The Art of Trauma

Let’s talk transgender turkey for a minute.  Transgender women are women.  If you disagree and/or your feminism doesn’t include them, you kind of suck.  That said…

“Jewish gay transgender woman artist” is not a phrase you hear much, or at all, in the art world.  But, lucky for us, there is an awesome woman named Yishay Garbasz making art and busting through cis-hetero-patriarchal walls.  Now that I’ve rolled out a long string of labels, I’d like to roll them back.  Garbasz said in an interview in 2013, “I’m an artist.  I’m not a trans-artist, I’m not a Jewish artist, just an artist.  And I think that’s important; a lot of people struggle with gender as something that shapes their life…There’s a lot more to life than that.  Society constrains a lot of people into very specific things, and if there wasn’t a social ostracism they would have much bigger lives.”  And she’s right.  So, let’s just talk about a bitchin’ contemporary artist and her work.


Yishay Garbasz was born in 1970 in Israel; her parents were survivors of World War II and the Holocaust.  She studied photography at Bard College in the early 2000s, though she also does installation art and performance pieces.  She won the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship in 2004.  In 2008, Garbasz moved to Berlin and has been based there ever since.  She won Berlin Woman Filmmaker of the Year in 2010.  Garbasz is interested in trauma.  The memories of trauma, the sites of trauma, the passing along of trauma from person to person and place to person, the post-trauma experience.  Her work also addresses identity and her life as a woman.

One of her earlier undertakings was begun in 2004 (ending in 2009) and involved Garbasz retracing her mother’s steps through the Holocaust and photographing it.  She went everywhere her mother was from 1942 through 1945: the Jewish ghetto her mother lived in as a girl, the concentrations camps, along the route of the death march her mother was forced to go on.  All while lugging a large-format single-negative camera on a tripod.  When speaking of “In My Mother’s Footsteps,” Garbasz said “my mother lost parts of her soul in those places and I had to go back and collect them.”  Garbasz also did a piece that centered on her branding her mother’s concentration camp number into her arm and photographed it as the wound healed.


Documenting sites of trauma continued in her next project in which she traveled a variety of places including the DMZ between North and South Korea, the barriers running between Israel and Palestine, and the Peace Lines in Northern Ireland.  She also traveled to and photographed Fukushima, Japan post-nuclear disaster.  I think we can agree that if you want a guide for a sweet trauma-based vacation, Garbasz is your girl.

In 2008, Garbasz began “Becoming.”  She documented her transition through the gender-affirmation process by taking a nude picture of herself every week.  The 28 pictures were then made into a life-size zoetrope and a flip book.  After transitioning, Garbasz took her old testicles and exhibited them in a tank of formaldehyde.  The piece was titled, “Eat Me Damien.” Indeed.  You can take your stupid preserved shark, Damien Hirst, and suck it.


Yishay Garbasz continues to travel and take photographs and exhibit around the world.  If you get the chance to see her work, jump on that shit.