Creative Womxn: Dean Hutton on using love to disrupt, starting with the self


Last year, in the lead up to our Creative Womxn conference, we interviewed artist and activist Dean Hutton. More recently, their work has sparked both local and international furore, often polarising audiences. In light of this, we’re re-sharing our initial conversation with Hutton to add context to the ongoing dialogue surrounding their work. 

Genderqueer artist Dean Hutton has spent much of their life seeing the world through a lens. They were chief photographer at the Mail & Guardian and have worked as a photojournalist for over 18 years, capturing images that give us a glimpse into the rich, raw and complex realities of South Africa. To be a photojournalist of their calibre and in that context is to construct the world, document, witness, intrude, expose and to connect to humanity, but it is not devoid of violence or surviving capitalism. 

Working in media can be empowering and crippling, and for Dean, revealed biases of race, gender and class that pollutes the industry and has become the impetus for their creative work. Using the mediums of video, photography, performance and social media with provocation and vulnerability, they challenge us to live a life that is more honest, more conscious, and unafraid of embracing and taking responsibility for who we are. 

You identify yourself as genderqueer. What does that mean to you, and what significance does it play in your work?

So genderqueer is a gender identity. It’s pretty individual to every person. In general, for me, it means it’s non-binary. It’s not particularly male or female. It exists between this liminal space; between masculinity and femininity and somewhere outside of patriarchy. It’s about finding a different expression that is closely aligned to difference – the real appreciation and love of difference. In that way, I identify across different intersections. It’s not like I can throw away my identity as a woman, because it’s what I’ve been most socialised in, in the way that we are socialised into being things and maybe, younger people will eventually not be so violated by. It’s a constant state of war with patriarchy and the way in which we are all made to pay these massive debts to capitalism, and the way in which we’re asked to violate others.

What role does feminism play in the fight against patriarchy and do you yourself a consider yourself a feminist?

Yes. I’m absolutely a feminist, but I’m queer and I am trans and, a lot of traditional feminism would exclude me, particularly with my trans identity, which is not to say that I want to be a man in any way, because I really do detect male privilege, so I wouldn’t ask for it for myself. I already feel like I carry a massive weight in terms of being what is most recognised in being a white woman by people that don’t necessarily understand my queer identity. It’s not something that I can just shrug off. It’s a complicated thing but, my queerness is deeply rooted in both my philosophy and is metaphysical for me. It’s also fundamentally a political identity and it intersects with feminism to the core of me.

In your online portfolio you call yourself a social being. What’s important about stating that so obviously?

Often in terms of who we can be, particularly if we come from the media, we take a lot. We take pictures, we document stories, we leave and we’re not totally responsible to the community in which we document. So ultimately, there’s scope for abuse because how we engage with power can be very exploitative. What I have tried to do in my practise is to make those things visible and find ways of making it more fair. I haven’t always achieved this, but I think it’s something that we need to equate on this moral thing of good and evil.

It takes a lot more work to be a social being than to be somebody in a social space, because you need to be conscious of what power you hold and how you exhibit that power. It’s also not say that I can’t also be a person in a bad mood, but I need to know that if I am treating someone in a certain way, how it can also be read, like in terms of if I have checked my various privileges. And it’s not to say…like a friend asked me the other day, “How do we deal with our privilege? How do you be better?”, you know. How do you pay back your privilege? It’s complicated, and I think we each have to find ways to do that. How do you live as a conscious being in a world that constantly asks you to take, to profit and to be unthinking and distracted? Even just in the basic way we speak to people who occupy the same spaces as us. It’s really hard work.

Dean Hutton

Tell us about the Fuck White People suit you have hanging up. Does that not get tiring in your position and the way in which you position yourself as an artist? Do you ever feel like you’ve had enough and don’t want to do it anymore? 

It’s exhausting. I don’t. We can do that. It’s not like I’m wearing the suit all the time, even though people do think that. There’s a rumour that I wear it all the time. And I wish that I could actually because it needs to be said in every part of everyday. If we want to shift things in that way, we have take personal responsibility for what we’re given.

Do you think South Africans are conservative?

It depends on who and which South Africans you’re talking about. If it’s in general, ja, I guess. It depends on what you’re doing and where and why. I don’t think there’s anything that makes all of us as South Africans the same.

I think that as much as the issue with Gay Pride, which is where I first wore the Fuck White People suit. It was a test for me. If I can do it in a community in which I have almost de facto access to, can I do it in other spaces, where I don’t necessarily have de facto access except for the colour of my skin? You know, like, if I can’t do it at Gay Pride, then I can’t be making a whole fucking suit that says that. And, it’s still mostly an experiment, but it feels like it’s something I can do, and the reactions I am getting from it says that it is something that I should be doing.

More people should be doing that. More people should be looking at ways in which they can truly and honestly deal with actions. It’s a firm way of paying back parts of my privilege. It’s something that feels like a really important intellectual project for myself, because I have to constantly be able to defend this. It forces me to speak about my work in a much deeper, more responsible way because it’s a fine line that I am walking. I fundamentally don’t believe that it’s hate speech, because how can it be?

Seriously, if you really think about the history of white people, what white people have done, not just on this continent but on a global level, about the history of how we became white, about our responsibility for still benefiting from deep oppression around slavery and apartheid. Why would you not say, fuck white people? And why would you want to be part of something that is so deeply problematic? Literally white people invented themselves. It’s not something that existed until people started saying, “I know that you come from this part of Europe and I come from this part of Europe, and we’re not exactly the same but we’re more the same than those people”. So, it’s a deeply problematic identity. And, I think that we all need to start to think about what access we have to things purely by default. How we walk in the world.

For me, this is a schism because I am queer and it allows me to access a very deep schism within the world in the sense that I haven’t always been accepted as human in the way other people think of themselves as humans. Fundamentally, the way I grew up, in a very homophobic family, it’s kind of like this deep pain, this wound that exists within people. A lot of people say it’s like white guilt, but guilt is something that’s very paralysing. You can’t do anything about it, you can never pay it back and can never regain that part of your humanity. That’s what I feel. So much of our humanity has been lost to this, like the ever increasing seeking of extraordinary comfort in the way that we don’t do things for ourselves or other people. And I think that, I don’t know how people can teach children racism as an ideology, because you are literally taking something so deep from them. It is so incredibly abusive to teach people how to hate other people when we all know about the transformative power of love. How do you deal? So, for me, even though I am saying ‘fuck white people’, my practice is fundamentally about love. But I am choosing healthier ways to express that. Hopefully, or at least for me, it feels like something worth doing.

You’ve said you’d like to create a love revolution and just linking on what you’ve mentioned now, what do you think is most misunderstood about the terms ‘love’ and ‘revolution’?

Well, I think that revolution is a deeply problematic word, because if you think about what revolution really means, it’s just a cycle. I think a lot of people, when they think about revolution, think about going back to some kind of utopian stage that all humanity must have been at. Some pre-colonial, or pre-democratic or pre, pre, pre. We can go back there because fundamentally as humans we are constantly evolving, and that’s also the thing around identity. Identity should not be fixed. Who’s to say what a South African is? When was it South African? At what point do you belong to this land? Is it just because you’re born here? Because you had blood, sweat and tears, as the Afrikaaners like to say about the way they have access to this land? I think that white people need to earn that label. Literally. If you think about the history of how we got to be on this stolen land, no matter how good a white person you are, or how political your family might have been in an anti-apartheid way, there are still a lot more people who did really positive things for the country but still unquestionably belong to a system of white supremacy.

How do we begin to engage with white people, who aren’t even aware of their privilege, or who don’t take time to reflect or acknowledge it, because they don’t have to within their immediate environment? 

Ja, no. I think that’s the case for the majority of white people. The thing is though that if you want to be a part of what is coming, you will need to. It’s like anything about growing up. If you’re going to adult there are certain skills that you need to learn in order to remain relevant, and if you want to be relevant in the world that is coming, it’s going to demand a hell of a lot more self-reflexivity. You cannot go roughly into the world anymore. People are going to call you out. That’s what’s happening with social media.

I also have deep discomfort with call out culture. But fuck it, it makes people work harder to be better human beings. You know, it’s like “Shit, is what I said racist?”. And then how do I deal with that? And you’ve got to do it because that is what the world that is coming demands of you. And that’s great and we’re holding people accountable in ways that are not just about legality. Because we’ve seen the limits of what legal rights give you, especially if people aren’t dealing with each other on a fair basis. You have to work. That’s just the thing. Luckily, we have a great anthem from Rihanna about how to start the work. You have to remain thinking and, yes, sometimes there is a bit of paralysis in that, and it’s exhausting, but it’s really exhausting being violated all the time too.

And if we translate that, sometimes it’s not necessarily empathy. Particularly with this (referring to Fuck White People suit). I am deliberately causing pain. I’m not shying away from it. I think that the limit of empathy is that you can feel something that somebody else felt, but the thing about pain is that if you have never felt it…well, how do you explain childbirth to somebody that has never experienced it, even if you’re a woman? How do you explain having a broken bone to someone who has never broken anything or even had a sprain? How do you explain not being able to walk upstairs to someone who has always had great physical health? How do you empathise with that?

I’m asking for a translation of one thing into another pain. And it’s not about equalising it. It’s asking you to translate the possible feeling of what it feels like and to not cause that. It’s just asking for a bit more responsibility on an individual scale and the thing is that we have to start looking at these things in different communities. Because we’re rushed in the way that we constantly have to live and survive capitalism, we don’t have time to take that time with people, and people are just asking for time.

It’s a kind of human kindness that we’ve forgotten in the rush, because those things take time and they ask more of us as individuals, and I am definitely no poster girl for genderqueer, but it’s something that I want to do because I believe in sharing, I am sharing this.

Thenjiwe Nkosi and Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum have this thing that they call radical sharing. And when I heard that, all the blocks fell into place for me. That’s what we need to be doing as artists. You just think about all the little communities that you belong to and about making those spaces a little safer for some people, so that more people can come to the space and not feel triggered and ready to defend themselves. This is what’s happening. People are so prepared to defend themselves in a world that is ultimately violent to them. How do you bridge that when people can’t trust each other?

Dean Hutton

You said now you’re not the typical poster girl for genderqueer, why not?

Because I still feel like I am a work in progress. I think I am opening up certain things in myself that are really nice to share, and I also think that the language is really important. When I first heard what queer was, rather than thinking things like it was a pejorative swear word, it made me realise what it can be. I realised what is missing. There these holes of not understanding in all of us, and it’s really easy to become very cynical – especially if you’re intelligent – because you see that shit and things don’t always make sense, so you look for information, for ways of explaining that to yourself. You open up a language and that language connects you to other people, who teach you more words that explain what you’re feeling, and you evolve and you transition and you remain open to relearning. That is important for all of us.

In your work, #Transitions. In Search for an authentic queer, you speak about allowing life to kind of happen. How did this shift your creative process and change your view on life?

Again, if you have access to certain kinds of things, you demand a lot of yourself. People have a lot of firm plans, and sometimes you lose who you are in those plans. People get into a relationship and they forget who they are. People get jobs and forget about who they are. We just keep getting distracted. That’s not to say distraction is bad. The greatest distraction of my life at a certain point was Tumblr. I was always on Tumblr, you know, but damn did I learn a lot.

The internet in general. I have been a little addict of the internet since like 1995. My real adult life has been spent completely on the internet and goddamn, have I learnt things, which I don’t know I’d have had the patience to find in the library. Because of the way that hyperlinked reality works, the way that you just discover and stumble and have access to such wide, weird things. Maybe I would have because I had this thing about reading encyclopaedias, the illustrated ones, like the Readers Digest. I read them all the time. I am really good at Trivial Pursuit. I was like, give me this weird shit. This useless information is all in my head but the way in which it eventually functioned was to teach me better ways of being a human.

And looking at social media now, and how South Africans use it.  What do you think the overriding narrative is and what other stories are not getting as much attention as they should?

I think it’s not about things that are hidden so much anymore, but about the volume of information. There’s this really disturbing trend of these fake news sites happening. I don’t get why people are pulled by them. But people, really intelligent people, are just sharing that shit sometimes. I’ve shared fake shit accidentally, I’m not like perfect. I’m flawed in many ways. So that’s the worst thing that’s happening. People really need to learn ways of…just critical thinking.

It’s not like these worlds are so separate anymore. Even critical theory with Beyoncé. You can have a reading list for Lemonade, you know, with really deep philosophy in there from Audre Lorde and Bell Hooks alongside new voices, which aren’t even that new, it’s just that people haven’t heard them.

I’m also very influenced by that deep talk quotes. I like to play with it in this weirdly sarcastic way, but a lot of the time it’s also something that I have been really inspired by. That’s really unlocked words to explain my own feelings about things. And those inspire me to write deep kinds of things too. You know, like this pissy self-help shit. That is all out there but it works for people who’re putting it out there in a visual way – it’s inspirational.

Yes, I get that sometimes it’s not really that deep you know. It’s this beautiful shorthand that is developing in which people can give comfort to other people. And there’s so much of that on the internet. Even though trolling is massive. That’s what these websites are doing, they’re just trolling. 

Tell us a bit about your performances and the development of avatar Goldendean…

Well, Goldendean came about as part of a collaborative project that I did with Anthea Moys, Lindiwe Matshikiza and Lavendhri Arumugam and this Scottish curator, Natalia Polombo. We did this collaboration where we were supposed to make a public artwork in the form of a billboard and then were gonna find a way to utilise it. We spent a lot of time just responding to each other and exploring that group creative and collaborative energy.

I’ve been a little bit obsessed with Henri Rousseau. The image of Eve and the garden. I made a shoot with a burlesque dancer but then I started to do a lot of self-portraits naked. Then I started working with another artist doing these public interventions on a road trip to Cape Town where we would get naked on the side of a road and photograph each other. Kinda like a civil disobedience, kinda like just getting out there and doing things and responding to each other. I brought these two things into it.

Then Lindi and Anthea weren’t going to be there for the opening of this project, which turned out to be much more than just the billboard thing. I had to perform in the window and I just, I dunno, we’d done various things with gold and I thought, I’d just really like to stand in that window naked, like, as part of this evolution of all these different projects, and I thought about the gold and the gold came into it. I asked a makeup artist to work with me and it just kind of happened. I didn’t know what the response was going to be. I didn’t know if someone was going to break the window of that gallery. I was hoping not though.

It just happened and people went crazy about doing selfies. That’s when I realised the potential of that work. The way that people want to insert themselves into that image too. Losing control of people’s documentation is when it became more and more interesting.

I really do think that’s the thing about making work right now. It’s making work that people want to make selfies with, like the perfect selfie artwork.. A lot of people want to do selfies, that’s the way that people mediate their reality right now, and it’s the way that people share with people who weren’t there.

So when I did it in Ghana it went viral, not necessarily on Instagram or Facebook but on WhatsApp. I got a lot of attention already because of my size in Ghana, but I went to a market a few days afterwards – one of the biggest markets – and people knew who I was. It was like I was a legit celebrity. I didn’t quite realise it immediately but that’s what was happening. It’s just interesting for me because people were super curious. I never realised how androgynous I would be if I was naked because I’ve got these really big breasts. The queerness is just so obvious.

Dean Hutton

How important is the role of vulnerability in your work?  

It’s incredibly vulnerable, and it’s not always physically comfortable or emotionally comfortable, and it’s not always like I’m able to choose the way in which it’s vulnerable, because you’re dealing with people, so you can’t always say what’s going to happen. My experience has been the more vulnerable you make yourself in the world, in which you share particular things with yourself, the more invulnerable it makes you too in certain respects. The more I’ve been vulnerable with the people in personal or social spaces, the more often people respond with kindness and generosity and that’s just something that I had to learn. Because I don’t trust people. It’s difficult. And, I have good reason not to, but the thing is, the more that I have, the more beautiful the experience has been and the more love I get to experience. I think there’s no way that you can love without vulnerability.

When it comes to the politics of representation…where do we even begin with that conversation?

Oh my god. It’s the most difficult thing because if you’re really honest, it’s like how do you tell somebody else’s story? What’s gradually happened in the way that I work is that I’ve told more and more of my own stores but then if I’m telling my story, I’m starting to tell my family’s story…How do you tell stories without committing a kind of injury of representation and remain a good person, you know?

I think that we, as people, as humans, need to tell stories. It’s how we make sense of the world. Maybe we need to find different ways of telling these stories. We need to be personally responsible to the people that we tell stories about. That is if journalists worked in the community in which they lived, they wouldn’t be doing half the shit that they are doing. We need to ask why we are wanting to tell certain stories. I have told a fuck load of stories and I haven’t always ticked the list. But I will admit to it, I’ve had to survive capitalism. We all do shit. But I have tried as much as possible to be more responsible in the way that I have done it, and I have definitely gone into communities and committed errors of representation because I am a photojournalist. It is a fundamentally violent thing. I think it’s the kind of thing where we gather debts. We gather things that we have to pay back and you just have to find ways to fucking pay it back.

The ultimate thing is that when it comes to representation, you have to tell your story. That’s what I figured out with the transition work. There’s a lot of other people in the images, but I know that in every single one of those, I was present at something that was more or less public or private. And, people had to know what I was doing, and it if it wasn’t completely clear and people weren’t comfortable with it afterwards, I had to remove the images from the work.

There are things that I have literally destroyed, like there is no digital copy left. You have to listen to people. It doesn’t mean you can’t argue back with people and say why you’re doing it, but there are times when people withdraw permission just to be assholes. It happens you know, because everybody has the propensity to be an asshole, but you have to deal with it. You have to answer those questions and you should if you’re going to be an ethical person. Perhaps you should have asked yourself that question first and answered it for yourself before you get defensive with somebody else.

It’s not easy. I feel that sometimes it’s just fear. We just need to own up to the shit that we feel and the way that it makes us behave. So, yeah, representation. You can’t solve that. It’s like how do you solve things until you destroy relationships of power? How do you do that? We’ll still be making representations but we have to work to be better. 

The roots of these things are so corrupt that there’s just a massive bunch of work that has to be done by a lot of people and you cannot give that away to a government. You cannot ask another set of people to do that for you. You have to transform yourself and you have to work in the community that you are in – to which you are most responsible.

You’re currently studying a Masters. What prompted that and how do you think it’s going to feed into your work going forward?

I think, in a lot of ways, the work is a response to what’s happening. I was blown away by #RhodesMustFall, I was so inspired. It was the first thing that really made sense to me in a really long time. I felt like I needed to give myself a chance to be a full-time artist for a bit.

When you are forced to be in the world, when you are forced to answer questions about why and what you’re doing, goddammit, if you want to be more honest with yourself then you need to learn how to answer those questions, and that’s what I’m doing. Learning how to answer those questions because I don’t have an art history background except for high school art.

Do you think it’s necessary?

Ja, I dunno, it still feels like imposter syndrome. Sometimes I will be reading and think “What the fuck do they even mean?”. Like, what? You could have said that in a much simpler way but the language is just impenetrable. So I’m here to find a way into that because I think it’s important. I really think it’s important that people are doing things in different ways and I think #BlackLivesMatter shows how important creative people are to the movement. Any social movement that is functioning knows how important art and expression is in the way that we can be more human. So ja, I’m trying to find a way to do that. 

How has working as a photojournalist informed and shaped your creative process and career?

I think that my biggest danger in the making of artistic work is that I can be too literal. It’s because that’s the way we’re trained. The best thing that it did was connect me to my humanity. I did so much work at the Mail & Guardian. I did a lot more work that I either got paid for or was asked to do because I guess I’m a bit obsessive in certain respects when it comes to making this kind of work because it just feels important. I want things that I do to be meaningful and to have an impact on a bigger picture. It’s not necessarily legacy, but I want to leave something better than what it was when I got there, and I think a lot of people feel like that. It’s just the way I’m choosing to do that. And that’s exactly what I have been doing for the last 20 years. But I also, I need to do it a lot more consciously. I think maybe this is the thing. We need to relearn what being good is.

Dean Hutton

Photographs of Dean by Retha Ferguson.

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