Maxime Angel is a dear friend. She's also an HIV-positive transsexual who campaigns for AIDS and LGBT rights, and a sexually provocative artist. Before she started drawing dicks on pieces of paper and covering herself in milk, rank meat and her own HIV pills, she used to hitchhike across Europe and have sex with strangers for money. I called her up to chat a little about all of these things.
Vice: Hey Max! So, do you want to tell me a little about your work? What's up with all the penises?
Maxime Angel: Basically it's about dualism – things that might look beautiful, but are infected; about me looking like a girl but actually being a "him"; about people being attracted to me but then rejecting me because of that. I want everything I do to be attractive and repulsive at the same time. That's why I make those portraits of people sucking dick and there's cum everywhere--they're so hyper-realist and grotesque.
Do you find sex repulsive?
Again, it's a two-way thing. My dad raped me when I was little, and then, later, I was infected with HIV. Because of that I have a weird relationship with sex. I carry myself as this overtly sexual being on a day-to-day basis, but when it comes to the nitty gritty I pull away, probably because I'm worried I might be abused again. Ultimately I've become asexual, and I've stopped having sex.
"The seven veils represent the seven countries where homosexuality is punished with the death penalty. I stood still for an hour, wearing the veils with uncooked liver beneath and blood dripping all over me. I was sick for a week after from an infection. At the end, I took each veil off and was completely naked. I started spitting and pouring milk all over myself to symbolize semen but also cleansing myself from the meat/death. It was really erotic. There were people wanking over it. This woman jumped on the stage and started pleasuring herself."
That must suck. Your work mostly depicts men, or parts of them at least. Do you prefer the male form to the female form?
No. I find female bodies much more beautiful, but I don't see women as sexual objects. I see them as a work of art that I don't want to touch, have sex with, or defile. I don't mind defiling men, though, because men usually do that to women. In this way I feel like some sort of balance is being restored. I don't paint women in sexual or gory contexts, even though I'm happy enough to paint myself into the most horrendous situations.
Do you think that might be connected to the fact you were sexually abused?
Yeah. I was abused by my father, who's supposed to be the ultimate male figure in your life. Even before I was abused, I was genderless: I'd trot around in frilly dresses and stuff, but I still imagined my father as this big, strong man, my knight in shining armor; someone who would save me. But he didn't save me, he raped me. So yeah, I can't idolize men, even though I'm attracted to their bodies.
Is that why you got into prostitution?
Nah. I just had to find a way to survive without my family's money.
Do you ever feel bad about having done that?
I always used to feel dirty and tried to forget about it; that's how I got into heroin. But I'd also think, "Eh, if my father can have sex with me, anyone can." I also think that painting and prostitution aren't that different, really. I used to sell my body, now I sell my soul. Sometimes I like to think that when people come to my shows, it is me who rapes them, mentally.
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Apart from the penises, there are a lot of skulls in your stuff too. Penises and skulls. Sex and death. You worry about sex. Given the duality thing you talked about earlier, and the fact you're HIV positive, do you worry about death, too?
I do and I don't. Ever since I stopped taking my medication three years ago, I feel better because now I don't have to deal with their side effects. I do feel sick, and I might get out of breath walking down the street sometimes, or I might get flu and start bleeding from my mouth, but the pills don't make me feel good and it's not like they'll get rid of AIDS. I just try to put all my frustration into the paintings.
Did you start painting after you got HIV?
I was painting before, but it was only after that I told myself, "I know what I have to do, I have to paint." Before it wasn't really focused. Now there's a political statement in everything I do. I can't just draw pretty flowers any more.
Is there a part of you that feels lucky to have been infected, because it gave you some kind of purpose?
You know, you got me there. When I found out I was carrying in 2002, I was still working the streets. At that point, the only thing I was concerned about was that I wouldn't be able to do that any more. But then I started loving the fact I had AIDS because it gave me something to fight for; a reason to be alive. Before it was all about sex, drugs and suicide attempts. Now, it's almost the opposite.
"Watching the Game, Having a Bud"
You also use very cheap materials. Paper, pencil, cardboard…
I love the fact I can create something beautiful using things most people would throw away. This is a metaphor for my life. I try to patch up the rubbish that is my life and make it more beautiful. I also used to live in cardboard boxes when I was a kid, and ran away from home, so cardboard has a sentimental value too.
Why did you run away from home?
I was nine the first time. My sister was on vacation and I was alone with my parents. I didn't enjoy that, so I thought I'd hitchhike, but a neighbor found me and took me home. Then, when I was 14, I tried it again. I bunked off school and went to live with a friend of mine in this really dodgy area in Rome. She was the biggest slut so I got into that, too. After that, I spent a few months driving from Italy to Switzerland with trucks. I tried to cross myself at one point, but I was too young and the authorities wouldn't let me in, so I had to live in a petrol station on the border. Then I jumped into the trunk of a guy's car and the next thing I know, I'm in Munich. I've also lived in Berlin, Paris, Mauritius, and London.
Maxime has loads more stories to tell, but for the sake of concision, I'll keep them to myself. If you'd like to hear or see more, go meet her at the Center for Recent Drawing tonight (May 10).
Maxime Angel – Let My Eyes Be Your Mirror
Center for Recent Drawing
2 - 4 Highbury Station Road N1 1SB
10 May - 17 June