Byron and Aphrodite: The Creatives Defying Gender Roles

Byron and Aphrodite: The Creatives Defying Gender Roles

Artists Byron Newman and Aphrodite Papadatou, separated by a 40 year age gap and brought up within contrasting cultural climates, met through a family friend and quickly connected over their shared punk and anti-establishment ideologies. Aphrodite told Byron of her ongoing artistic project in which she paints intimate single-portraits of the drag queens closely connected to the ‘Sink the Pink’ cultural movement. In response, Byron talked through a series of photographs he had taken in Paris in the early-1980s, of a transgender prostitute community largely made up by immigrants from the South American Diaspora. The works were published in 1984 as a book entitled ‘The Ultimate Angels’, accompanied by interviews with the women and Byron’s then wife, French film star, Brigitte Ariel. It quickly became apparent that not only were these separate bodies of work connected thematically, but both series were borne out of a shared desire to portray the reality of outsider, marginal and sub-cultural communities. As Aphrodite put it, we have “a similar voice but from within different eras”.

Byron grew up in the era of glam-rock, of pushing the boundaries of sexuality and androgyny, as well as the period in which the women’s liberation movement was beginning to make headway. The two ideologies are connected and pertinent for the artist and his artistic output. For Byron, his notions of ‘gender’ and ‘sexuality’ always were, and are, more fluid than his conservative counterparts. His earlier work was focused on musicians such as David Bowie and Iggy Pop – figures that were present within his cultural circle and pushing the boundaries of appropriateness and masculinity. He went on to do some social documentary work, whilst also working repeatedly for the erotic French magazine, Lui;  it is within these milieus that ‘The Ultimate Angels’ series can be contextualised.  

At the time, the term ‘transgender’ hadn’t been invented, which goes to show just how marginal the subject was and how provocative the publication must have been at the time it was released.  Despite a surprisingly positive critical response at the time, it is surprising Byron’s images aren’t more widely known or circulated. Published nearly a decade before the cult classic documentary “Paris is Burning”, which focused on the New York drag ball culture and community of the late 1980s, ‘The Ultimate Angels’ photographs are an earlier and equally important social document of  the emergence of transgender culture, that seeks, in a similar way, to give the subjects control of their identity and representation. As Byron explained, “the idea of the book was not to titillate, but to show people how these women genuinely lived.” He claims there was no sort of aesthetic intervention on his part as the artist, and that he simply recorded what was there, although he admits that this was partly due to the fact that these subjects were difficult to control as they had a such a fixed idea of what they wanted to look like.

Most of the photographs are taken in the womens’ “dingy and decrepit” studio rooms where they lived as a community, although occasionally Byron would photograph them within spaces, which were aspirational for the women, such as music and theatre venues. These photographs appear powerful and progressive even today. The sense of a pre-conceived and articulated form of self-representation is reminiscent of Cindy Sherman’s work, in the way in which the women appear playfully performative yet steadfastly self-assured.

For transgender women who make sex their trade, the study of women is a necessary and all-encompassing pastime; performance and exaggeration are a product of this analysis. Byron said a paying client and the “promise of sex was essentially a vindication of their femininity.” He says that the women were successful at their trade, suggesting this was due, in part, to the Parisians’ forward-thinking ideas surrounding sexuality and sex, but also due to the fact that none of them had fully transitioned and were able to cater to men’s ‘marginal’ sexual desires.  

Despite these transgender women being immortalised as commanding and potent ‘angels,’ what has stuck with Byron is not their grace or sex appeal, but their harrowing back-stories. With LGBT rights very much in their infancy there was also no surrounding narrative or vernacular to support these women, instead they fostered their own communities and safe spaces where they could achieve some semblance of freedom in self-expression. Self-inflicted silicone implants were widespread, as was backstreet surgery, and the AIDS epidemic was at its height. Moreover, most of them were illegal immigrants, always in fear that they might get sent back home. When speaking of their sad situation, Byron pauses and ponders whether any of these women could possibly have survived such low-standards of living, “they’ve all, almost certainly passed”. Redolent of Roland Barthes’ notion is that all portrait photographs are essentially indexes of death that leave a trace of the person who once existed; Byron’s powerful images of transgender angels, represented how they wished to be represented, are pertinent and personal documents with great posterity value.   

Aphrodite Papadatou grew up between her native Greece – which instilled in her a free-thinking outlook and gave her a natural grasp for lofty philosophical and humanist concepts – and England where she is now based. Her father was a strident political activist and instilled in her a strong sense of determination and empathy for the ‘outsider’- who she says is also, ultimately, herself. For Aphrodite, falling into the Sink the Pink crowd early on, before the gentrification of east London, was like finding a family of happy outcasts, bonded through a similar sense of not belonging within ‘mainstream’ culture. Whilst the Sink the Pink drag collective has become a phenomenal success, Aphrodite admits the early days were tinged with melancholy in a similar vein to that of Byron’s Angels, most of the queens were from small towns and felt alienated as “they were the only gay in the village”.  So they moved to London to find a sympathetic and progressive community where they could express themselves freely.

At the Herrick Gallery exhibition, Aphrodite is presenting a mixture of her Sink the Pink portraits and some works directly inspired by Byron’s ‘Ultimate Angels’ photographs, although as she explains, all her work is deeply personal and therefore implicitly a subjective interpretation, an “amalgamation of my identity and history” woven into vibrant and psychedelic mural paintings.

Aphrodite’s work is reminiscent of the German expressionists, especially that of Egon Schiele and the way in which he represented his models as painfully thin and in order to articulate certain ineffable emotions. For Aphrodite, her use of thin figures within her portraits is due to the ambiguity imbued in androgynous body-types; she is interested in the subtlety and similarity suggested via this aesthetic. She also argues that when drawing people the experience becomes personal and meditative, and the sitter ultimately becomes a mirror onto herself, becoming a self-portrait in a sense. In both her art and her everyday interactions, Aphrodite doesn’t contemplate upon or distinguish gender, and instead attempts to elucidate and celebrate our similarities rather than differences. In this sense, the ‘fluidity of the line’ is a fascination for the young artist, both in a practical artistic sense but also the performative fluidity of gender. We spoke at length about our joint distaste for the current trend to categorise sexuality and gender, agreeing that it often engenders separatism and marginalisation, rather than understanding and cohesiveness – which surely must be the original aim?  Aphrodite laments the politics involved in the subject, suggesting that it is really “society honing this sense of sexual difference.”

Aphrodite’s use of bright colours, intricate patterns and symbology communicates a message of positivity; they are unabashedly joyful and celebrate the brave and triumphant nature of her sitters. The colours are also reminiscent of the aesthetic of drag culture today, unashamedly bold and playful, she suggests that this “disguising of pain with pop colours” is not a pretentious act, but authentic, and lends itself to a total freedom in representation. In this sense, the works inspired by Byron’s photographs have developed into an amalgamation of signs and subjectivity, eradicating the aura of pain present in the photography, and amplifying the Angels’ triumphant energy. The portraits of the Sink the Pink Queens are focused on the figure’s sense of fluidity, performance and elucidate the sitter’s spirit as a unique aspirational entity. Aphrodite says they’re all just “aspiring to be human and happy,” and suggests that this desire is implicit within the human psyche and is relatable to everyone.  This sense of empathy should connect us, in spite of whatever ‘gender’ or ‘sexual’ separatism is being proliferated in the modern-day media. Aphrodite’s artistic work contributes to a discussion towards inclusivity and understanding, due to her sympathetic and empathetic eye and painter’s touch.

Ultimate Angels, Identity through Transgender, is on show at the Herrick Gallery, Mayfair from the 12th-23rd of July and is entirely worthy of an artistic pilgrimage.  


Written by Charlie Siddick


Visuals by Byron Newman and Aphrodite Papadatou

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