“Chella Man: 20-year-old, deaf, trans, jewish, artist/activist,” read the opening slide to a Design Week presentation on Tuesday night. Man, an Instagram celebrity and current student at the New School, talked with students about the intersections of artwork and identity.
Bradley Bollag-Miller ’21, one of the event’s organizers, was thrilled with the opportunity to bring Man to campus. Speaking about working with the Design Week Committee, Bollag-Miller said, “It was awesome because they really took student suggestions into consideration.”
“We wanted more representation of the actual design world,” said Bollag-Miller. “More identities than just white men.” They turned to Man “because of his art activism around identities,” as well as “his focus on ability, gender, and mental health.”
Man began his talk by sharing various works with the audience — which spanned mediums from drawing to film to virtual reality — before sitting down with Joy Armstrong, curator of contemporary art at the Fine Arts Center, and professor Rushaan Kumar of the Feminist and Gender Studies Department for a dialogue. “There was a specialist in art, so we also wanted someone to address issues of gender and identity and that’s [Dr. Kumar’s] specialty,” explained Bollag-Miller.
Man spoke about his deep-seated belief that “everything operates on a spectrum or a continuum.” Identifying as genderqueer, Man sees gender as a spectrum, but takes this notion further to apply to other binaries as well. Professor Kumar pointed to the way Man’s artwork echoes this notion; the continuity of line in his drawings, as well his refusal to be categorized as an artist by using such a wide array of mediums.
Man’s work included intimate pieces. One was a video compilation of his first year on testosterone, documenting changes to his voice and appearance. Another showed his mother reading a letter she wrote to him about her experience and self-reflection when he came out as transgender. The audience reciprocated Man’s vulnerability when the time came for questions. Student audience members asked for advice on how to handle topics of gender identity with their own families, and how to support loved ones who have come out as transgender.
Bollag-Miller appreciated the peer-to-peer aspect of interactions with Man. “It was cool to bring someone young, unique, more relatable, less professional, [and] not necessarily an academic,” he said. Before the event, they also organized a luncheon for Man and queer students at CC. “We got to sit with him, and talk as a queer community,” said Bollag-Miller.
Overall, Bollag-Miller expressed satisfaction with the way the event turned out. “It was big for student agency,” he said. “it shows what listening to students and bringing what students want can look like. Maybe more departments will follow in these footsteps.”