The following is one of several extended looks into figures and institutions selected for “The Deciders,” a list of art-world figures pointing the way forward developed by ARTnews and special guest editor Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean. See the full list in the Winter 2020 issue of the magazine and online here.
Tourmaline, the artist, filmmaker, and activist, was talking about a project in the works inspired by Mary Jones, a Black, trans sex worker and outlaw who lived in Seneca Village—the first and largest community of free Black people in New York City before it was destroyed in the 1850s to build Central Park—when she pulled out an astrological chart. She managed to find Jones’s birthday in court records from the 19th century, used it to map her horoscope, then consulted the stars to add depth to Mary of Ill Fame, a forthcoming film (executive produced by Keanu Reeves and due out in 2020) that tells Jones’s little-known story as a hero still owed her due.
Such meticulousness has garnered the New York–based Tourmaline attention in the worlds of art and film. It has also helped bring underacknowledged histories to the fore. In the decades following the historical flashpoint of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, the identities behind the gay liberation movement’s prime instigators were hardly known. It was Tourmaline, with her dogged research and dedication to telling these stories of the forgotten, who brought to light the inciting role played by the Black and Puerto Rican trans activists Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera.
In 2010, when she was director of membership services at the LGBTQ+ legal advocacy organization, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Tourmaline began uncovering interviews, videos, and writings related to Johnson and Rivera, and in 2012 she turned them into a digital archive online. Now, Johnson and Rivera are the subjects of widespread commemoration, including New York City’s recent announcement of a commission for permanent monuments honoring the two iconic activists in the West Village.
For Tourmaline, it wasn’t enough just to uncover the activists’ histories—she wanted to think about their legacies and how they inform our contemporary lives. Her breakthrough film, Happy Birthday, Marsha! (2018), a narrative short written, produced, and directed with collaborator Sasha Wortzel, reimagines the life of Johnson during the hours leading up to the uprising. In a powerful final scene, when the police raid the Stonewall Inn, Johnson hurls a shot glass and pushes to the ground an officer who had beaten her up. Her show of defiance portrays a strength that goes beyond tragic tropes in which trans people are reduced to the violence that circumscribes their lives.
A veteran organizer in grassroots movements, Tourmaline turned her eye to filmmaking in 2010 when she was working with Queers for Economic Justice, a nonprofit organization that fights against transphobic and homophobic discrimination. For the first film she worked on, director Kagendo Murungi’s Taking Freedom Home (2010), she collected oral histories highlighting the challenges that low-income LGBTQ+ New Yorkers face when trying to find safe and affordable housing, medical care, and social services. She made her directorial debut in 2016 with The Personal Things, an animated short that features Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, a trans elder and longtime activist who also participated in the Stonewall riots, reflecting on her life challenging the status quo during the era of so-called “masquerade laws” when people were arrested for “cross dressing.” For the film, Tourmaline won a Queer|Art|Prize in 2017.
Much like the protagonists in the stories she chooses to tell, Tourmaline has charted a polymathic path as an artist, activist, and cultural producer who contributes to the social, political, and creative vitality of Black queer and trans life. In 2016 she worked alongside filmmaker Dee Rees as director’s assistant for the Golden Globe–nominated film Mudbound, which shows a Black veteran struggling with PTSD and racism when he returns home to Mississippi after fighting in World War II. In 2017 her work featured in the groundbreaking exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” at the New Museum in New York, and that same year she coedited an anthology published by MIT Press, Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production and the Politics of Visibility. In 2019 she was part of the Brooklyn Museum’s “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall,” a group show examining Stonewall’s legacy as engaged by 28 artists (including the writer of this story) born after 1969.
All the while Tourmaline has grown into a practice informed by what scholar Saidiyah Hartman calls “critical fabulation,” a method of “re-membering” historical narratives that bridges fact with speculative fiction in order to fill in gaps and silences in the archive. For Mary of Ill Fame (and Salacia , a related work that showed on a loop in the Brooklyn Museum show), Tourmaline shot on 16mm film for the first time and directed elaborate fight sequences and movements among the largest cast she has ever directed. The way she talks about uncovering Mary’s life—in an effort, as she told me, to “heal a connection to a lineage that is erased and violated and that continues to haunt us”—reminded me of Beloved by Toni Morrison, which was inspired by a news clipping from the mid-19th century about a Black woman who killed her children to save them from the suffering of enslavement. “Each film is a meditation and spiritual altar placement for those before me who have allowed me to be who I am,” Tourmaline said.
Through her own radical world-making, Tourmaline invites us into the lives of people who practiced fierce self-determination in the shadow of white supremacist violence. She brings us their voices—and hands down their survival strategies—as reminders that we, too, can become anything we want to be.