Artist Ulay Breaks the Prickly Boundaries of Gender Roles

I took a seat in the back of the dimly lit room at the USC Graduate Fine Arts Building, unsure of what to expect from this performance. Ulay strode onto the stage with quiet confidence. His long grey hair tucked behind his ears and his matching scraggly beard hanging a few inches below his chin, he sat down with a medium sized spiny cactus in front of him.

He began the performance by dipping his paintbrush in some paint and, one by one, coloring each cactus spine a baby pink. This gave the cactus a softer, less intimidating appearance. Anne Sexton's poem, "Her Kind," began to play repeatedly in the background like a hypnotizing chant.

Then, he took a pair of scissors and cut the spikes that he had painted off of half the cactus, even though he spent all of that time painting each individual spine with small meticulous strokes. When finished, the Visions and Voices crowd for Ulay's "Live Artists Live" peformance erupted in applause and he quietly uttered thank you.

It was extremely perplexing and difficult for me to understand what the performance organized by Amelia Jones and the USC Roski School of Art and Design meant at first, but there was a slideshow and discussion after that allowed me to put the pieces together.

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Ulay explained that he chose pink because he believes that pink is the color of his soul. He also displayed a few old pictures of himself that he took with a Polaroid with half his face painted in glamorous feminine makeup and his hair curled and styled, while the other half bristled with masculine beard. He wore a fancy fur coat on the feminine side, and a Hawaiian shirt with a cigarette poking out of the side of his mouth on the masculine.

These androgynous photos reminded me of the cactus that he created. One half of the cactus was painted pink, a color that society often associates with femininity and softness, while the other half, barren with no spikes, could be seen as the masculine side. The spikes could be representative of hair of which women tend to have more. However, the side with spikes could also be interpreted as tough and "manly," and the side without spikes viewed as gentle and delicate.

Through this performance, Ulay expressed that someone can exhibit both masculine and feminine attributes at the same time, and that people aren't confined to picking just one side of the spectrum.

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His performance and photography — part of the two-day Visions & Voices' "Live Artists Live: Performance Art and the Archive" event — strongly relate to the recent focus on transgenderism in America that has surfaced with pop culture figures, Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox. We have been able to see how Jenner, someone who seems to be the epitome of manliness by being an Olympic athlete, doesn't feel that her true gender identity matches the male sex that she was assigned at birth.

Ulay shares Jenner's experience through his artistic expression by showing that masculine and feminine traits can peacefully coexist. Ulay gives voice to how transgender people might be feeling on the inside.

Ulay revealed to the crowd that his name means "maybe" in Hebrew. He said that he took self-portraits in order to figure out his identity, and that he still isn't completely sure of who he is. I believe he has changed his name to something that means "maybe" because it is representative of uncertainty and struggles with self-actualization.

By sharing his personal struggle through his photography and live art, he has allowed people to feel more comfortable with whom they are. Many people, including me, struggle with finding an identity and it is extremely reassuring to hear that other people, even prominent artists like Ulay, experience the same thing.

Reach Staff Reporter Kelsey Towfiq here.