A debut solo show is typically a watershed moment for an artist. But for Tourmaline, it was more of an object lesson in self-understanding, underscored by a sensitivity and maturity you don’t see often enough. Take the considered selection of her exhibition site: As Chapter NY’s location on East Houston Street in Manhattan is inaccessible to disabled people, the polymath—who is well known for her filmic portraits of Black trans activists and icons, and for her own activism—staged her presentation in an accessible pop-up space so that everyone could see it. This was not a small detail, but rather a demand for real social change, with an eye to the vast potentialities of the future.
The title of the show, “Pleasure Garden,” was a nod to the verdant Victorian-era sites of segregation where people could get some fresh air while cholera raged. Tourmaline offered up a dreamlike yet cohesive meditation on Seneca Village—the first free Black community in New York City—and Mary Jones, a Black trans woman and sex worker who lived in New York in the 1830s. Seneca Village existed on the west side of present-day Central Park between 1825 and 1857. In 1855, its population was approximately 225, roughly two-thirds Black and one-third Irish. When the city decided to build the park, it used the power of eminent domain to seize the land, thus displacing the Black property owners for whom Seneca Village provided stability and the right to vote. An excavation of the site in 2011 uncovered stone foundations and thousands of artifacts from the district’s inhabitants. As Diana diZerega Wall, one of the archaeologists on the project, recalled, the site had a grim “‘what if . . .’ story,” and that’s exactly what Tourmaline so skillfully picked up and embellished upon here.
While we don’t know if Jones ever found refuge in Seneca Village, Tourmaline’s nonlinear six-minute film Salacia, 2019, portrays her within the community via a critical and fictional counternarrative. In one ominous scene, Jones (powerfully played by actress Rowin Amone) discovers and tears down a “Wanted” poster calling for her arrest and featuring a reproduction of an archival drawing of her that labeled her a “man-monster.” Later, we see Jones—who was incarcerated at Sing Sing for five years—attempting to break out of prison in a thrilling anti-denouement (anti because nothing is resolved or feels like a conclusion). Salacia, which played in a darkened room here (and which was screened last summer on New York’s High Line and featured on the Museum of Modern Art’s website), employs a suspenseful soundtrack, rapid montages, split-screen effects, and archival video—including a short clip of queer sex worker and activist Sylvia Rivera on Manhattan’s Christopher Street piers—amid other layered images of waterscapes, the sun, and the moon. In the end Jones chants, “We can be anything we want to be,” recalling Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower and its message of people having to shape themselves in order to save themselves.
Tourmaline’s historically informed fabulations continued in a selection of color photographs that took on new resonance for the viewer exiting the film. In these self-portraits—her first exhibited—she is portrayed in an autumnal, farm-like landscape (Seneca Village?) and is seen hovering in a space-age Afrofuturist outfit and posing with her legs confidently splayed, embodying a more empowered take on Victorian pornography. Her collapsing and remixing of time frames was electrifying, but so was the slower sense of patience and persistence for a better future I felt pulsing throughout this show. Salacia contains a moment where Rivera offers a bit of sagacious advice while casting her gaze on the Hudson: “Every time I look at that damn river and meditate on the river, you got to keep fighting, girly, ’cause it’s not time for you to cross the River Jordan.” J’adore this bracing skeptical realism: It qualifies hope, but also deepens it into a more durable form of courage.