Photo The Art and Soul of Survival. A conversation with Angel Hope

The Art and Soul of SurvivalA conversation with Angel Hope

 

Portraits and interview by Benn Northover.


On Friday June 12th in a vicious abuse of power and a blatantly calculated attack on the Trans community the Trump administration finalized a regulation that will erase protections for Transgender patients against discrimination by hospitals, doctors and health insurance companies. This is yet another shocking example in a growing pattern of regulatory changes by this administration that remove civil rights protection for Transgender people.

As Guest editor, it would be wrong for me not to use my residency as a platform to discuss and elevate subjects and issues that urgently need to be addressed. Transphobia is still very much alive in our society. It’s shocking to think that in 2020, Trans people are still facing such unforgivable and vindictive acts of abuse and discrimination in modern society all the way up, or perhaps in many cases ‘all the way down’ to a Government level. We will not stand for this and I implore all who read this to use your voice and your various platforms to show active support to our Trans brothers and sisters in a time where the world should be striving to bridge and embrace our differences in a unified push towards positive and lasting change in our time.

On Monday June 15th in a landmark vote The Supreme Court ruled that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 speaks against discrimination in the work place based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Until this vote it was legal in more than half the states across America to fire an individual for being Transgender, Gay or Bisexual. This reaffirming of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is a victory in every sense of the word and I hope one of many more to come.

It is my great honor and privilege to publish this deeply moving and brutally honest interview with performance artist and activist Angel Hope.

Louie Chaban.
Guest Editor


 

Photo The Art and Soul of Survival. A conversation with Angel Hope

Artist and activist Angel Hope is one of the most thought-provoking voices to emerge on London’s underground art scene in recent years.

Working with situationist performance and often large-scale mixed media collage, Angel’s work challenges our perceptions of gender, identity and social stereotypes with a courage possessed by few artists working today.

After running away from home in Italy as a teenager, Angel lived on the streets of Berlin and Paris, before finding her way to London in the late nineties. She began to perform in clubs and bars, before moving into performance art with her first gallery-based works ‘Single Child’ and ‘The Ballad of Love and Dependency’.

With recent solo exhibitions in Berlin and London, as well as group shows alongside fellow artists Gary Hume and Tracy Emin, Angel is finally gaining the attention her work deserves.

On the morning this interview was first scheduled to take place, I received a call telling me that Angel had been taken to hospital. While walking in the Westbourne Grove area of London, she’d been followed and violently beaten in what was clearly a transphobic attack. Though the police had identified her assailant, they were hesitant to press charges.

We finally spoke on the phone a few days later when Angel had returned home. Understandably fired up and angry, she was already planning her creative retaliation.


Benn Northover: How are you feeling?

Angel Hope: I’m Ok. Head hurts but I’m tough stuff.

BN: I know you are. A nurse called me to tell me what was going on. Are you home?

AH: Yeah. I’m home. That nurse was a sweetie. I just got off the phone from the police. I don’t know if they’re going to charge that guy.

BN: This was in west London?

AH: Yeah, Westbourne Grove. It’s such a pretty little place. I noticed the guy following me a few times before when I was walking in the street. He was shouting bad stuff and spitting at me. I called the police, but they said if he does anything worse just call 999. Great, no? Then a few days later, I was alone, the guy followed me, chased me down and kicked me in the face. After that, you know, an ambulance came, took me to hospital and I reported the guy to the police again. Now I need to wait four more weeks to know if they’re going to charge him, yes or no.

BN: So they did find the guy?

AH: Yeah, eventually. But now they say they need to establish if he’s a real threat or not. I told them come on, the guy attacked me in broad daylight in the middle of the street. He even said “Next time I’m gonna kill you”. You know, I’d love just once in my lifetime to walk in the street, smile at the people and for them to simply smile back. But no, instead they just look scared or say bad things or like this guy……… What kind of society is this? I mean, Fuck, it’s the 21st century.

BN: I heard you bought your head X-rays from the hospital?

AH: Yeah. I’m gonna put them in an installation. I could dedicate it to that guy. It would be titled “To the little man that beat me, with love signed Angel Hope.” That bastard is free. I mean he’s free to attack me, the police won’t do anything and so I’m free to say what I want. Sometimes I think it would have been easier for the police if the guy had stabbed me or something.

BN: I’m disappointed to hear all this. Have you started the piece?

AH: Yeah, I’m about to transcribe the phone call I just had with the police officer I spoke to and use that in there to.

BN: Wow, I love how you’re turning it all into something straight away!

AH: What else I’m gonna do? It’s real life. There’s more drama in real life than there is on the stage.

Photo The Art and Soul of Survival. A conversation with Angel Hope
Stills from the live performance of The Ballad of Love and Dependency.

BN: Prejudice and abuse have become central themes in much of your recent work.

AH: I think echoes of it have always been there. It’s just over the past couple of years I realized that only a handful of artists were talking directly about it and I felt a responsibility to use my voice. Sadly my story is not unique; this kind of abuse and prejudice goes on everyday all around the world. If the normal person on the street can show such violent contempt for someone they don’t even know, simply fuelled by their own naïve assumptions and prejudice, then what future do we have? I DO still have hope but it takes people wanting change to make change happen. What remains is future. We need to use all that’s happened and all that’s happening as a platform to step to the next level. I mean, it’s never gone away. I survived this attacked, many haven’t.

BN: It’s a sad fact, but often people tend to bury their heads in the sand about these issues.

AH: That’s too true! I used to love history when I was a kid; it was one of my favorite subjects. I used to think, wow, we can learn from things in the past that went wrong and this will change the future. But look around the world. Don’t they teach history in schools any more? Didn’t we learn anything from the atrocities of the 30’s and 40’s? Didn’t we learn from segregation and apartheid? Didn’t we learn anything from the murders of Matthew Shepard and Brandon Teena? Bless them. The story is the same, it’s just the characters are different. We’re making the same mistakes. It’s still, “I kill you, I destroy you, because you’re different than me and I don’t like you.” Lets face it, homophobia, serophobia, xenophobia, even state-sponsored homophobia and serophobia are all still alive and well and living comfortably in our society today.

Photo The Art and Soul of Survival. A conversation with Angel Hope
Stills from the live performance of The Ballad of Love and Dependency.

BN: Have you always made art?

AH: No, well, I mean, I’ve always drawn things. Since I was a kid I used to draw a lot, more like a visual diary. My parents would get very angry because my pictures weren’t like normal children’s pictures of flowers and pretty clouds. They were always images from my daily life and the things that would happen to me. Good or bad. They got very angry because in the pictures I would draw myself exactly as I saw myself, and how I wanted to be. I used to have all my sketchbooks collected together, images of people I knew, places I saw and things that happened. But many of them got destroyed in a house fire in Paris a few years ago.

BN: Wow, I’d like to have seen those.

AH: They were a visual record from age 7 to 24 showing everything!

BN: So, right from the beginning your work has drawn directly from real life.

AH: Absolutely. And those sketchbooks were the beginning. It’s always come from a very personal place. From an early age art became a way to express how I saw the world around me. Nowadays my process is more focused, but it’s still a lot to do with an impulse to explore issues and situations from real life. I guess it’s a form of reaction.

Photo The Art and Soul of Survival. A conversation with Angel Hope
Stills from the live performance of The Ballad of Love and Dependency.

BN: Your performances especially, always feel very prepared and specific in the themes you’re exploring. Do you put a lot of research into the work?

AH: In both my drawings and performances, very often I do things that I don’t know where they’re coming from. Sometimes I draw and it feels like the drawing is already there waiting, I just have to patiently make it. Sometimes I use specific imagery that’s very biographical or very literal and then sometimes it’s more abstract. Often if there’s more of a specific theme or character I’m trying to address, then I’ll step away and research images or writings around that theme and then piece-by-piece it expands. It’s a very organic process. I try not to analyze it too much.

BN: You’ve spoken out a lot against society’s need for “ shoe box labelling “ as you put it, when it comes to gender and sexual identity.

AH: There’s that wonderful question I heard somebody ask someone once; “When did you choose to be straight“ – In my life I’ve had to use, or more, I have felt the need to use, the word ‘Transgender’ or ‘Trans’, not to define myself for myself, but more for society and for other people. I’ve felt a pressure to use a specific word almost like a palliative or a placebo, because too often, if society doesn’t understand something, it sees it as a threat. At this moment, I’m transitioning. The word ‘transgender’, means a transitioning from one state to another. Either through one’s identity and often physically. Me, myself, I’m moving from man to woman. Maybe being a woman means one thing for one person and something else for others. But in my mind, or more especially in my heart and soul, I’m already a woman. It’s been that way since I was very young, I’ve identified strongly as female, it’s just in recent years that I’ve been able to go about living more truthfully from that place.

BN: What does it mean to you to be a woman?

AH: Its very strange, because obviously I could say it means to be like my mother or my sister or like those movie stars I saw in the magazines and dreamt to be as a child. But from very early on, when I was maybe six or earlier, I always felt much more comfortable with my feminine side. So I guess for me, fundamentally, it always meant something very simple, to be myself. To live from my own truth.

BN: So from an early age you had a strong sense of who you were.

AH: Absolutely. Deep down inside, even as a young child, whatever society tried to make me believe, I knew that I wasn’t a boy. The only examples I had that I identified with were those beautiful images from those old MGM studio movies or those torn out magazine pages pinned to my bedroom wall. They were all the same woman; tall, blonde, beautiful, successful, smiling…….happy. But that in itself is society’s projection of what it expects from a woman, isn’t it? However healthy or unhealthy that is. She has to be beautiful, she has to smile, she has to be successful, she needs to have a boyfriend, she needs to wear beautiful clothes and behave in a certain way. I think, to be honest, from a young age I aspired to be that woman, because that image was my only reference of a woman who was seemingly comfortable in her own self. It was an image that did or did not come naturally to me. But imagine how it is for kids today, in this age of gossip mags, social media and reality TV! That image has become so distorted, it’s almost unobtainable. But I also feel that women have shattered those stereotypes, it’s a new era, but a mutated version of that still exists and it’s still very much promoted and force fed by the social media and advertising.

BN: Where did you grow up?

AH: I grew up in Rome. I lived right next to the Vatican, you know, everyday walking past all those people praying and all being so very well behaved. It was very conservative, pretty boring, very strict. I never finished college. They kicked me out, I was too much for them. It was an awful time; the other kids would take the piss out of me, hit me and do bad stuff. The teachers too, they were more than conservative. Most of the time I was home schooled.

BN: How was it at home?

AH: Strange. My parents were afraid. They thought people would judge them when they saw me and start to talk. I was very skinny, I don’t know, I would often have bruises. It was pretty turbulent, all the time my father, he used to call me “Monster” always shouting trying to discipline me. Even as a child, age of six, I never had a moment where I could be like “Ok, you’re fine the way you are and it’s ok” ……never. When I was about twelve, I tried to escape. I climbed through a window and ran to the street and tried to hitchhike a car out of the city. But the police got me back into the house. And that was a big drama.

BN: Did things change after that?

AH: No, things at home had got pretty bad. My father had become very abusive and no one would believe me, so I thought, “I can’t do this all my life”. When I was 16, I ran away for real. I asked a friend to drive me with his car to the Swiss boarder. He brought me to where all the truck drivers get their petrol and other things. I stayed all night by those trucks and then in the morning I asked a guy, a truck driver for a ride. He gave me a lift all the way to Germany. I went to Munich, stayed there for a week, but it was awful. Then I found a way to get some money, you know……… Then when I had enough, I bought a bus ticket to Berlin. It wasn’t fun, but I knew I had to keep moving, I couldn’t go home anymore. There was nothing left for me there. – I was thinking about this all the other day. I was in a bookshop in Soho and they had two Thomas Wolfe books next to each other; ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ and ‘You can’t go home again’. Funny.

Photo The Art and Soul of Survival. A conversation with Angel Hope

BN: I remember a quote from the ‘Single Child’ performance which read “What ever gets you there, isn’t always the best route”

AH: All I have is my own story and my own experiences. ‘Single child’ was a lot about surviving on the streets of Paris. I was very innocent at the time. I had no money I was sleeping rough, I was thinking, you know, “Ah it’s going to be fine.” But it was a very hard period; I had to struggle to live. I would see guys selling themselves on the street and it looked kind of easy. So I thought, Ok let’s try it. I didn’t know how to do it, or even start. It seemed a little dangerous just to hangout on one of those streets and for some stranger to pull up in their care. So I was like, shall I find a place? A strip club maybe? I was going to these places, but they were like, “Ah no, you’re to young.“ Then I ran into this guy who told me about a place, alongside the Seine. It was under a strange old bridge. Anyway, there was everyone there; young guys, old guys, it was fucked up. I said to myself “Ok, I’ll do this just because I need to” But then after a while, it wasn’t just because I needed to. I got trapped. People would be like, Ah you can stay with me. I had no place to stay so I would say yes, but then they became like boyfriends, then they would get abusive. It was crazy, vicious circles. The way I was living, you know, putting myself in those kinds of situations. Living rough on the street and then going in strange peoples’ cars. Obviously bad things happened. I was very naive.

BN: ” Time Kills Love, Love Kills Time ” your triptych series from the Berlin show last year, depicted a rape scene. It was a very violent image, but also very beautiful, full of colour and texture. It was talking about AIDS in a very direct way as a character hiding in the wings, waiting to enter a scene.

AH: Yeah, that image was a lot to do with questions. But to be honest, I’ve come to realize that it don’t matter who gave it to me. It doesn’t matter who, how or when because nothings gonna change that now. You see I got that because of my lifestyle choices. I remember when I had to sell my body in Paris, I would have condoms with me and then people would be like “No, no, no” and they used to pay me more to do it without condoms. That was a stupid thing to do, because probably one of those guys gave it to me.

BN: You’ve collaborated on a lot projects with the Terrence Higgins Trust, Visual AIDS and other HIV/AIDS charities around the world.

AH: Yes. Figures are rising around the world. People gotta talk about it. A lot of people think AIDS is no longer a threat. They think, “Ah it’s not going to happen to me” or they think, “Oh you know, people used to die of that in the 80’s” or only gay people or people in Africa.” But any time with anyone you don’t know could be a risk because, let’s be honest, whatever the person says, you never know. It’s a human disease; straight, gay, woman or man.

BN: It’s crazy how many people I know don’t use protection with people they’ve just met. Women and men.

Photo The Art and Soul of Survival. A conversation with Angel Hope

AH:You’re right. I have so many friends who are Gay, Straight and Transgender, who think it’s a thing of the past or something that someone else gets. People even start to think now, that nobody is going to die of it because the “ medication is so good “ and I’m like well actually, even if you don’t die, you can still get infected and once you’re infected it’s going to stay with you for the rest of your life. If you die or not, you still have the disease. There’s a very real reason why they use the term ‘pandemic’.

Awareness is vital and that comes through knowledge and learning. That has to be made more available. It’s no rehearsal, let me tell you! Many of my friends didn’t make it, many didn’t have access to care and to learning. That’s why I value projects like the Terrence Higgins Trust, Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundation and the UNAIDS Global initiative around the world that are fighting for the rights and lives of those living with HIV/AIDS. Spreading awareness to try and stop the spread of this disease. People got to wake up! – I mean, look at me now, I’m very sick, I’m still alive, but still I’m very very sick. People keep saying, “Oh, but you look fine”, but it’s not fine, is it? I would be fine if I would be disease free.

BN: You’ve spoken about your work being a message for the ‘Me’s’ out there, the ‘Us’ ‘

AH: My story is not unique, I can only speak from my own experiences, but they are not unique. I am who I am and I have no apologies. But there are many Me’s ‘ out there, many ‘ Us’ ‘. Girls and boys, boys and girls. I choose to dedicate my work to those people who are fighting to be who they are, who have no voice, who have no basic human rights. Because apparently even now, me a transgender woman, I have no human right to walk freely in the streets of a modern capitol city like London, because I run the risk of being attacked by some guy who has the freedom to decide, “Lets destroy the life of this person”. Then I’m sure, that somewhere in south London or Paris or Berlin, or maybe even Russia or Uganda, there’s another girl like me, who’s been harassed, spat at, rapped, followed, but she has nowhere to go, no way to speak out, no way to run and you know, I ask, why this person has to be left alone? I wish I could reach out and help her, to protect her. When I called the police to report the first harassments they said, “Ah, if you’re in real trouble you have to call 999”. There will be people who don’t have a phone. There will be people who don’t have the courage to call 999. Change is so important and so needed. But this will only happen with a shift in the perceptions and prejudices, not only in the minds and hearts of the normal person in the street, but also the governments and their policies. Lives are being destroyed and lives are being lost. All I have is my own voice and my ability for drawing, my performances, my stupid fucked up brain to make artwork, to express my thoughts and concerns, to create a message or even a warning. If I can some how challenge these subjects through my art, then maybe, just maybe I can reach out and provoke some kind of thought and debate and help plant a seed for change. If I can do that, then in some way, what I do holds meaning. What was it that dear Mr. Milk said? “If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door in the country”. What a great man he was! Bless him.

END.

Two weeks after this interview took place, Angel’s attacker was charged and sentenced to three months in prison. He was released after serving two months of that sentence. Angel sort a restraining order against the man, but no action was taken by the authorities.