Juliana Huxtable's penis and breasts are both triumphantly on display in Frank Benson's new 3D-scanned plastic sculpture, which is simply titled Juliana. I saw the statue in late February at the opening of the New Museum Triennial – the prestigious New York exhibition that focuses on emerging artists. Exhibited with Huxtable's poems and futuristic photographs, the presentation offered an intimate look into the sexual and creative evolution the downtown DJ and internet it-girl underwent to become a local trans icon. But, on a personal level, it also served as an intimate message from the artist to her estranged Southern Baptist mother, whom she hadn't spoken to in five years.
"It was intense for her, as a mother, who was still processing me as I exist in the world," explains Huxtable. "It has been a journey. But to be in a room with people looking at an object of me, as me – that's why I invited her."
And it's true, all eyes were on Huxtable. Although she was already a downtown star prior to the exhibit – with a significant internet following, appearances on the runways of fashion brands like DKNY and Hood by Air, hyped DJ sets, and a cover shoot with Candy Magazine – her contribution to the Surround Audience exhibition elevated her from scene queen to Vogue critic Mark Guiducci calling her the "star of the New Museum Triennial."
Benson's statue made in her likeness was a post-internet response to the Louvre's classical Grecian sculpture Sleeping Hermaphraditus. Like that ancient artwork, Huxtable's naked pose reveals body parts of both sexes. However, Juliana updates the abashed Hermaphraditus with a futuristic metallic sheen, a "murda" hand sign, and a bold gaze and pose that challenges the viewer on ideas of femininity and representation.
Huxtable's entry into the New Museum is right on time considering trans people face unique obstacles in America today. Issues such as high attempted-suicide (41 percent) and homelessness rates (69 percent) are intimately connected with the lack of acceptance trans people get in this country. As Benson notes, "It wasn't until the opening of the Triennial that I realised how important the sculpture would be for the rest of the trans community. More than one person remarked that this was the first time they had seen a sculptural depiction of a body that they could relate to in a major museum."
"I felt that the only option I had was either to be a freak or a weird boy."
Huxtable is no stranger to these struggles. In fact, they define her and have had an essential impact on her art. Born intersex and assigned to the male gender, the artist was raised in a conservative Baptist home in College Station, Texas, in the 1990s. Back then, Huxtable identified as a boy and went by the name Julian Letton. Her mother, Kassandra, worked as a college administrator at Texas A&M and her father was an engineering professor at the local college.
"My childhood was very Christian and very Texan," she says. From the outside, it seemed like a typical American middle-class upbringing. Her parents were married. She had two siblings, sang in the church choir, played club soccer, and dreamed of being a poet and painter.
It wasn't until the fifth grade that her idyllic life started to break down. Huxtable started getting bullied because she was often the only black student in her school. Kids would call her the N-word, and her parents once had to pull her out of an American Civil War school play because she was given the role of a Confederate soldier. "I always kept a writing journal and a drawing journal," says Huxtable. "And when I look back at my watercolors and paintings from that period, that's when they got really dark."
Huxtable's parents divorced, and her father moved to Alabama to teach at the Tuskegee Institute, leaving her mother alone to raise Huxtable and her two siblings. "I was experiencing a lot of physical abuse at home that I internalized as normal. I would go home and my mom was in a dark place, and she took that out on me."
Juliana's mother grew up in Gary, Indiana, after her family left the South during the second wave of the Great Migration North. In the 1960s, Gary was a steel town and represented a kind of Black utopia that instilled in Kassandra cultural values centred around God and family that she would attempt to pass on to her children.
"My mom's sense of racial identity and affiliation was super intense," says Huxtable. "And for her to go to Texas and have her Cosby fantasy fall apart, in an all-white town, was very intense for her."
As Huxtable's breasts grew, her relationship with her mother continued to fray. Eventually, she developed an eating disorder, in part because her mother told her she wasn't exercising enough to get rid her of her feminine chest. In high school, Huxtable even considered reconstructive surgery at the request of a therapist and her mother.
"Being trans wasn't a viable idea," she says reflecting on that time in her life. "I felt that the only option I had was either to be a freak or a weird boy."
"Juliana's voice is integral in this time, because she truly is a beacon of hope. She exists at the crux of almost every type of intersectionality, but still thrives."
The shame she experienced in her hometown followed her to Bard College in upstate New York, where she wore a chest binder. But she managed to find an outlet. "I was fully brainwashed by the Bible Belt shit," she says, "but the internet became a form of solitude. It gave me a sense of control and freedom that I didn't have in my everyday life, because I walked through life feeling hated, embarrassed, trapped, and powerless. I felt very suicidal."
In her second year at Bard, Huxtable began to slowly become in real life what she had only been in chatrooms. "The first time I brought home the clothes I would wear at Bard, my mom went through my luggage, threw them out, and didn't say anything," she says.
Eventually, Huxtable came out and cut off ties with her family. She even changed her name. She adopted her surname from the Cosby Show at the behest of the House of LaDosha, the queer arts collective she belongs to. The group saw it as a proper nod to her longing to experience, in her trans body, the kind of black normality that the Huxtable family portrayed in the 80s.
From there, she fully embraced the New York nightlife scene and became the subject of works by young artists like Frank Benson. She also began expressing herself through her own poetry and photographic portraiture.
In Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm), one of her photographs on display at the New Museum, Huxtable revisions herself as a self-described, "cyborg, cunt, priestess, witch, Nuwaubian princess." For the unacquainted, the Nuwaubian Nation is a sect of the Nation of Islam that, according to Huxtable, "believes black people are the descendants of lizard aliens and created white people." In the portrait, Huxtable presents herself in a futuristic world, which is far removed from the trauma and self-loathing of her childhood.
Like so much of her work, the photograph opens up alternative ways to think about the fluidity of sexuality and gender in a heteronormative society. As her best friend Christopher Udemezue says, it's these kinds of offerings from Huxtable that explore "what it means to be queer, a person of color, living the grind in New York City."
And as Kimberly Drew, the founder of the popular Black Contemporary Art Tumblr, puts it, "Juliana's voice is integral in this time, because she truly is a beacon of hope. She exists at the crux of almost every type of intersectionality, but still thrives."
However, despite all the success in the New York art world, the artist was still driven to try and reach back and repair her relationship with her estranged mother, if only to share with Kassandra the new person that she had become.
"A year and a half ago, I wrote a letter to my mom, my brother, and my sister, and explained to them that I had been struggling with this my whole life and everyone has known this," says Huxtable. "I went through years of brainwashing, and if their conservative views prevent them from accepting me, then I didn't have time for them."
It took her mother some time to come around, but she eventually did. After years of little to no communication, and months of therapy, Huxtable traveled to her hometown to rekindle their relationship. Ultimately, Huxtable invited her mother back to New York to share one of the most important moments at the outset of her artistic career.
"My mom being in New York for the opening of the Triennial was a really powerful moment because she realized what I do is legitimate. And there's a community of people who love and respect me."
Juliana Huxtable's Universal Crop Tops for All the Self Canonized Saints of Becoming series and Frank Benson's Juliana are on view at the New Museum's 2015 Triennial, Surround Audience, through May 24, 2015. For more information, visit the museum's website.