Kaita Niwa recalls one of her earliest memories: playing dress up with her sister and cousin, wearing Singaporean silk dresses and nail polish. "I was like any other child playing with their favorite toys or reading their favorite book, gleaming with joy," she writes to me in an email. But then her mother made a small comment about how those clothes didn't really fit her. Niwa says that she knows her mom didn't mean to hurt her, but the comment sent her into a "sinuous pit of doubt."
In her show "Nyu Hafu" at Terrault Contemporary, there's a small photo printed on aluminum featuring two young girls standing at the top of the stairs, wearing dresses like the ones Niwa described. One of the girls strikes a pose, eyes closed with a slight smile, twirling her skirt. She was Photoshopped in.
"I haven't been able to get that dress and those words out of my mind until now," Niwa says. In this new body of work, she took old family photos including this one and manipulated them "to create a reality in young girlhood I will never have a shot at again, but finally feel at ease with after having created these images."
After the opening of "Nyu Hafu" (which, Niwa explains, is a term used in Japan that translates to "new half" and describes the transgender experience) at Terrault a couple of weeks ago, she went home and came out as transgender to her mom and sister over Skype.
The statement for Niwa's show stresses a heavy, personal goal: "With the hope of reestablishing a relationship with her estranged sister, she is dedicating the upcoming show to her as a means of explaining and apologizing for her decade long emotional absence." The work, Niwa says, "didn't stop at the gallery walls, it was integral to my coming-out process." She says a huge weight was lifted when she was able to come out through her artwork to her family.
In the gallery, Niwa's photo prints on aluminum—which are mostly a standard, intimate 5"x7" or 8"x12" family photo size, though some are larger—hang on the walls with plenty of room around them. The photos are manipulated, rather subtly and carefully, where a digitally rendered feminine avatar—Niwa's stand-in—joins her sister on a playground, or sits next to her mom on a couch with a golden retriever, or candidly pops into the lower left corner of the picture while her mom and sister smile for the camera, surrounded by gift wrap.
If you take a casual glance around the room you might not notice this slightly uncanny avatar for a little while; the color and light and tones, for the most part, in the character mesh well with those of the people in the photo around her. But there are little glitchy moments—or perhaps just imperfect digital blending and blurring—where the ghost of an arm will sort of hover above the avatar's arm, or where your eye runs into a bump in the inflatable kiddie pool, where Niwa as a child has been edited out, but not entirely. And occasionally, as in 'DSC02362,' the avatar feels more real than her counterparts. Here, she and her sister and mother stand outside, between green hedges, and maybe due to the lossiness of digital photos and digital processes, the avatar is more vivid and complete than her mother and sister, whose images are pale, faded, and pixelated.
Niwa is careful to say that these works aren't meant to rewrite or erase how she was raised. "It's very important for me, during this transitional period, to frequently acknowledge the physical reality of my childhood," she says, "that I had been raised as a boy in a male-presenting young body. There is a big part of me that is bitter that this was the case but I do not want to dismiss the fact that I had a fulfilling childhood with a loving family as this person who experienced boyhood."
The feminine avatar in these pieces, she adds, isn't meant to erase or replace her "boy body," but rather to "express the perspective I've always had in my head growing up."
This body of work seems to mark a shift in her artistic practice, too. Previously, her work would address some of the issues she's confronting directly now—such as issues of gender and dysphoria—but it was often in an ambiguous or tangential way. "To produce even one more series of work that would merely serve as a distraction to what was going on in my personal life yet again would be too much," she says. "I had reached my threshold." Now, she's finding the root.
Three pieces, presented as a triptych, are the most visible outliers of the work in this show. On the left, 'New Half,' a nude, androgynous figure floats inside of a clear vessel in front of what looks like both outer space and something on a microscope slide. In the middle, 'Venus on Impact,' a woman wearing a traditional, floral dress—who I read as the same figure from the left panel—stands in front of an unmade bed in some kind of chamber in outer space, with Earth in the background. On the right panel, '887 2 AN 515,' blurry hands reach out towards an elephant floating against the same background, with dozens of little pills blowing out of its trunk.
As a young teen, she says, "I didn't quite understand everything that I was feeling, but I knew what I didn't want." She bought testosterone-blocking drugs from an online black market source, and took them from her junior year in high school until about her second year in college. "Now that I am on actual HRT under the guidance of a real doctor, I'm reflecting on the adolescent chaos that was an uncounseled and potentially life-threatening practice."
"I keep coming back to the spatial theme because I can't shake this feeling (with now legitimate HRT), that every cell in my body is coming into alignment with the stars in the universe, however being as entropic as the stars are, I am simultaneously feeling everything exploding within and around me in order for me to feel whole."
"Nyu Hafu" is up at Terrault Contemporary through July 30. Terrault has recently moved from the Copycat into the Maryland Art Place building. For more information, visit terraultcontemporary.com