Legends of the Trans: Vivek Shraya queers Brad Pitt (and his hair) in her latest project
The prolific artist approaches her 20th anniversary with a photo essay that deconstructs Pitt's 1994 film
Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.
Vivek Shraya saw the 1994 movie Legends of the Fall — perhaps best known today as one of Brad Pitt's big breakout roles — for the first time as a teenager.
"One of the things that I'm constantly thinking about, especially as I age, are the things that sort of imprint upon you when you're young and you don't even realize it," she says. "On the surface, I was very mesmerized by Brad Pitt during the 1990s era. I feel like it was the glory era Brad Pitt with Legends of the Fall, Interview With The Vampire, Seven and 12 Monkeys. I was really drawn to him... and not even in a sexual way. I don't remember feeling that, and I don't know how much of that had to do with my own inability to feel comfortable projecting desire onto men at that point in my life. But I think I was certainly very drawn to his hair."
A few years ago, Shraya — an artist who has done a prolific amount of work over the past two decades in music, literature, visual art, theatre and film (often a few of those mediums at once) — relocated back to her home province of Alberta, where Legends of the Fall was shot.
"For the longest time, I was always like, 'Oh, I want Tristan hair one day," Shraya says, referring to the character Pitt plays in Legends. "So it's been weird moving back to Alberta and looking in the mirror and being like, 'Oh, I kind of have Tristan hair now.'"
This got Shraya thinking a lot about Legends of the Fall, a movie she has re-watched consistently since she first saw it. And this ultimately led to Legends of the Trans, a photo project that is currently exhibiting at the Esker Project Space in Calgary until February 6, 2022.
"Legends of the Trans was sort of born as this idea of, what would it mean to take what we know as a white, cis character and certainly, you know, this 'sexiest man alive' actor and project a trans, POC narrative onto it? What does that look like, exactly?"
What that technically looks like is 22 photographs projected in an endless loop, accompanied by music from the film's original soundtrack and vinyl text that fills a street-facing window. But behind it is something Shraya has consistently explored through her work: queering a text to explore a notion of self, and the value of non-conforming role models.
"I think there's a very normative way of looking at the film in that he's this kind of moody, white, western hero or whatever," she says. "But I think what I find interesting is actually how much of a rule-breaker Tristan was. There's this line in the movie where his older brother says something along the lines of, 'I did everything everyone wanted me to. But you did nothing that you were supposed to do, and yet you were so loved.' And then I think about what it means to grow up in Alberta in the 1980s and 1990s without queer role models and the way we have to be creative about where we find our role models."
"I think it's strange to project a trans narrative on this character, but then I also think about the fact that this person never really did what he was supposed to do and he was kind of reckless and he was emotional."
Shraya says she was really drawn to the idea in the title Legends of the Trans because of the idea "that transness is alien."
"That there's something like weird or strange or freakish about it," she says. "There's this new hashtag that's been circulating in the past little while called '#CisWithaT.' It was developed for cis people to show their solidarity for trans people, which I mean, is lovely in principle. But I found it really bizarre that they were like, 'the T.' So there was something about 'the trans' that interested me, especially being in Alberta."
"When people talk about Alberta, there's this sort of redneck stereotype that's projected here. And after living here for a few years, I actually find it really frustrating because I think every time we project that onto this place, we a) erase the history of who this land belongs to, and b) I think we also invalidate the lives of people of colour who live here and queer people who live here and trans people who live here. Those are some of the things that I was thinking about in relation to this project."
Legends of the Trans is part of a milestone moment for Shraya, who will mark 20 years as a working artist in 2022. To celebrate, she launched a "Vivek Forever" t-shirt that features a chronology of her varied projects from 2002–2022 on the back.
"It feels really important to honour this milestone, especially because there's been so many times where I have felt pressure to stop," Shraya says. "Being an artist, and certainly being a queer artist, a POC artist and a trans artist... there's nothing about that that has been easy. I've definitely had some supports and successes along the way, but it's been largely really challenging. So I think just taking a moment to honour the work and honour perseverance feels important. I think that like if I had more of a traditional path or if I had been hugely successful, this would be a moment in my career where I would have put up my greatest hits album or something like that."
Traditionally successful or not, Shraya is already well on her way to a landmark 20th year as a working artist. She'll launch her second nonfiction book, People Change, in January, and then will follow it up in March with Next Time There's a Pandemic, a reflection on how she might have approached 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic differently.
Asked how she might evolve into her third decade of work, Shraya already has some considerations.
"I think one of the things that felt really important, especially in the last few years, is to try and think about how to make work that isn't for the gaze," she says. "I think when you're a person of colour or if you're queer or trans, so much of how your work is understood and traffics is educational. So I'm often put in a position of like, I'll put out an album called Part Time Woman and the questions won't be, 'What was it like to collaborate with Queer Songbook Orchestra?' but instead, you know, 'How do you be a better ally'? Right? So I think for me, it feels really important to think about how to make work that's not about educating the dominant communities and more for me and my people, if you will."
The other thing that feels really important to Shraya right now? Fun.
"You know, I'm a pretty cheeky person in my own personal life. And obviously I really am passionate about a range of social issues, so my work can have a kind of seriousness to it. But that also comes with a weight. And I think that after 20 years, I've earned the right to to have a little bit more fun. I think Legends is actually a gesture in that direction. There's a part of me that feels a lot of guilt around it because... I don't think it's going to change the world, let's put it that way. But for me, it was like a personal interest and something that I was personally curious about. Plus, I got to be a white man riding some horses on a ranch, and that was actually kind of fun."
Legends of the Trans will be on display at the Esker Project Space in Calgary until February 6, 2022.