"The silver is a metaphor for finding a middle ground between black and white," Ela Xora says, indicating the mask that traces the contours of her face like a retro-futuristic second skin. The 34-year-old artist from south London first started wearing her signature masks to distract from a botched operation that left her unable to wear makeup on one eye.
That mask is a potent symbol of her struggle to rip apart preconceived notions of gender and gain recognition of her own gender identity--that biology is not black and white and that shades of gray should be celebrated, not denied.
Xora was raised as a boy and began presenting as a woman when she turned 25. For years, she believed that she had androgen insensitivity syndrome, or AIS, a condition that causes person who is genetically male, with XY chromosomes, to not respond to male hormones. She identified as intersex, and she thought she was lucky to escape to invasive, painful, and often lengthy surgical procedures that other intersex children undergo, a practice that the United Nations has recently denounced as "torture."
Early this year, chromosomal tests showed that Xora was mistaken--she does not have AIS. She says that this only adds to her belief that gender does not exist on a binary--and that neither trans nor intersex people should have the suffer for that.
"We've been lied to for thousands of years," she says, "told inaccuracies both biological and cultural. The culture and the state has cow-prodded me into a black-and-white binary wall, and I'm sick and tired of being persecuted [for] it."
Determined to shake things up, she uses mask making, visual art, performance art, and poetry to express intersex and transgender narratives that have not been properly heard. "Art for me is the key to get out of an abusive prison where you get laughed at and are misunderstood," she tells me.
Xora and I sat down to chat after a Q&A panel at the Clear Lines Festival in London, a four-day event of discussion, music, and art on the subject of sexual assault at which she debuted new work. Despite her eccentric exterior, Xora admits that she's "not a brave person generally."
"I'm someone who keeps themselves to themselves," she tells me. "It's my mask that gives me the confidence to put myself in new scenarios. When I need to be ballsy I just do it… I have friends who have experienced horrific torture at the hands of the state, and I can't turn my back on them. I personally haven't been genitally mutilated, but I have been psychologically mutilated and punished."
Xora's first goal is to raise awareness of what she calls "the biggest and last taboo of Western civilization"--the natural existence of biological androgyny and its place on the gender spectrum.
Her painting series The Captured Hermaphrodite is a long-running project that highlights examples of naturally occurring intersexed species. Her monochromatic paintings capture oak trees and clownfish, all of which exhibit androgynous features. Combining them with elements of self-portraiture, the surreal and complex compositions have a disquieting beauty and emotional punch.
"We've lost in our culture the concept that there are important aspects of nature that are unisex," she says. "Trees, flowers, and other natural elements have both male and female parts. Androgyny does exist."
Xora focused her initial attention on political campaigning alongside her artwork. To accompany a performance piece called Silver Bo(x), she launched an online petition that called on the UK government to ban "corrective surgery" and officially recognize intersex individuals by putting a tick box for a third gender on legal forms.
Xora was bitterly disappointed by the pitiful number of people that signed up, which currently stands at 682. "At one point it made me lose faith in the society around me," she says. "There are petitions for minor historical figures to be on a stamp that got more signatures than my anti-genital mutilation, anti-abuse, anti-discrimination petition."
But Xora's failures in activism pushed her artwork to new heights, forcing her to refocus her art to captivate and educate. "Historically Western culture has taken more notice of art than of people standing there with banners," she says. "I think art is the most powerful medium we have."
In her latest series of paintings, Xora traces the origin of trans and intersex prejudice back to the Greco-Roman period, where androgyny was initially revered. There was even evidence of Ancient Greek worship of the deity Aphroditus--later called Hermaphroditus--who had a female body with male genitalia.
Xora blames the switch in attitudes on the retelling and distorting of ancient Greek myths by poets such as Ovid. She claims that he transformed Aphroditus into an ill-fated, tragic character in his works--and that this informed the way early Western society treated trans and intersex people, making the community a target of humiliation and violence that continues to this day.
By revisiting the origins of prejudice, she hopes to uncover a new landscape for the transgender and unisex community. Game of Thrones actors Lena Headey and Natalia Tena are set to narrate her Epic Beat Poetry, which she wrote as an antidote to Ovid's own works. And as resident artist at LimeWharf Gallery, she is devising a series of shows that dive further into the roots of the persecution of her community. The attention comes not a moment too soon for Xora.
"Every single day another child could be mutilated and abused by others," she says. "If we succeed we could be honest for the first time in thousands of years. Right now, we could be on the verge of true emancipation for all genders, for all human beings."