Mokomokai are the severed heads of Maori tribesmen covered in tā moko, traditional Maori chiseled “tattoos.” Unlike the tattoos in other cultures, ta moko was often carved into the flesh with pigment applied to the wound. This resulted in three-dimensional, scarred designs. These heads, although quite interesting in themselves, have an incredible history, transitioning from tribal and spiritual objects to curios, and now to museum artifacts with dubious acquisition histories.
Although the exact meaning and purpose of the tattoos cannot be adequately unpacked here, suffice it to say they were important; different sources have linked the tattoos to written names, markers of prominence, and lifelong companions.  When a person with a full facial markings died, his face was often preserved and stored by the person’s family in an ornate box, later being brought out for religious ceremonies.
After the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand in the late 18th Century, the Mokomokai began acquiring a new status as curios. The first traded head is said to have been acquired by Captain James Cook in 1770, and shortly thereafter, Mokomokai became extraordinarily popular as currency for Western firearms in an “arms race” between warring tribes. At one point, demand for the heads was so great that Europeans were able to barter for them before their original wearers had been killed. A 1990 text by Abraham Joseph Wharewaka claims that slaves and war criminals (from rival tribes) would be dragged onboard ships so that patrons could decide on a head in advance.
This commercial success changed the practice of tā moko entirely; while traditionally, the markings were often applied to people of some prominence within a tribe, the tattoos were now applied for the purpose of sale, even sometimes after the recipient’s death.  Some sources indicate that in these [...]
Currently living and working in New York city where he earned his MFA at Pratt Institute, artist and part-time bartender Johnathan Stanish, or better known by his alter-ego Johnny Tragedy, has his hands in everything. Johnny’s practice ranges from fashion to both kinetic and non-kinetic sculptures.His sculptures borrow heavily from tribal tattoo imagery alluding to neo-tribalism, blending them nicely with screen-printed pop culture emblems.He manages to excitingly bring elements of a subculture still on the fringes of acceptance to a refined New York art-world audience. In an increasingly cynical critical environment, however, it is important to note that the persona Johnny Tragedy is in no way a cynical avatar. Tragedy is an extension of Stanish as well as a direct consequence of his art practice. Tragedy is the Superman to Stanish’s Clark Kent or vice versa. I caught up with Johnny in his Chinatown studio to ask him a few questions in order to get a better understanding of his solo and collaborative fashion, sculpture, and curatorial projects.
Your work is informed by body modification and neo-tribalism. Many of your pieces are either three dimensional representations of tribal tattoos with screen print elements or include direct tattooed elements or piercings. The screen print elements are usually of images of easily identified pop culture icons and imagery. Do you think tattoo and body modification, though they seem to be primarily identified as a subcultural practice, can be placed within the same space as pop culture phenomena?
Have you ever seen the reality show Ink Master? That show pretty much describes this phenomenon.
In your opinion is the divide between subculture and pop culture becoming blurred?
When and why did you [...]
Self-assured, politically driven and sexually liberated, Frida Kahlo’s influence so very nearly went undiscovered; vocal in her leftist ideals and unafraid to go against the grain in a time of political and social oppression, her punkish nature continues to inspire and empower.
The view of her thus far has been one of contrast, from media surrounding her marriage (and divorce and remarriage) and affairs, through which she primarily became known, to her repeated, almost obsessive, depiction of her own self image, giving us an insight into the world through her eyes. “Most artists paint to see, but Kahlo painted to be seen,” says American art critic Deborah Soloman, who suggests her self portraiture was much more than a means of solitary reflection, but a way for the artist to communicate with the world she was so often detached from, something that seems more relevant now than ever, in the age of self-promotion where ‘selfie’ is a now recognised mental disorder.
“I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best,” she once said, her pursuit developing as a means of whiling away the hours spent alone in recuperation following a severe bus accident (in which she suffered a broken spinal column, collarbone, ribs, pelvis, eleven fractures in her right leg, a crushed and dislocated right foot, and a dislocated shoulders) which left her immobile and restricted to her bed.
“From someone who is ill, one doesn’t expect such an explosion of vitality,” says Mexican writer Carlos Monsiváis, in PBS’ The Life and Times of Frida Kahlo. “That was Frida’s great scandal: not what she said or who she slept with, but rather a sick person who refuses to resign herself to be covered with the [...]
An interview with Yvonne Ritter, Stonewall Veteran
Could you please provide us with a bit of background?
I grew up in Brooklyn and went to a parochial grammar school where nuns used to beat you up and tell you were bad if you looked at a boy or a girl. They would make you feel bad about everything you did. I was the oldest of the grand children and I remember one New Years Eve, at the age of eight. I was crying about something and my uncle said “Big boys dont cry”, I replied “I’m not a boy, I’m a girl.” As a reaction he slapped me across the room. At that time I didn’t know what to not say to people.
I was a [...]
Ali Kepenek is the photographer who created a series of portraits of transsexual prostitutes in Istanbul eight years ago. These images are startling on various levels, the power of the material that Kepenek has captured is so raw and unforgiving. There is a reality to the lives of these women which can’t be ignored in how stoic but simultaneously glamourous they appear. This is of course scattered with a kind of unavoidable fragility but Kepenek has so successfully captured moments of a rejected community who have everything going against them in such a conservative country. What is so important about these images is that Kepenek has shown us that issues of gender are universal and how we should approach them should be relentlessly challenged, anyone wanting to question their gender or sexuality should always be supported. Ignorant ideals never disappear but simply evolve but through creating culture around these issues we can all learn how to integrate others into society in the way that they deserve.
We spoke to Ali about how this series of photographs were created and what life was like for these women.
How did this project start?
My family are Turkish but I was brought up in Germany, so every few years I’d visit Istanbul with my parents. One year when I was about twelve years old I experienced this overwhelmingly strong image, I saw a transsexual prostitute on the street who I assumed at the time to be a woman. When I first saw this woman, I felt amazing. I couldn’t really understand what I was seeing. I saw this incredibly strong woman, fighting against a Turkish guy.
You saw a transsexual prostitute fighting a man on the street?
Yeah, that was the thing. For me, it was [...]
To celebrate the 45th anniversary of one of the most important days of the 20th century we have asked Sang Bleu family and friends to share with us their favourite piece of art or culture which explores a queer lifestyle.
The Stonewall Riots took place on the morning of June the 28th 1969 at the Stonewall Inn in the Greenwich Village neighbourhood of New York. This collective rebellion against the police is widely considered one of the most important aspects of history to help in the fight for gay and lesbian liberation.
Not all of the pieces chosen by our friends necessarily directly focus on homosexuality – but the idea of this article is that by thinking beyond the missionary position different progressive behaviours can and have adapted our human behaviour to make the world a more tolerant place.
By challenging what society deems appropriate through sex we’ve looked at both women and men who have questioned how their sexuality informs their gender or place in society, much like how the brave an important individuals did on the June morning of 1969. Some of these pieces of culture chosen may not have physically opposed legal regulations of their sexuality but by creating culture around these ideas they’ve helped us all live in a more humane and loveable world.
Cottweiler – Fireworks by Kenneth Anger, 1947
Fireworks was made by a teenage Kenneth Anger in 1947 and explicitly explored themes of homosexuality and S&M in a time when homosexuality was still illegal in the USA. The film is typical of Anger’s surrealistic and textural vision but its message heavily lies in Anger’s teenager view of the world and how his own sexuality was considered a taboo at the time. We personally love this not only for its progressive story [...]
This year New York’s Cornell University Library celebrates the quarter century anniversary of its Human Sexuality Collection, an ongoing study and documentation of sex-focused media. From rare books, essays and letters to artwork and pornography, each piece has been collected with the intention of encouraging research on the many topics related to sexuality, topics that that 25 years ago would have been entirely taboo and largely rejected by academia. The hope was that through this study of the various facets of sexuality and sexual study, particularly that of niche or marginalised areas of the community, that we might begin to view sex from alternative perspectives and, ultimately, accept it as not only a commonality, but as a fundamental part of the human existence.
“It is as if this most vital of human concerns is filled with too many dangers to allow it to be studied seriously.” –David B. Goodstein, former publisher of US LGBT publication The Advocate and benefactor of the Library’s archives.
As part of the celebration the library has provided a brief glance into the archives in an online exhibition Speaking of Sex presenting a host of important artifacts in documenting the place of sexuality in society and the ongoing struggles people across the world continue to endure because of their sexuality, struggles so often forgotten in the smokescreen of crepe paper floats and ghb-laced partying that threatens to cloud occasions such as this weekend’s Stonewall anniversary. Below is Sang Bleu’s selection of images from the Library’s collection of zines, from independent gay publications to a beginners guide to cruising. (Explore the rest of this illuminating exhibition here.)