my liberating transition: performance artist imma asher tells her story
As she awaits her facial feminisation surgery, trans performance artist Imma Asher reflects on the moment she realised her drag character IMMA/MESS was just another means of hiding her true self.
Born and raised in Montgomery, Alabama, Imma Asher has spent her entire life negotiating her place in a society that shies away from difference. Finding hope and meaning in dance, she moved to New York to follow her dreams as a dancer. Inspired by the decadence of New York nightlife and the weird and wonderful world of drag, she soon began experimenting with expressive make-up and fantastical dress, all of which she amalgamated into a theatrical persona called IMMA/MESS. A compilation of childhood memories and cultural references, Imma would perform IMMA/MESS at various art shows and club nights across London and New York. But eventually, the temporary escape of playing a character soon wore off, and IMMA/MESS became nothing more than a reminder that Imma was not being true to herself. Finally out as a trans woman, Imma has never felt freer. Currently raising money to fund her Facial Feminisation Surgery, and recently having featured in a scintillating short film from director Quba Tuakli about her transition, here she reflects on her journey so far.
As a child people saw potential in me, but never knew how to get me where I needed to be. A large part of this was due to lack of financial abilities and care on my parents part. I was always using the Yellow Pages to find classes for myself. I remember I'd call places every day just to hear the voice of the receptionist to request brochures from places I dreamed of studying like School of American Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Pittsburgh Youth Ballet. I'd spend hours flipping through pages hoping to one day escape the south. I think the appeal of dancing was that it allowed me to feel accepted. It allowed me to feel needed and wanted. It allowed me to work hard and gain results that I could control. It afforded me the time away from being called names at school or dealing with the messiness of my home life. The appeal of dance was hope.
It wasn't until I was in my final year at Parsons The New School for Design, that the character IMMA/MESS came about. I was really into the idea of performance, but really didn't like the idea of people becoming obsessed with the artist and not the work. Around this time I had started to learn about Marina Abramović. Her show The Artist is Present was on at MoMA and I noticed how incredibly powerful she was for people. I realised that performance carried a real responsibility and the message delivered needed to be crystal clear. This scared me, but I still wanted to perform. So I started investigating ways of leaving the body behind as I had come to know it and began working on self presentation.
I started going out in New York and experimenting with looks and found a true love for make-up and costume. This carried over into my art practice and I slowly developed it through drawings and self portraits. A few weeks prior to graduation I met the artist Jaamil Olawale Kosoko who invited me to perform a solo as IMMA/MESS at DansSpace NYC. This is is where IMMA/MESS was first realised.
Looking back, however, IMMA/MESS for me represents a tremendous frustration in my life. It reminds me of the time I didn't know myself and used a persona to hide my truth of being a trans woman. During my time as IMMA/MESS I really was never happy, but didn't know any other way to survive or communicate. IMMA/MESS served her purpose and now is no longer apart of me for good reason.
I'm really uncomfortable with the word drag for some reason. I think I subconsciously link it to Drag Race and fitting into a standard of accurate cut creases. I prefer the idea of dressing up. I got into pulling looks while living in Torrington, CT while attending the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts. I loved MySpace and would create outfits out of garbage bags and tape and shit. That grew into dressing up every now and then with friends, and then finally going out in NYC nightlife where it was a serious thing. I think during my college years is when I got "into" the scene and realised that more people were doing it. The artist Kenny Kenny was my introduction into the whole thing.
I always knew I was different, but never knew how to go about addressing it. I think the dressing up for me wore off once I moved to London because I started seeing different kinds of people dressing up outside of being just drag queens. I started hearing words like "non-binary" and being on a spectrum and such. I really started to find myself and felt a sense of clarity happening. I had a boyfriend and was really working on trying to gain weight to be buff, but one day woke up and realised that I had to stop and tell the truth. I suddenly saw myself and I think once you do it's hard to unsee or believe that you can exist any other way.
I've been undergoing HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) for almost one year now. I've had a rough start I'll admit. I mean I think I kind of decided one day like "this is the day!" and then weeks later I was on hormones because I was so certain. I think I've found myself alone because I've either run away from people or been abandoned by them. But sadly I think comes with the territory.
Being a woman in 2017 means being everything, but this isn't recent. This has always been and will always remain. I hope I stand for all the girls that are fighting this fight with me. I stand for possibility and faith. I stand for chance and risk. Now has never been a better time to pick apart the systems in place and implement your own rules. We need to be persistent and know that our issues are not only ours, but belong to people that have come before and after us. We need to stop being afraid to stand alone for what wes believe in. As far as my own hopes and dreams go, I'm waiting to undergo Facial Feminisation Surgery soon and just live my life as a woman in the city, making my art and sharing ideas with like minded people; Nothing complicated.
Photography Imma Asher
Film Quba Tuakli