Kyle Meyer turns his photographs into richly tactile objects that occasionally dip into the realm of sculpture. Though the work is in part a critique of the digital age of photography, Meyer’s images have stakes that are far from the didactic. The Brooklyn-based artist has been spending time in Swaziland working on several long-term projects focusing on LGBT rights, HIV awareness, and ritualistic religious practices. Recently, he produced a series of portraits of Swazi natives, one unique object for each unique sitter. Meyer guides us through the motives, processes and themes behind his series, Interwoven.
Jean-Sebastien Boncy (JSB): Portraiture has always been such a loaded act, but with the dialogue around representation growing more urgent and explosive within our lifetime, I tend to see portraiture projects as overtly political. Are you inclined to share some of the considerations that went into selecting the subjects for Interwoven?
Kyle Meyer (KM): The project started as fun portraits of my LGBT friends, but after returning to New York it became extremely political for me, as I had to obscure each sitter to show the work. Having returned several times to photograph, it is the first sitters that have dictated and selected the subjects for the project. Each new subject has been recommended through people I have already photographed, but each sitter must identify as LGBT or MSM (men who have sex with men). I am not picky. Interwoven is not about beauty, age, or perfection; it is about the community as a whole being put behind a fabric of oppression, culture and society.
SB: The selection of subjects may not be based on beauty, but the objects themselves seem very invested in beauty, and maybe even a sort of low-key spectacle. When and where does that dimension, the beautiful, become a part of your process?
KM: I think the idea of the beautiful is the viewer’s perception of the work as a result of my process and content. The process of these portraits is entrenched in the physical labor that each piece takes. A great deal of portraiture that is currently being made, in my opinion, is done under a quick deadline and retouched and manipulated to look perfect or beautiful. Each work is unique, and I spend a great deal of time creating each piece, first by photographing my subject, in which I hand-make individual head wraps on each person, but then spending days, sometimes weeks hand-weaving each individual behind a fabric screen. The beauty in each of these pieces is more of a seduction that is brought upon a viewer through the colors, patterns and physical labor. But ultimately for me, the beauty is in the men hidden behind the fabric, living their truth and actually having the courage to pose for the photograph.
SB: I’m particularly interested in the metaphorical weaving that seems to echo the physical one. There seems to be a game being played—a back and forth between obfuscations and revealings of self, of genders, of desires. Is that something that is “built-in” to the series?
KM: Yes, but not in a sexual or seductive way, more-so that these guys in some way need to conceal their identities, given societal pressures; but, on the other hand they want to come out, want to resist their persecution and assert their true and honest identities. The work is layered, complicated, and delicate like the lives of these men.
SB: Have there been any surprises in how the work is received, both within the depicted communities and beyond?
KM: I wouldn’t say there have been surprises so far. It has been more of a validation of what I am trying to say by starting a dialogue that needs to be had. When a weaving is finished, I send a photograph of the weaving for approval to each subject. Some of the subjects get anxious about the work being seen locally, but it goes away quickly and they are ecstatic and excited about the final pieces. The work is quite new and has only been shown a few times in a public setting, but the reception within those settings has been extremely positive as well. With that being said, I feel the surprises are to come as the work continues to be shown and reaches a larger audience.
SB: So each subject has the power to approve or veto the unique object created from the photograph? It’s starting to sound big C collaborative. Is that a direct result of the anxieties and dangers that are attached with individuals revealing themselves; or, are there other facets to this approach?
KM: Veto is too strong—I haven’t had anyone refuse my use of the piece after photographing them, but there is sometimes a certain amount of anxiety after they see the print that needs to be worked through. And we do. Having worked in Swaziland since 2009, a majority of people, not only the LGBT community, have little choice in healthcare, jobs, and education, to name a few facets of their lives. So, it is important for me to make them feel that in this process, they have choice During the photo shoot, I bring several pieces of fabric for each subject to choose from, which will then be made into their head wraps. The reasoning behind this is that I see the fabric as an extension of themselves—their creativity, their personality, and how they want to present that to the viewer and the world. Interwoven is about and for them, and I want these individuals to have as much of a voice as possible—something that is denied to them on a daily basis. The project has to be collaborative as it is not my place to dictate what is presented. They own their identities, and I am merely the conduit that is hoping to introduce those identities to viewers of my work.
SB: Do the numbers matter to Interwoven beyond the demands of fabrication? In other words, should we view the production of one unique object for each unique subject as part of your advocacy?
KM: I try to be as inclusive as I can when selecting subjects for my photographs. I try not to approach my subjects with preconceived biases. I do not want to deny anyone the opportunity to be part of what I consider to be an outlet for these men. The number is irrelevant.
SB: So far, we’ve been talking about themes that resonate across many cultures, and I think that this speaks to the reach of your series, but the project is rooted in a specific place and time. Would you provide a bit more context for the particular connections between Swaziland and the decisions and processes that went into Interwoven?
KM: The project has been evolving over the past eight years. In 2009, I received a fellowship through Brandeis University (after finishing my undergrad at City College) to document the HIV epidemic in Swaziland, which has the highest prevalence of HIV in the world. During my first few years there I also spent time during the week documenting handicraft workers—primarily candle makers and blanket and basket weavers. While documenting these artisans, I learned techniques of hand weaving, which I then started applying to my photographs. The head-wrap comes from having seen women throughout Swaziland wearing them on the streets. It was one woman I met in a local market who taught me different ways of tying, knotting, and twisting the fabric to create a unique wrap.
Over the weekends, I was documenting the Zionist Church (the country’s major religion that is deeply rooted in African tradition of going into trance, speaking in tongues and exorcisms) and its impact on the HIV epidemic. While interacting with the congregation, I was forced to hide my sexuality for fear of a negative or hostile reaction. That anxiety made me search out gay men who were in far more risk than I was. I then started to meet local gay men and hear their stories, and I felt compelled to give them a voice. It was the understanding that their identities needed to be concealed for basic survival combined with my work with handicraft artisans where everything started to literally “weave” together.
The implications of this project aren’t confined to Swaziland. I have deep affection for the country, its culture, and its people, and I do not intend to single them out for criticism. This is an issue of global reach and I happened to be in Swaziland when the project came together. The issue is clearly more acute in Swaziland given the rampant HIV epidemic.
SB: We almost never have absolute say on how or why our work is shown. If you don’t mind the indulgence, could you describe the ideal presentation for these portraits?
KM: In my ideal exhibition, I would have the pieces suspended from the ceiling, splitting a space in half, with the viewer able to walk entirely around each piece. When walking into the space, one would see the pieces staggered, thereby creating a look and feeling as if these men are standing amongst the crowd. As the viewer walks into the space, they would be immediately confronted by the collective group and made to confront the oppression of prevalent culture. As the viewer approaches the group, they would be able to walk through and around the pieces, allowing them to have an intimate one-on-one interaction with each of the men while still being continuously surrounded by other individuals.
SB: Both the themes and processes that helped shape Interwoven seem very close to your heart. Do you already have their continuation or evolution in the works?
KM: Definitely, I have however flirted with the idea of working outside of Swaziland, as the issues addressed in the series are global in nature. The weaving will continuously show up in my practice, and I will also continue to question the LGBT experience on a global level.