Trans bodies and trans lives are celebrated in Mister Samo's Southsea art exhibition: I Exist
I Exist is a global arts project celebrating trans bodies, making visible the often vilified or misunderstood.
The creation of Southsea-based street artist, trans man and trans activist Samo White, it represents the culmination of more than a year’s work.
This exhibition addresses the lack of visibility of trans bodies in art. Featuring trans people at a variety of stages in their social/medical transition, it positively reflects trans people and normalises visibility of trans bodies.
Samo, who works as Mister Samo, first had the idea while laid up following back surgery last February.
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He says: ‘I was pretty much bed-bound for the whole of the first lockdown, and I started doing those drawings then. That's when I kind of formulated those ideas and started really drawing it. It kind of manifested quite organically into this whole project.’
I Exist allows trans people to see themselves portrayed in art and aims to engage the wider community in a conversation.
A former Guide Awards Best Artist trophy winner, Samo also hopes it will educate viewers with limited knowledge of trans issues.
Samo has been painting since 2013, working in spray paint and acrylics. His work has always focused on gender transition often using himself as the model.
He has been invited to paint at several paint festivals, the most high profile was 2019 World Pride in New York City where his work received global press coverage.
Some of the works feature nude bodies, breaking down the knowledge barriers around trans bodies and showing that trans bodies can be beautiful even though they don’t fulfil society’s traditional view of how a body should look.
The week-long exhibition, funded by Arts Council England, showcases around 50 portraits in a variety of mediums, accompanied with stories, history and the context in which trans people live to educate viewers on trans issues. The subjects come from the UK and abroad.
Samo explains: ‘I've done a little series of me, and I encapsulate my journey through those eight pictures.
‘The rest are other sitters – other trans people in the community, some friends, some people that I've looked up to over the years, some inspirational people that a lot of people might know, and that was the nice thing about the whole project.
‘I've always used myself as subject matter, but this is a well-rounded representation of the community - I really wanted to show that diversity.’
Even the process of doing the work became a positive for Samo and his subjects. Unable to get together in real life because of the pandemic, photos and drawings were exchanged online.
‘Because we were all in lockdown and everyone was doing everything online, I asked a few friends initially, would you mind if I drew you?
‘That exchange in itself, when you're talking with someone who is trans and has gender dysphoria, it's quite empowering.
‘I was able to send illustrations which made them feel really good about their bodies. A lot of the people said they'd never even taken a picture of themselves with their top off, or in vulnerable situations, so it became this empowering exchange.
‘And then I built up relationships with all of these people, they've all become my friends on a really intimate level because of that.
‘Social media has been a really useful tool to connect with these people that I might not have been able to do otherwise.’
Samo’s distinctive style is visible around the city in places like The Honest Politician pub, or Staggeringly Good brewery’s taproon.
He has received private commissions from many people including Game of Thrones actress Kate Dickie and the punk band Sleaford Mods.
‘You just end up reaching different audiences. My work speaks to a certain demographic and a certain audience, and to people who want to learn and want to do better.
‘We've seen a lot of change happening in the last couple of years, although it's been quite challenging, people have paid a lot of attention to things that need changing socially, and I think my work has maybe resonated with a lot of people.
‘There's not a lot of people in the art world doing what I'm doing, so it is going to attract attention, which is great.’
The actual exhibition isn’t the only strand to this project, education is important to Samo too. To that end there is also an accompanying book and there will be a programme of talks and workshops running daily alongside the exhibition.
‘Because of the way the world has been over the past couple of years, having a book that we can send out, it could be an amazing tool and resource for someone to have in the privacy of their own home.
‘It makes it accessible to everyone regardless of their actual location, or maybe their point in their own transition – there's something very personal about having a book.’
‘We’re also running free workshops every single day of the week while the exhibition is on, which makes it super-accessible for everyone.
‘We've had such a cool response from the community about the workshops that they're something I would like to do on a regular basis down here in Portsmouth.’
As Samo admits, this has been a huge labour of love for him: ‘This is a passion project. I never started this out to make money from, and I don't care if I do make money from it – I wanted this tangible thing to be in the world and to exist for everybody.’
Entry to the exhibition is free. The workshops are also free, but need to be booked online.
I Exist is at The Coastguard Studio, Southsea from November 12-19. Check out and book the workshops at eventbrite.co.uk.
A message from the Editor, Mark Waldron
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