Topical Cream Prize 2020
Topical Cream is thrilled to announce the inaugural “Topical Cream Prize,” which will be awarded yearly to one artist and one activist whose efforts have made a meaningful impact on their community. Congratulations to Martine Gutierrez who won in the artist category, and Viva Ruiz for Thank God for Abortion who won in the activist category. Winners in both categories were chosen by a special advisory board from the Topical Cream community including Ebony L. Haynes, Dena Yago, Jon Huddleson, Lyndsy Welgos, Marcella Zimmermann, Julia Kim, Yulu Serao, Christopher Udemezue, Ryan Jefferies, and Lena Henke.
In honor of this occasion, Tiana Reid spoke to both Martine and Viva about the award.
Thank God for Viva Ruiz. Her mix of the spiritual and the social brings light to the experiences that liberals and conservatives alike try to make disappear. Since 2015, Ruiz’s project Thank God for Abortion has displayed a devotion to devotion itself, bringing the divine to reproductive freedom. Talking to Topical Cream, Ruiz makes it clear that everything can and in fact must fit together seamlessly, and can be broken down into a thousand parts: queerness, religion, anti-fascism, Blackness, transness, bodily autonomy, holiness, an endless et cetera of political and aesthetic connections.
Tiana Reid: When did the idea, act, or practice of thanking God for abortion first occur to you? How has your understanding of the connection between spirituality and reproductive justice changed since you started TGFA five years ago?
Viva Ruiz: I believe thanking God for abortion first popped out of me after I had my first abortion, and then my second abortion too, like a literal relief: PHEW, THANK GOD FOR ABORTION. This idea was reconstituted five years ago when I was in disbelief that the systemic closing of abortion clinics because of TRAP laws was happening and somehow was not front-page news. I started to riff on Christian themes and this one definitely was the phrase that hit a nerve, even in the ultra-liberal NYC lefty circles I was in, which made me want to stomp on that nerve more.
Since then, I’ve become an even more faithful person. There’s an honor of being entrusted with so many people’s truths about their abortions, to hear people testify on the relief of more and more of us insisting on our perfection not in spite of abortion, but because of it. We choose who we are. We glorify in our true selves. We don’t let apologies be a part of this anymore. I’m more faithful because I’ve seen how important we are to each other through this project, how our struggles for personhood are interconnected, how one conversation can release us from a long-held condemnation. I’m in awe of the power we have to liberate each other.
In this project, we pinpointed abortion specifically and intentionally. In a way, we are very near-sighted on abortion. We seek to apply pressure on that one knot of “big G” God and abortion. We seek to take up space on that faithful front. We have found it useful to focus on that. But as far as reproductive justice goes, we have to shout-out Sister Song, the Black women-led collective who coined the phrase, and started the movement, that is reproductive justice. From them, we learn about how, of course, reproductive justice is so much more than abortion. In our small artist corner of the conversation we hope that we make a dent anywhere, and we look to Sister Song as the big guns of the larger movement, as we learn how to incorporate reproductive justice more into what we are doing. Black Lives Matter is 1000% reproductive justice, and everyone talking about abortion with any platform has to be taking that stand and in action with the uprising.
Abortion is so bound up with the idea of the heteronormative nuclear family. Can you speak about how you understand abortion rights relating to queer rights?
There is so much separation—disowning of abortion as a queer right—because the programming of heteronormative patriarchy is such a complete and generations-deep project. Even gays, even queers disown each other over the stigma about who gets abortions. EVERY kind of person needs access to abortion. Gay people get pregnant, too, it’s not like being gay is an automatic birth control. The illusion of the gender binary is disintegrating before our eyes and behind that is a more glorious reality: every kind of people has sex with every kind of people, regardless of how they identify. And that’s pretty queer.
I am a queer fluid person who’s had two abortions, so I’m looking in a mirror saying to myself, well … I exist, right? In these five years, I have been happy to connect with so many LGBTQI+ people who have also had abortions. We need space in this landscape and are taking it, because we have to keep each other safe. The lie that this only affects straight people or cis women is literally leaving people out there having childbirth forced on them and putting them in danger. Imagine if we had the strength of everyone in this with us? We would win, quicker.
In some ways, TGFA lives in the world independent of you. What do you like about having your work exist and move in public?
It’s a living thing. It’s fluid, it’s growing. It’s wild to watch this thing be born, to watch the most unlikeliest thing I’ve ever made flourishing. It’s a great mystery and I’m encouraged by it. Look at God.
In 2018, you told Artforum, “This work is a futuristic piece, a vision of a time when the ‘Thank God for Abortion’ statement would be banal.” What do you imagine when you imagine the future?
Safety and joy for people who can’t leave their house and feel safe in this world today. When Black trans women are uplifted and leading all over the world, everything else will have been handled. We must all be invested in that future. I’m looking to live in that free and loving world.
Martine Gutierrez co-creates the world. The artist, who was born in 1989, knew from a young age that her world was a stage ready to be finessed. Through her multi-modal film, magazine, performance, photography, pop culture, and music work, Gutierrez insists on the elasticity of both reality and gender. And authenticity is her catalyst. Not long after she won her Topical Cream award, I talked to Gutierrez about documentation, purpose, going blonde, and being sad and horny at the same time.
Tiana Reid: Congratulations! How do you feel about your award?
Martine Gutierrez: To be recognized by my peers is unbelievable. It feels like being in a physical space with friends, like you’ve got an opening or something, and they’re there to support you and congratulate you. It’s the most real part of being an artist, after you put something out into the world. I feel a little bit like a child when it’s received well.
I’m wondering about your relationship to art as a child.
I made a lot of stuff growing up. We always had a bin of rags or rope. Both of my parents were architects, so there were always drawing supplies and paper around. It was more so my mother who thought I was a star and was like, “I can’t throw this out, I have to put this on the fridge, or we should frame this, or we should send this to whomever you’re thinking about.” That kind of validation from your parent made me feel like, “Oh, I must be good at this. I don’t know, I should keep pursuing this.”
But somewhere there is a box just full of my early drawings of mermaids and fairies and elves and demons, and any kind of mythology. I was obsessed with Medusa for awhile—visual storytelling. Ganesha, people that are part animal, people that always felt … We didn’t have the word “queer” in that way, but I guess that’s what these characters were. They were just of different worlds simultaneously.
When did you start taking photographs? What was that like for you at the beginning?
I was doing video before photography. My dad had a camcorder in the house and I was on camera a lot, so somewhere there’s all this childhood footage of me dragging my dog around and performing for my parents … this obsession with being watched, this childhood vanity. Despicable! But it was kind of like being the subject came first. And then my interests came in, as I would say something like, “Oh, well Dad, I don’t really like how you filmed me. Why did you get that in the background?” And I would start orienting a setting, maybe even dressing up the kitchen or the backyard in some way that felt more like a jungle or felt more like a theater. I learned that within this framework, you can actually start to create a new reality. I guess photography offered even more control over that. It was like a natural progression.
What kind of struggles have you encountered in your work lately?
Feeling like it matters, feeling like there’s a reason to do it at all. I think part of what propelled me forward, naively, was this desire to be recognized, to be famous for being myself, right? I feel like that’s what we’re all logging on to do. You’re like: I will be known for being myself and yet now it’s like, “why?” Why did we want that so badly? And why did it feel so important? I don’t know if I’m a master of illusion. But I’m like, what’s the next illusion? What can be brought into the world that we actually need?
Can you tell me about the pivot to blonde?
It’s a career move. As an actor—I see myself as an actor now—I think I have to have my blonde moment. I have to have my Marilyn moment, and that will be the next body of work that comes out, which I’ve been slowly chipping away at. I really didn’t want to make COVID-related work, and I think going blonde was like, “Oh, this is like an emotional break, this is like Britney Spears’s Blackout, the Blackout album.” But also, if I can take on the persona of the “bombshell,” what would I want her to say?
How’s that new work going?
Really slowly. It was supposed to come out like two months ago, and my gallery is like, “How’s it going? When’s it coming out?” And I’m like, “Next month, next month,” and then another month goes by. But yeah, it’s just really hard. It’s just really hard to have stamina. I think it’s this weird combination of being really horny and being really sad—depressed and horny—so in my mind, it’s just there even if I’m not addressing it. It’s just there.