn’t even realize these categories existed. In the same way, I didn’t realize there were all these political categories like gender, sexuality, and racial identifiers. I didn’t know that people separated photography, painting, and films — that they “had” to be different. I have never operated within that framework, and I’ve never succumbed to the pressure to conform. Why would you limit yourself? I’ve never understood that. You don’t need academic training or an expensive camera to be able to take a photo or create any other art form for that matter. I’ve never tried to limit myself or my craft, which has allowed me not to feel so confined to what other people believe. Unfortunately, art and identity can sometimes become confined because of language. It all goes back to linguistics and the way we categorize things. We believe so deeply in binaries, whether that’s gender, sexuality, race, or even just what’s good or bad art. We aren’t always permitting ourselves to draw outside the lines. We don’t ask ourselves, What if I don’t even claim any identity and I just like to allow myself to be free without the framework? So that’s always been something that I’m challenging with my work, that I’m moving away from the labels and just being an artist and using whatever medium works best to convey the message I’m trying to convey.

You’re a multi-hyphenate in every sense of the word. How has your relationship with your identity evolved as you’ve aged? How have you been able to not place yourself in a box both creatively and with how you perceive yourself?

When you’re born, you always know who you are, but to know who you are while living in this world is different than knowing who you are on a soul level. This world operates in so many cycles and has many systems of oppression that we must watch out for ourselves as best as possible. We must try to keep intact that part of ourselves while operating within a capitalist system that’s ingrained with transphobia, ableism, racism, and misogyny. So at first, I felt like I always knew who I was, but I didn’t have the language to articulate it. And that’s the beauty of speech, but it is also the perils of it. Once I learned how I wanted to articulate my existence, I knew I had to make a lot of sacrifices to communicate and hide parts of myself to stay safe. And now, as an adult living in New York, I’ve had to unlearn many survival mechanisms and learn the full history of that language. I found my community through language, but I’ve also been able to discard the language that doesn’t serve me. It’s a balance of understanding the importance of language and the extent to which it can help you.

You spoke in your TED Talk about how finding the term “genderqueer” was transformational for your transitional journey when you were younger. Why do you feel it’s pivotal for younger generations to be able to learn about identity and sexuality?

I think we should talk about the extent to which language is helpful and, at times, empowering. We should be teaching all the ways everyone can identify on the spectrum because people should be aware of how many choices they have in life, and they should be able to discard them altogether if it doesn’t work for them. In school, at least where I went to, it was always like, “This is the right way, and there’s no other way.” But that’s not the truth. There’s no one right way — just like there’s no single way to describe our identities.

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