Chella Man wears many hats. At only 23, the Deaf trans phenom has enjoyed impressive careers as a YouTuber, artist, activist, actor (he’s best known for his role as Jericho, a mute superhero in the DC Universe series Titans), and now, curator.
This summer, 1969 Gallery in TriBeCa is hosting Man’s curatorial debut, a show titled “PURE JOY: 14 Disabled Visual and Performance Artists,” on view through August 13. It marks one of the first New York group shows bringing together work by a growing coalition of disabled artists.
The recent opening for Man’s show was packed. ARTnews sat down with the multi-hyphenate to catch up about the show and his own artwork.
ARTnews: Tell me why you chose to focus on disabled joy.
CHELLA MAN: The main reason is simply that disabled people are often not asked about joy. We are asked about how we deal with our trauma and how we deal with discrimination. But I find I’m rarely asked about joy, or about what makes me happy. Isn’t that sad?
AN: It’s really sad! What are some of the different ways artists responded to your prompt?
CM: Tourmaline is showing Portrait of Jean Maline, 2022, which is just an iPhone photo of her cat. It was so simple; I think joy can be that easy sometimes. Unfortunately, a lot of disabled people have to unlearn and deconstruct a lot of different feelings in order to be able to lean into joy once again. Some of us have had to heal from so much. But Tourmaline’s artwork reminded me how simple it could be.
Shannon Finnegan’s piece communityhealthadvocates.org/healthcareqa/fight-a-denial/ (2021), [which is a bingo card based on common roadblocks one encounters when dealing with health insurance companies], deals more directly with the frustration and the pain and the struggle. But there’s still so much joy in that work, especially in the process of creation. So it became a question of when do you find joy in the artwork.
AN: Yeah, I also think about that work as turning something frustrating into a game, and finding agency within constraints.
CM: That’s part of all games, though, right? Whether you’re playing Monopoly or soccer, you know, there’s going to be frustration, but you still choose to play because of the opportunity of joy.
AN: Your show reminded me that often, when we do see representations of joy, of disabled joy, it’s framed as a story overcoming, or is meant to inspire nondisabled people. In bad, corny movies, it often goes, oh, if this broken person can find love or climb a mountain, surely you can surmount whatever obstacle you’re facing in your life. Obviously, what you’re doing is super different.
CM: So different! I definitely had to think carefully about inspiration porn while putting together this show, but I realized that, as long as you are truly centering your own joy, and not the kind of joy that other people take from your art, no one can change that.
AN: Can you tell me about your work in the show?
CM: My piece is called Dinner Table Syndrome, which is something that happens to Deaf and hard-of-hearing people at the dinner table, especially those who are born into hearing families or families that don’t know how to sign. The dinner table is known to be a place of connection, but for a lot of us, there’s this huge communication barrier and isolation. Much like Shannon and many of the artists, I wanted to reframe that, to transmute frustration and stress and discrimination into joy.
So I created this painting about how Dinner Table Syndrome feels. In front of the painting, there are three chairs that are all engraved differently. One says, “for the one who has no idea where to sit.” There’s a much larger chair that says, “for the one who takes up too much space,” and then there’s one that’s kind of broken. It says “for the one who is never given enough space.”
I come from a family of four, and last week, during a performance, I built my own seat at the table using wood that I took from my backyard in central Pennsylvania. I’m not exactly a carpenter, so as I built it, I knew that once I sat down, it might fall apart instead of holding up. That uncertainty was exactly the point.