Exhibit spotlights LGBTQIA+ photographers

UNFILTERED: Photographs by local artists Erik Mace, left, and Alice Aldrich are among the works featured in “This Skin I'm In.” Images courtesy of Starr Sariego

As with all of Starr Sariego’s work, This Skin I’m In: A Visual Narrative was informed by her personal experiences. The Asheville-based photographer, who moved here from Miami in October 2020, focuses on long-term social justice projects, and for her latest endeavor, she was inspired by her child, Chloe Sariego, coming out as a nonbinary person.

“I’ve always been very liberal and open-minded. Most of our friends in Miami are gay or people of color, and my kids were raised with that, so it wasn’t a big leap,” Starr Sariego says. “But I really wanted to understand, so I did a deep dive through really listening to my child and learning a lot about the whole LGBTQIA+ community, the terms that people use and then seeing the reactions of people my age.”

Sariego, who recently turned 64, transformed her awakening into a call for the LGBTQIA+ community to express their personal experiences of queerness through a series of images. The exhibit opened July 2 at Revolve gallery, where it will be viewable through Monday, Aug. 29.

Multi-experiential groundwork

In 2016, Sariego was asked by a friend to curate the Bold Beauty Project, an exhibit featuring women with disabilities. She notes that the undertaking was her first time spearheading an exhibit and also marked the first time that she “gathered a bunch of photographers” — an experience that proved thoroughly inspirational. The project was ultimately displayed at three different Miami galleries. Each image included a written statement by the subject about their lives, with the intention of upending how the general population looks at people with disabilities.

“We tend to infantilize [disabled] women,” Sariego says. “These women were sexual and parents and working and having very full and dynamic lives. People walked through that exhibit and would literally weep reading some of the narratives.”

Sariego followed up that exhibit in 2019 with The Compassion Project, which focused on formerly incarcerated women. The idea was inspired by her volunteer work at a women’s prison, where she led prerelease programming that aimed to reduce recidivism.

The exhibition was composed of 25 large-scale portraits of the subjects and featured their written personal narratives. It ran for four months at the Coral Gables Museum and was augmented by an interactive app, a five-minute black-and-white art film made by Sariego’s friends, an installation piece and transmitter beacons embedded in seven of the portraits that allowed visitors to hear the women speak about their post-incarcerated lives.

The experience had a major influence on the way she thought about future projects. “I really got even more convinced of this idea of multi-experiential [exhibits] — to hear, to see, to feel different ways of changing the way people see women who are incarcerated,” Sariego says.

Asheville advocacy

Sariego has carried that multi-experiential approach into This Skin I’m In, which was set in motion when she began volunteering with Blue Ridge Pride shortly after moving to Asheville — an effort made in tandem with learning to be a better ally for her child. The advocacy nonprofit connected her with UNC Asheville English professor Amanda Wray. But when the timing didn’t work out for a collaborative photography exhibit with Wray — leader of the LGBTQIA+ Archive of Western North Carolina — Sariego’s friend Tema Stauffer, a professor of photography at East Tennessee State University, stepped in as co-curator.

“I sort of launched into the idea of inviting the LGBTQIA+ community to declare [their] own identity,” Sariego says. “Even within that community, the terms are changing. They’re very fungible. You can be trans, you can be nonbinary and you can be drag all at once. I was superfascinated by all of that, and so I was like, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s let people define themselves.’”

As submissions trickled in, the co-curators strove to take at least one photo from each applicant who was pertinent to the exhibit’s focus. They also wanted to represent beginning and well-established photographers while covering as wide an age range as possible. The resulting artist roster spans generations, and each work is accompanied by a narrative penned by each photographer. And like The Compassion Project, there’s a complementary film and app, as well as a zine to help challenge attendees on their own journeys.

Community unity

Among the photographers selected for This Skin I’m In are a pair of locals, including 76-year-old Weaverville resident Alice Aldrich. The amateur photographer submitted a self-portrait that she originally took in 2015 as an assignment for the Baltimore Camera Club. She and her wife left Baltimore that same year and moved to Buncombe County.

“I just wanted, for once in my life, to have a photograph that really captured me and the unvarnished truth,” Aldrich says. “This is what I really look like. This is me without any fancy clothing or makeup — not that I ever wear makeup. I wanted to put something out there to be seen and heard for who I am.”

She notes that it’s rare to see pictures of older women that haven’t been touched up to make wrinkles look less prominent. With the self-portrait, she purposefully didn’t hide the fact that she’s an aging woman and wants people to see that humans can be beautiful as they age and that they should be proud of who they are. In turn, she sees The Skin I’m In as a chance for the LGBTQIA+ community and its allies to connect and strengthen bonds, especially as rights for women and minorities are being stripped away.

“We’re living in extremely dangerous times, beyond anything I’ve seen,” Aldrich says. “If there was ever a time to be visible and aware of our chosen family and stand by each other, this is it. We’re going to need each other — this is going to get uglier, and we need to know who our support is.”

Erik Mace also sees significant potential in the exhibit’s ability to connect and build a community. After 15 years in Brooklyn, the professional photographer relocated to Asheville in 2020 with his husband. Still feeling fairly new to town, he says he is especially excited to be part of such a welcoming, inclusive show.

“Moving down to the South from a big city, I think there’s a lot of fear involved with that,” Mace says. “I think anyone who’s been othered in their life or has been made to feel like something else beyond the norm — you just never know how you’re going to be received and how your true self might be taken in the world.”

He adds that the description of This Skin I’m In’s call for artists “seemed to echo almost word for word” the focus of his recent projects on self and identity. Looking through his portfolio, Mace selected two diptychs that he’d yet to share publicly: one featuring a friend who wanted to explore his masculinity and gender identity through Mace’s practice, and the other composed of self-portraits.

“I’m doing very different work now, so this actually feels like some kind of really nice closure for those bodies of work that were very much about my own identity and masculinity, and how I operate and feel in the world,” he says. “When other people start to experience your work and react to it and have a conversation with it, it feels like you’ve given birth — it’s finally out in the world. And you can kind of see how it grows and take a little more of a distance from it.”

By sharing the work of artists like Mace and Aldrich, Sariego seeks to build on her already rich exhibition history while further challenging herself and other community members to grow.

“So much of our lives are very binary, and we live with guardrails around everything — how you behave, how you look, how you dress. Do you fit in your gender? Your politics?” she says. “The idea for these projects are always about trying to get people to loosen or lower the guardrails and see if you can expand your thinking and be more flexible.”

To learn more, visit avl.mx/bqz.


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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