Stav Meishar

Strange Beauty | Arnolfini, Bristol

From the Barbette Project: Photo by Omri Dagan

I strongly believe that every work of art made by a disabled person is already disabled art, regardless of its thematic content. Same goes for any other defining element of one's identity. Who we are is not something we can put aside. All my work is Jewish because I am Jewish. All my art is queer art because I am queer. Artists of various minority identities are unfortunately often expected to commodify their experiences of trauma and disenfranchisement if they wish to get artistic career opportunities. Therefore, I find it important to advocate for giving artists the freedom to tell their stories in ways that fit them best.

I am a theatre and circus artist, and my current work-in-progress ‘The Barbette Project’ is a show that's part historical research, part autobiographical explorations of gender then and now. It tells the true story of Barbette, a legendary gender-bending trapeze artist and queer icon, woven with the lived experiences of LGBT+ artists today. For WAIWAV I have created ‘strange beauty’, a performance piece inspired by photos of Barbette captured by Surrealist Jewish photographer Man Ray, and their intersection with my identity as a queer, neurodivergent Jew.

When asked why he created his act, Barbette replied: “I wanted an act that would be a thing of beauty—of course, it would have to be a strange beauty”; and what is surrealism if not Strange Beauty? Are queer, disabled and neurodivergent bodies an expression of a strange beauty, not quite matching up to society's rigid boxes of what beauty is? Barbette, in her act of gender fuckery, fluctuating between masculinity and femininity, wanted to be Strange Beauty incarnated—could I be, too?

My intervention challenges people's perception of what ‘strange’ and ‘beautiful’ mean to them by asking them to make me a living, breathing embodiment of surrealist artwork. I will be available to audiences in the gallery as a living doll, and accompanied by a variety of objects – wardrobe items, makeup, accessories, shoes – objects feminine, masculine and in between for audiences to play with. Not everything will be standard. There will also be natural materials, recyclable materials, non-traditional materials—various surprising options for audiences to play with... The only guiding principle will be: ‘make me pretty’.

Am I beautiful? Can I be made beautiful? What makes a body beautiful? What is beauty? Who gets to define it? And why do we give a fuck about being beautiful anyway?

This is not a Marina Abramovic style experiment; there will be nothing available that can cause harm or damage, and more importantly I will not be inanimate or passive. People will be required to ask my consent for anything and everything they want to use on me – though I will not advise or give my own opinions re: aesthetic choices; just my consent.


Strange Beauty - 2nd July 2022

This was my first time ever doing performance art at a gallery. As a theatre and circus artist, most of my work takes place onstage, at a safe distance from the audience. But my intervention was the exact opposite of that, electing to have intimate, 1-on-1 interactions where audience members were invited to dress me and decorate me as they please.

They did, however, have to ask for my consent every step of the way - I wanted to make the point that disabled artists have a voice and have an agency, a point that is all too often forgotten or even neglected in our world.

My favourite aspect of the day was seeing how this intervention encouraged audiences to be creative and playful. Presented with so many different materials to work with, and with a human body to dress, audiences tapped into this very gleeful part of themselves, and I loved watching them get playful and whimsy with their choices. I. was also surprised by the affect their choices had on me: my body responded to the textures of the materials, to their shapes and colours. At one point I was a magpie, flapping my wings and cawing; at another point I was a dainty dancer, sweeping my limbs in graceful motions.

This was a dialogue, and I loved the small relationships that developed between each audience member, their creation, and myself.


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