The Politics of Luxury: Tourmaline in Her Powerful New Photographs Art Basel

In the most striking photography from his solo booth at Art Basel, with New York gallery Chapter NY, the artist and activist Tourmaline, wearing bright red pumps, matching nails and a fluffy white bathrobe that seems to go on forever, gazes at the viewer from her seat on a leafy terrace. The image was taken at the Beverly Hills Hotel in Los Angeles, which was renovated and extended by black architect Paul R. Williams in the late 1940s, at a time when he was not allowed to stay there in because of discriminatory policies.

For Tourmaline, Williams’ life story encapsulates the extremes of opportunity and injustice, affluence and exclusion that have long been central themes in her work. “There’s a power in allowing ourselves to focus on pleasurable things, things that bring us ease and joy and feelings of luxury,” she says.

The image of the Beverly Hills Hotel is the centerpiece of a presentation that also includes black-and-white Tourmaline self-portraits taken amid the remains of the Roberts House Ranch, a Williams-designed home in the hills overlooking Malibu that burned down in a 1982 fire. In these images, she is partially concealed, wrapped in a sprawling white dress. Prior to the fair, the artist spoke about what drew her to these sites and how her interest in Williams’ buildings meshes with her works highlighting the experiences of Black, queer and trans individuals and communities.

The Art Newspaper: How did you become interested in Paul R. Williams?

Tourmaline: I’m starting to really trust my artistic instincts, so if I hear a name repeatedly, I want to follow it. I had been thinking about Paul R. Williams for a few years and Arthur Jafa, who was my cinematographer on Happy birthday, Marsha! (2018) and taught me a lot about cinema and art. I remember talking to a friend who was like, ‘Oh, you know, AJ [Jafa] really wanted to be an architect,” and he had a similar fascination with Paul R. Williams. And it made so much sense – it felt like a sign. And a book that I really like is that of Janna Ireland Concerning Paul R. Williams [2020]. It’s a really powerful series of photographs, and when I heard about it, I started to find great resonance in Janna’s work, and that was another moment of connection.

It’s give Countach (2022), filmed at the Beverly Hills Hotel, which was renovated by black architect Paul R. Williams Courtesy of the artist and Chapter NY

Williams was a black architect from Memphis, where my family is from. His family moved to Los Angeles, and he was responsible for developing much of the Beverly Hills Hotel at this time when black people were not allowed to stay there. He was therefore responsible for forming this space of ease and abundance, yet it was inaccessible to so many people.

The underlying feeling of work is to tune into dreams around ease, rest, luxury and abundance


How did these ideas shape this new body of work?

The underlying idea or feel of the work is to attune to dreams around ease, rest, luxury and abundance, and the context of these dreams launched in times of heightened violence towards black trans life and increased systemic violence around black communities. How can we agree on these dreams even in the midst of the mess of one thing we live with: climate collapse and the great structures and systems that shape our lives and provide conditions in which we cannot find life ? How to tune in to the presence of something else?

And this is also in the context of the afterlife in black codes and anti-vagrancy laws, which were specifically used after the legal abolition of slavery to keep former slaves in really coercive working relationships with landowners. So if you moved around town and didn’t have a job and didn’t produce in a particular way, you could be arrested and put in jail. These became really exacerbated life and death issues.

As someone from a line of formerly enslaved people in the southern United States – my grandparents were children of sharecroppers – the afterlife of black codes and anti-vagrancy laws is truly powerful . As an artist and an organizer, that’s something I really struggle with: what’s my worth if I’m not producing all the time? This question of production in this moment of late capitalism is something that many of us have seen our internal conditions shaped by.

Tourmalines silver spectrum (2022) Courtesy of the artist and Chapter NY

The photos visualize scenes of luxury and abundance, but in a sense don’t they also critique the systems shaping those ideals of luxury we aspire to?

What I’ve come to understand is that every subject is made up of two subjects, the willed and the lack thereof – it’s an Abraham-Hicks saying. Sometimes we think we are talking about luxury, for example, [but] the way I see luxury predates a lot of these systems that excluded so many people. My friend Miss Major, who was at Stonewall [the landmark 1969 gay rights protest in New York]and I made a movie about her called personal things (2016) and it’s about how in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s – and still today in prisons and detention centers across the United States – you would be penalized if you were a trans person wearing, in quotes, women’s clothing. It was the literal landscape on which someone like Miss Major or Marsha P. Johnson stood loud and proud and showed all they were at any given time. There were these heightened stakes.

What’s powerful about this is that, as Miss Major says, sometimes you just can’t get out. There may be an increased presence of people who will harass or arrest you. Sometimes you just don’t have the energy to do it. But can you find pleasure and luxury in a drink of fresh water? Can you tune into the presence of something that feels luxurious, even if it is priceless at some point? Does the price have to be the central point to allow you this feeling of luxury? This is really what the work hopes to bring me and anyone who finds resonance to it.

• Tourmaline’s work is on display at Chapter NY’s booth in the Statements area of ​​Art Basel

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