Last week at Bushwick gallery Powrplnt, a group of colorfully-dressed folk sat down and discussed gender. They spoke of societal constructs, deadnames, toxic masculinity, and how norms surrounding body hair can be racist, all while surrounded by eager listeners and an array of art and zines. While some gallery exhibitions have just one night of special programming, this was but one mere component of the multifaceted Death Becomes Her, a show curated by Liberian-American multidisciplinary Vei Darling exploring how concepts of death and femininity intersect in both spirituality and society.
“I am a very spiritual person,” Vei Darling tells me over the phone. “Within most ancient spiritual traditions, death is a feminine thing. Life is considered masculine and positive, and death is considered feminine and negative. However, there’s not that binary that’s super definitive within our Western understanding of it. Negative doesn’t mean bad, and positive doesn’t mean good. They’re just different.”
While spirituality doesn’t impose anything unfavorable on femininity, the same can’t quite be said for society. Darling says she sees “a really unnatural fear surrounding both [femininity and death]. People’s proximity to it kind of determines how they’re treated in the world. A man’s proximity to femininity can be deadly.”
Vei specifically chose to use “femininity” rather than “womanhood.” She, like many others, deems gender “a social construct,” telling me it’s “sociological violence to constantly tie womanhood to femininity.”
“I didn’t want to close the conversation off to anyone who identifies with femininity,” she says. “That’s why I have nonbinary people with work in the show, and I wanted to have trans femmes and trans masc people speak about their experiences.”
Vei Darling has thrown parties and been involved with exhibitions before, but this is the first formal art show she’s curated. The exhibition features the work of five artists, including Darling herself, working across multiple disciplines from painting to atmospheric installation. The theme is interpreted in a range of ways: portraits and illustrations by Tomasyn Hayes and Deathtrap Shawty are at once feminine and vicious, musician/artist Daeva made (and performed in) an ethereal and intimate installation, e.v’s work puts a darker spin on traditionally feminine images like flowers, and Darling created a series of mixed-media pieces that combine religious imagery with abstract, shimmering colors and photographs of her friends depicted as goddesses.
All the artists involved with the show Vei initially met elsewhere, from the nightlife and DIY scenes to “Weird Facebook” and Instagram. “All these people actively seek to create change in this society, which is a thing I really fuck with. I wanted to give them all a platform to show their work and be seen through the lens of being an artist as opposed to a nightlife entity or something like that,” she says.
Nearly every day of Death Becomes Her‘s weeklong run features some sort of programming, such as panels on femme activism and spirituality, zine fairs, poetry readings, and parties. In choosing participants for these events, she centered her queer friends of color, particularly those who have faced barriers when trying to find a platform through larger artistic institutions. She also has made sure all the events are livestreamed for those who are unable to attend.
“Even in the Lower East Side and Chelsea, you know when a gallery is opening because there’s gonna be free wine. But the days they’re not having specific parties and events, people aren’t really coming in to see the art unless they’re walking in off the street,” Vei says. “I wanted to make sure all the people involved really got to have their art seen. At this point, there’s over 40 artists participating, not just the five that have their work up. So it’s just a super empowering feeling.”
“The creation of art is a magical process,” she adds. “I just wanted to take the monopoly of power away from masculinity and spread it out and give it to femmes, and feminine people, and women, so it’s no longer something that is aggressively attacking us, but is freed for everyone to have.”
‘Death Becomes Her,’ curated by Vei Darling, runs through May 31 at Powrplnt. Tonight, there will be a poetry reading and performance night in the gallery at 7 pm.