Norah Lea Reclaims the Transgender Experience from Mainstream Media

At Coda Culture, Singapore, the artist explores questions of authenticity and agency through sobering, yet tender, documentation of her transition

The walls of Norah Lea’s exhibition, ‘In Love’, are painted millennial pink. Photographs are displayed on the walls, salon-style, in an assortment of frames donated by the artist’s friends. Fairy lights line the ceiling. A sizeable bed sits in the middle of the humble room. Located on the second floor of a housing block, Lea’s exhibition at Coda Culture, a new artist-run space in Singapore, could pass for any ordinary bedroom: a private, intimate space of dreaming and infatuation.

As its title clearly suggests, Lea’s exhibition captures moments from a romantic relationship. The artist began the eponymous body of work in 2017; at Coda Culture, she presents a selection of 53 photographic works (from a series of more than 200), letters and a video. However, the exhibition soon reveals that this ‘love’ is, in fact, a fiction. Lea’s ‘partner’ is a classmate from art school: the pair created personas, went on dates and wrote letters to each other both as their ‘real’ and fabricated characters. The line between reality and imagination blurs in both the production and reception of the work.

Norah Lea, In Love, 2017. Courtesy: the artist and Coda Culture, Singapore

Authenticity and agency emerge as significant preoccupations in Lea’s practice. As a brown transgender woman, her deceptively simple act of self-documentation is significant. Lea takes control of her representation by consciously offering a spectrum of gendered embodiment in her self-portraits. In ways that recall theorist Gayle Salamon’s observation that ‘transition from one sex to another is not a singular event’ but rather a ‘constellation of acts’, Lea’s photographs embrace transgender’s kaleidoscopic array of identifications. In some, she ‘passes’ (as cisgender) and, at other instances, presents as gender non-conforming. In one photograph, she sits poised in lingerie, as her wig hangs in the background. 

Even in sexually suggestive or compromising scenarios, such as one image in which she is being choked by her partner, Lea continues to exert her authority over the image. She stares directly into the glaring lens of her disposable camera, while her dominant partner is all but excluded from the frame. In Lea’s series, photography fails as an index of reality and truth, continually falling short of capturing the complexities, desires and integrity of the transgender subject.

Norah Lea, 2018, exhibition view, Coda Culture, Singapore. Courtesy: the artist and Coda Culture, Singapore; photograph: Munn Iskandar

In a poignant letter displayed by the bed, Lea writes to her ‘partner’: ‘As much as you are easy to love, I don’t think that you could love me. But also […] I don’t think I could be in love with you.’ With this touching epiphany, Lea demonstrates huge strength in prioritizing care and accountability for herself, even if that means foregoing the love of another. However, she also presents the sobering realities of life as a transgender person. In her video, her fictive boyfriend harshly criticizes her feminine appearance; in another searing letter to him, she confesses how it ‘broke’ her to know that he never saw her as a woman.

Through her exhibition, Lea stakes her claim on a love that is too often out of reach for members of her community. She embodies the extraordinary agency of transgender people who define their own experiences in the face of gate-keepers, such as medical and legislative authorities, and even loved ones. Presenting multiple, often contradictory, images and stories, Lea demonstrates the importance of individual testimony in the face of ongoing ethical debates about portraying transgender people and their issues. Her work reclaims the genre of trans autobiography that has often (unfairly) been sensationalized by mainstream media. More than a treatise on romance, ‘In Love’ narrates a formative period in a young woman’s process of self-discovery.

Norah Lea: IN LOVE was on view at Coda Culture, Singapore, from 14 July until 21 July 2018.

Main image: Norah Lea, 2018, exhibition view, Coda Culture, Singapore. Courtesy: the artist and Coda Culture, Singapore; photograph: Munn Iskandar

Wong Bing Hao is a writer and curator based in Singapore. 

Issue 198

First published in Issue 198

October 2018

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