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Theatre maker, writer and “disruptive” artist Travis Alabanza has defined their early career by creating visual, playful motifs to challenge the idea that gender is “serious”

Image: Travis Alabanza. Photography: Eivind Hasen

Alabaza’s 2018 theatre show, Burgerz, was a sell-out hit. Their next challenge sees the artist shift their art from a theatre to the main space of London arts venue Free Word, where Alabanza’s contribution will feature poetry on the walls, mirrors, diaries and a giant pink bed based on the idea of a fantasy sleepover with artist and collaborator Denny Kaulbach.

The installation was commissioned as part of Free Word’s new Season All The Ways We Could Grow, which was named together with Alabanza. The Season runs from February until May 2019 and features performances, workshops, installations and conversations that explore what it takes to live beyond societal expectations of genders.

Adam Bloodworth: Hi Travis. So you’ve devised an installation with Denny Kaulbach for the main space at Free Word. What appealed to you most about this?

Travis Alabanza: So often when we talk about trans-ness, we talk about it as synonymous with violence and destruction, but for me, being trans has been so playful, so I wanted to do an exhibition that led with play and joy, rather than violence.

I feel so oversaturated with gender discourse. Over the last two years I feel like every single person is saying, ‘Okay, I want to do a season about gender’. It becomes the most boring thing in the world. I was over gender being dull. As someone who is trans and gender non-conforming, I find gender to be the most exciting, playful experience that I’ve had growing up.

I said I wanted space to explore my art outside of performance, or to look at how installation work can be informed by performers’ practice, so it’s exciting to make something physical for this space. Free Word has allowed artists to lead ideas, take risks and expand.

Adam: Tell us more about your installation...

Travis: We wanted to do an exhibition based on the sleepovers that we (Denny and I) used to have, because we think so much of our conversations about gender and the policing of gender happens when you’re in big groups, like sleepovers. So we want to turn Free Word into a slumber party. We’re going to have a huge bed in the room with lots of different items like diaries, telephones, and a gender burn book where people can sit on the bed and read and learn.

When you’re younger, you have sleepovers which are split genders, boys and girls. The group of boys I was with were part of the football team and they found their sister’s make up in their room. They started playing with the makeup and no-one would bat an eyelid. It was just boys exploring. Boys when they’re younger are allowed to explore and express a femininity that is then crushed out of them.

Those same boys would laugh when I started wearing makeup not as a joke when walking through the school halls. We’re thrust into a puberty that tells us how to be a man, and those sitting outside of that are punished. This exhibition is trying to explore what would have happened if we weren’t punished so harshly for ‘failing’ at gender.

When I’m on the tube in a dress men look at me in disgust - but it isn’t actually disgust, it’s jealousy. Loads of our repression is coming from misplaced jealousy because they miss the nail varnish that they can no longer wear. Why is it that straight men become obsessed with drag queens? Why do they look at us with such a vision of desire? It’s because they wish they could still do this. This exhibition is saying why the fuck can’t you?

Gender non-conformity has been here for hundreds of years - nothing is new about it.

Adam: Will it follow a similar aesthetic as your last London show, Burgerz?

Travis: It will be a highly colourful aesthetic, with big pastels and over the top femininity: we’re going to inject that into the building. So often in that conversation about politics, what’s missed out is the playfulness of being trans and gender non-conforming.

Adam: How political is your art, would you say?

Travis: Allowing people to play with gender, allowing people to have frivolousness when exploring gender expression and gender politics is almost more political than being so serious - the world already tells us to be serious about our bodies, and rigid with our genders.

Adam: How will the art function in the space, as people go about their daily work?

Travis: Free Word is an arts venue but is surrounded by corporate buildings, so I’ve got this image of these men in suits or people walking past or having group meetings and coming into this sleepover and being forced to play. That really excites me. It’s playful but also confrontational.

Travis Alabanza | @travisalabanza | Instagram | Facebook

All The Ways We Could Grow
21 Feb - 10 May 2019
Free Word
60 Farringdon Road
London, EC1R 3GA
More info and Tickets: freeword.org


This Season is generously supported by Fritt Ord, Arts Council England and The Hollick Family Foundation.