Thursday, September 26, 2013

Painter Tyza Stewart blurs the lines drawn between male and female

Tyza Stewart

Challenging norms: Tyza Stewart grapples with issues of gender identity in her work. Photo: Glenn Hunt

You're a teenage girl, and you're starting to wonder some things about yourself. Your body is changing, you're learning more about feminist politics and you think you might be gay, or something like it.

At 14, you write this: ''The thing to top my birthday wishlist is to be a guy and have a guy friend who would be as gay as I would be. This will never appear on lists that other people leave, obviously.''

I knew there were going to be people who found the work tough ... but I hadn't ever considered this was child exploitation. 

Gallerist Bruce Heiser

Those words come from the notebook of Brisbane artist Tyza Stewart. Now 22, Stewart is an emerging artist whose work deals with issues of transgender and identity. Stewart doesn't buy into the gendered pronouns of he or she, instead wishing that gender didn't matter at all.

''I guess I wasn't really aware of anything like transgender issues, I was more aware of gay and lesbian, so I kind of gravitated a little bit towards that,'' Stewart says of adolescence.


''My dad had some psychology text books from uni and I'd been reading about that a bit and it just seemed like a medicalised disorder, and it wasn't portrayed as anything that could be a gender identity. So I think it was a long time before I realised that it could be an identity, something that's not bad, and not medicalised.''

Stewart's work is about the binaries of the feminine and masculine, of socialised behaviours and gender norms. It's also provocative, graphic - delicately painted self-portraits of Stewart's girlish, child-like face appear over naked bodies, often male, sometimes in sexual positions. Others show the same face on an androgynous child's body, gesturing to genitalia that is either apparent or absent.

At Stewart's graduation show at the Queensland College of Art a couple of years ago, some of the work came with an explicit content warning. At last week's Sydney Contemporary art fair the reaction was more severe: organisers removed five of Stewart's paintings from display entirely, citing legal advice they would be in contravention of NSW crimes legislation.

''I was just so taken aback,'' Stewart's gallerist, Bruce Heiser, says. ''I knew there were going to be people who found the work tough … but I hadn't ever considered this was child exploitation.''

That Stewart's work was taken down at the behest of fair organisers is a less known fact of the inaugural art fair, news overshadowed by the removal of Melbourne artist Paul Yore's installation under the same legal advice. Yore is facing child pornography charges for work he exhibited at a St Kilda gallery in June, and organisers said last week his installation for Sydney Contemporary would have similarly been in breach of state legislation.

Yore's supporters have long said that the seizure of parts of his work took his art out of context and for Stewart and Heiser, the same concern applies.

Heiser says he wasn't present when barristers toured the fair ahead of its opening. If he had been, he says he would have explained the genesis of Stewart's work and personal story of a young person grappling with a new sense of self.

Stewart doesn't like to talk much, preferring instead to communicate complex ideas visually. The artist does, however, understand that seeing images of children in sexual poses or situations is too much for many, even wrong, but for Stewart, it's the truth.

''It definitely references my own story and the context of where we're living right now,'' Stewart says. ''That's really honest for me to be putting that in there.''

An exhibition of Tyza Stewart's paintings is at 55 Sydenham Rd, Marrickville, Sydney, until October 6.
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