When Cohen Anaya was asked to participate in his first major museum exhibition, he turned the camera on himself. The Helena-based landscape photographer was selected to generate new art for an upcoming exhibition, “Transilience,” featuring the work of transgender, nonbinary, and two spirit artists from in and around Montana.

Presented in partnership with TransVisible Montana, the exhibition will be on display at the Holter Museum of Art in Helena from Jan. 20 until March 30. After a statewide call to artists in 2022, nine people were selected to participate in the show, which will be exhibited in tandem with “Transcend,” featuring large-scale painted portraits by Rae Senarighi that celebrate transgender, two spirit, and nonbinary individuals. Senarighi, who grew up in Missoula, has garnered attention for his artwork across the state with “You Are Loved” billboards, and his large-scale portraiture was recently featured on Netflix’s “The First Time I Saw Me.”

Anaya traveled the state, photographing transgender, nonbinary and two spirit people from Bozeman, Great Falls, Missoula and Helena, asking them each 20 questions in the process. But first, Anaya took a self-portrait and interviewed himself.

“Answering those questions allowed me to dig deeper within myself,” he said. “It gave me the confidence to stand out.”

Working with transgender, two spirit, and nonbinary artists across Montana is an effort by the Holter to represent artists whose work has not traditionally been displayed on museum walls, said Ramsay Ballew, exhibition and collections manager at the museum.

Cohen Anaya’s self portrait will be on display as part of “Transilience,” featuring artwork from transgender, nonbinary, and two spirit artists from in and around Montana. Credit: Cohen Anaya

“It is our job to serve the community in all sorts of ways, and that doesn’t always mean doing the easy thing,” said Ballew. “We are not going to be an ancient institution. We are going to be a contemporary institution and reflect on our history. We serve as a mirror for our community. These are very relevant working artists.”

The exhibition will be the first time Anaya has publicly identified himself as transgender. Through the process, he said he surprised himself with a response to one question:What was your hardest struggle with your gender identity?”

“In the beginning of my transition, vocalizing out loud with other people that I am transgender,” he replied. “I had never asked myself that question.”

Sharing that with others helped Anaya learn to love himself, he added. “I was so bottled up inside that I did not feel comfortable telling people who I was. It took me a lot of courage and vulnerability to express that to people, and once I did that, my transition flowed.”

‘RADICAL SELF-LOVE’

Senarighi said one of his motivations to become a portrait artist was the lack of representation of transgender people in the art world. His portrait exhibition, “Transcend,” has been touring the country for five years, and the collection will make its museum debut at the Holter.

“We go to art museums to be inspired to see beautiful work, and there is a complete and utter lack of representation of a whole population of people,” Senarighi said. “I want there to be space for someone like me to walk into an art museum, and there is someone that looks like me. I exist. I am here.”

Senarighi, who now lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and two children, grew up in Montana in a creative household. He recalls watching his mother create detailed and realistic portraits with color pencils. Though she died when he was 11, Senarighi said he learned much from her. In high school, Senarighi took drawing lessons at the Missoula Art Museum and then attended the University of Montana before finishing his degree at the Art Institute of Seattle in 2009.

In 2015, Senarighi was diagnosed with cancer. “That really woke me up and shook my foundation,” he said. “Surviving that made me realize I don’t have all the time in the world. I made a commitment to myself to stop hating my body.” 

“I want there to be space for someone like me to walk into an art museum, and there is someone that looks like me. I exist. I am here.”

Rae Senarighi

“I don’t know if I would have been able to do this work without coming to a place of loving myself and going through what I went through,” Senarighi continued. “The love that I am determined to show myself doesn’t come easily, and I still have negative voices in my head, but I have made this commitment of radical self-love.”

There’s introspection throughout the work, which Ballew describes as tender and poignant. 

“There is also sadness, and there is so much joy at the same time,” Ballew said. “That is a real strength in a lot of these artists to hold sadness and joy and celebration and honor one’s self in one voice.”

This exhibition is an effort by the museum to not only remove barriers, but to slow down and observe, Ballew said. “To get there, it is trying to put yourself in a place of listening more than dictating, and that is a strength of this project so far.”

A curator often plays a major role in an exhibit, but Ballew said the museum, in this instance, focused on creating supportive partnerships and providing financial support.

“We did have the space, and we just tried to throw as many resources toward the project as we could and remove the barriers and see what happens,” Ballew said. “It was a great way to start the conversation and get people into the room to start.”

VISIBLE PARTNERSHIPS

The exhibition was created in partnership with TransVisible Montana, a coalition of transgender, nonbinary, and two spirit individuals and organizations throughout Montana. Dandilion Cloverdale, who is two spirit and goes by the name Mija, resides in Missoula and leads training across the state to support political advocacy and awareness for the group.

“We have always been here, and we are not going anywhere,” Mija said. “We are trying to create visibility so folks can get to know us and can see us as members of the community.”

The Holter Museum first approached TransVisible Montana about exhibiting artwork by transgender, two spirit and nonbinary people.

“We don’t get that spotlight, ever, let alone a whole museum of our stuff. The hope is that people will come in and rethink and learn more about who we are,” Mija said. “This is an opportunity to have something truly special, made by us and for us.”

Despite TransVisible’s statewide network, Mija said, they received fewer submissions than they expected, attributing the relative dearth to the nervousness artists may have had about publicly displaying work and putting themselves into a spotlight.

“We are trying to create all this visibility so that other people who are transgender, nonbinary, and two spirit can see role models out there and examples of people living authentically,” Mija said. “We are trying to make it easier and less painful for future folks to come out.”

If you go: The tandem exhibitions “Transcend” and “Transilience” will feature an opening reception that is free and open to the public on Jan. 20, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Holter Museum of Art at 12 E. Lawrence St. in Helena. Senarighi will give an artist talk at 6:30 p.m. 

Additional events surrounding the exhibition include “Navigating the Genderverse” with TransVisible Montana on Jan. 21; “How to Show up for the Legislature” with Montana Women Vote on Feb. 3; “Know Your Rights” with ACLU Montana on Feb. 12; “Mid Session Decompression” with TransVisible Montana on Feb. 24; and “Queer as in Abolition Now!” with Missoula Black & Pink on March 3, all at the Holter Museum of Art. For more information, visit https://holtermuseum.org/exhibitions/transilience

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Anna Paige

Anna Paige is a Montana-based arts journalist and co-host of "Resounds: Arts and Culture on the High Plains" on Yellowstone Public Radio. She's worked in the newspaper and publishing industry since 2004, most recently for the Billings Gazette as an arts and entertainment journalist. She is also the co-founder of Young Poets, a nonprofit teaching poetry in regional elementary schools and winner of the 2021 Library of Congress Award for Literacy.