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Discovering personal narratives

“On and Off (Brenda and Samantha)” by James Drake. The drawing/collage work is part of Drake’s solo show opening at Charlotte Jackson later this week. (Courtesy of Charlotte Jackson)

SANTA FE, N.M. — The body of work James Drake showed at New York City’s Whitney Biennial in 2000 was a bit ahead of its time.

His photos and videos exhibited at the renowned contemporary art show documented a group of transgender sex workers in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. Nearly 20 years ago, Drake says, viewers – and society overall – weren’t as familiar with or understanding of the transgender community as they are today.

He said he had no idea trangender issues would become so prominent.

“I wasn’t even interested in that,” the Santa Fe-based artist said during a recent interview. “I was interested in documenting their lives. Not as sex workers, but as people.”

Drake, who lived in the El Paso/Juárez area for 4 decades, spent several years in the mid-to-late ’90s getting to know his transgender subjects at their homes on Juárez’s Calle Mariscal and in local hangouts. A book of his resulting photos published back then included correlating poetry by Santa Fe writer Jimmy Santiago Baca.

Drake has continued to use the same body of work for inspiration in different mediums: drawing, photo collage and his own poetry.

An exhibition called “Que Linda La Brisa” featuring drawing-collage hybrids – accompanied by prints of images taken in the late ’90s – opens Friday, May 24, at Charlotte Jackson Fine Art and will remain up until June 30. The works on display, each of which stands several feet tall, were made about 4-5 years ago, and are examples of how Drake’s previous work influences his ongoing artistic process.

“They’re all interconnected and all inter-related to me,” he said. “Whether it’s … doing a drawing, video or photograph, it’s the same thing. It’s just approaching it a little bit differently.”

The initial project started because of he and his wife’s then involvement with a border nonprofit, the Mexican Federation of Private Associations, or FEMAP, which supported vulnerable groups in the Juárez area.

He said he asked officials which groups were the most at risk in the borderland.

“They said the transvestites, because their lifespan was, on average, after they got to the border from the interior, about seven years,” he said. “They were beat up, they were killed, they died from drugs.”

“Transvestites,” he later noted, was how many of those he documented described themselves in the ’90s. Today, as language and culture has evolved, he describes them as transgender.

Many of the women he met, he said, had lived very tragic lives. Some had gone to dangerous lengths for gender-affirming procedures, resorting to “back-alley hacks” because they could not afford reputable doctors. They were also frequently arrested for being sex workers.

Most of them, he added, had come from other parts of Mexico to Juárez. “Their families didn’t accept who they were, so they came up to the border because there were more opportunities for them,” he said.

Translating video interviews he did with the women, he points out how some had been there for several years and others just for a few weeks. One women told him that she had a husband. Some of the girls also had day jobs, like working at bars. Another worked at a school.

It was those kinds of personal narratives that Drake said he wanted to discover.

“I think the obvious is, OK, they’re transgender and they’re sex workers, and that’s pretty easy to do,” said Drake. “But I wanted something that was more deep and more fulfilling for them and me, and how they related to the world around them.”

Over time, he built a rapport with the women – at lunches and telling them about his family – before asking to take photographs. Drake also said he paid them for the shoots and they’ve received proceeds from any works sold.

He said he tried to stay in touch with some of the women after the project was over. He said some have died, underlining the dangerousness of that line of work.

Old images re-emerge

About half of the Drake pieces that are part of the new show feature direct inspirations from his ’90s project – either the use of old images or large drawings inspired by old images – and the other half uses drawings of female figures based on images from art periods such as ancient Greece or the Renaissance.

Drake said he sees these archetypal, statuesque images as something that many of the women he knew in Juárez aspired to look like. “What they thought … a female figure should be,” Drake said. “The sort of idealized, very powerful, female figure.”

He recreated part of a photo he took back in the day of two women, Brenda and Samantha, for one piece. He was inspired to draw the pair because of what he described as their exaggerated features. Drake pointed out their dark lip liner and dramatically drawn, arched eyebrows. The particular scene he drew was based on a photo of them getting ready to go out. Brenda is wearing a one-piece leather bodysuit.

Among the images on the piece he wrote a poem, inspired by Brenda and Samantha:

Long lean nostrils inhale cold air and exhale

Nearby she cleans an eyelid with a dirty fingernail

And gazes past her white breath dreams.

Brenda, Drake remembered, also worked at a nurse in a Juarez hospital, presenting as a man during the day.

“I think that was an area where they could be women … what they felt was really them,” Drake said of why the women may have pursued prostitution despite having day jobs. “Not necessarily sex work, but who they were. They were really women and this afforded them that opportunity to be real women.”

A large piece with several small, circular photos of the Juárez women is called “We Pant for Revelation,” named after a line in another poem he wrote.

He explained that just like everyone longs to be informed and knowledgeable about the world around them, so do these women, both for personal understanding of their own identities, as well as for everyone around them also to understand.

“They pant for revelation just as much as anyone else,” Drake explained. “The revelation that they are women; that this is who they are.”