‘Scars Should also be Crowned’: reflecting on Shelley Barry’s cinematic oeuvre

by Sihle Motsa

Where do we create from? We create from inherently political places. Our stories, when we tell them, reflect our positionality. Whether imperfect, jarring, odd or bold, they mirror our experiences, yearnings, fears and most importantly our experiences of embodiment. We write ourselves figuratively and literally through the reflection of our lives, our traumas. We name ourselves through these acts of creation. Even when our lens is outward bound it betrays a particular disposition, a purview, and articulates, in the words of poet Adrienne Rich, ‘a politics of location’. [1] We create with and from our bodies, spinning intricate webs around these vessels, which simultaneously burden and liberate us.

Shelley Barry works as an artist and filmmaker who exists and creates from a being that is both within and at the edge of the world. Her films are synopses that map the neglected inner world of the queer and disabled subject. They trace what it means to live and be in the nexus of disability and queerness, what it means to love, cry, dream and create from this place, a place that for many represents barrenness, given the ways disability is posited as lack.

The Wound

Barry refers to her body as a wounded body. In very literal ways Barry’s body is a wounded one, having been injured by a stray bullet that ruptured her lungs during a taxi war and left her disabled. Barry’s iterations of woundedness, however, bear multiple consequences. They have implications that far exceed the physical and literal, but begin through metaphor to expound a poignant poetics of being. On the surface, the notions of woundedness articulated by Barry may be read as a reference to her own body. This immediate and easily accessible demarcation of woundedness references the corporeality of the body and centres this body squarely in abiding discourses on violence and pain. Beyond this, the image of the wound that introduces the afterlife of violence into our conceptual horizon, chronicles societal notions of alterity, the beauty and hardship of queer life, and the experience of living with and in a body that traverses discursive terrain in patterns that confound binary understandings of ability and disability.

The thought of a wound conjures up images of a lesion, a cut, an injury done to the body, perceptible and visible to the naked eye — a break in the uniformity of the skin brought on by an unnatural rupture of the skin cells. It connotes a violence done to the body, and tethered to this doing to the body are sutured notions of pain and loss. Barry’s films, Whole – A Trinity for Being, Retrato/ Portrait and Reincarnation amongst others, though short and crisp record with nuance and political precision the inner lives and embodied experiences of queer and disabled subjects, offering the wound as the interface through which these subject positions are connected.

Speaking of woundedness means that the body features prominently as a site for political, social and historical excavation. Social theorist Bill Hughes states that bodies matter precisely because they no longer function ‘outside the internally referential systems of modernity, the body has replaced such categories as subjects, social agents and individuals’ [2] but have become ‘reflexively mobilised.’ [3] The corporeality of the body has taken centre stage because the physical body is compelled to debility, illness, deterioration, death and psychosomatic whims, with the body serving as a repository of meaning and memory. Bodies are exposed to violence, are violated and are called to serve as witness to this violation. The scars that emerge evince a woundedness.

From engagement with these debates and with Barry’s cinematic purview it emerges that woundedness cannot be abstracted from the political context, where violence abides and pervades the global imaginary. In South Africa, where criminal violence occurs in continuum with the state-sanctioned violence of the apartheid regime, the threat of violence is an immanent one and is an integral part of the quotidian. This means that the body is constantly under threat of physical violation and always at risk of becoming a wounded body. This vulnerability is a consequence and evidence of the corporeality of the body and an indictment of the cultural and technological constructions of a discursively defined and textually confined body.

Feminist and disability studies scholar Susan Wendell makes pointed commentary on the cultural construction of the body and the subsequent negation of the corporeality of the body and experiences of bodily suffering. According to Wendell:

‘Attempting to transcend or disengage oneself from the body by ignoring or discounting its needs and sensations is generally a luxury of the healthy and able-bodied. For people who are ill or disabled, a fairly high degree of attention to the body is necessary for survival, or at least for preventing significant (and sometimes irreversible ) deterioration of their physical conditions. Yet illness and disability often render bodily experiences whose meanings we once took for granted difficult to interpret and even deceptive.’

In an elegy of racialised life in America, rendered through lucid poetry, Claudia Rankine asserts that the body remembers. For many, part of the afterlife of violence is figured through the scar and evinces a literal wounding. Rankine proffers that:

‘… the body has memory. The physical carriage hauls more than its weight. The body is the threshold across which each objectionable call passes in consciousness all the unintimidated, unblinking and unflappable resilience does not erase the moments lived through, even as we are eternally stupid or everlastingly optimistic, so ready to be inside, among, a part of the games.’ [4]

Wounds carry a peculiar permanence. Although they heal, which would signal the end of the wound itself, they leave scars, which remain as a permanent allusion to the existence of a wound. They remain as an ode to the event, whilst they themselves break the uniformity of the skin and can appear quite out of place, they represent the afterlife of the wound, and becoming a part of the skin and ultimately the body. It is in this way that bodies remember.

Given today’s fluctuating and highly contested political terrain, where identity and belonging are integral to our constructions of self, woundedness and scarring as signs of alterity and debility make for profound metaphors. To be wounded is to be marked. Whilst disability figures the corporeal in very accessible ways, such that a disabled body is popularly understood as both wounded and marked, queerness also represents a markedness, a subversive alterity, wherein one is marked by their sexuality and gender expression. Queerness and disability feature prominently in Barry’s oeuvre, as thematic concerns and as categories that have a significant impact on her lived experiences.

Being Queer, Becoming Disabled

Shelley Barry is queer and disabled. Her films centre notions of queerness and disability in ways that highlight how the body can be both the site of alterity and agency. It follows that at the symbolic level, the wound or woundedness represents a markedness. Reading Barry’s situatedness as a black woman artist, whose positionality as a black woman is rendered prior to the physical wounding of her body, Barry’s body already existed on a fraught scene, a scene wherein the body is marked through the constructions of race, sex and gender for different possibilities. These markers exist within a highly contested discursive terrain, are fluid and in many ways intangible, despite their being tethered to the body. Disability adds another layer of complexity, and does much to undermine beliefs in the stability of the body, both discursively and in real-time.

Barry’s oeuvre is pointedly wide. It is wide because of the myriad, paradoxical and incoherence of black queer women’s lives in post-apartheid South Africa. Her short feature films document Barry’s, her family’s as well as those of queer and trans disabled subjects whose repository of existence and experience cannot be contained within the neat narratives tendered by commercial cinematography and film making. Barry captures the complexity of transness and disability, offering new discursive trajectories for contemporary understandings of gender, sexuality and disability.

Queer activist and gender scholar Jasbir Puar, in an attempt to reconcile the tensions between disabled and trans subjectivity, paints an intricate picture of the ways trans and non-abled subject’s access and navigate the medical-industrial complex. Puar’s analysis excavates the manner in which transness and disability have been pitted against each other and to what ends. Puar contends that there exist linkages between the trans body and the disabled one, that the nexus between transness and disability has been fraught and that “the explicit linkages to the trans body rendered disabled and/or rehabilitated has been predominantly routed through debates about gender identity disorder.” [5]

Whilst this analysis is critical to understanding how trans and disability have been variously pathologised, especially through the trans subject’s entry into the medical-industrial complex, and the disabled subject’s relationship to this establishment, this account falls short of explicating the extra discursive terrain that marks the experiences of trans and global people in an age of increased globalisation.

In a compelling narrative of a protagonist who is trans, a wheelchair user, and a subject of colour, Barry draws our attention to the complexity of navigating transness and disability to the extent that they are both pathologised and/or socially accepted. In Retrator/Portrait, Barry maps the extra-discursive terrain of trans and disabled subjectivities and the emotional and psychological worlds they orbit through interpersonal relations with cis and able-bodied persons in a galaxy of heteronormative cultures, assumptions and proclivities. Barry explores the interiority of the trans, disabled subject, uncannily reconciling these subjectivities that are often pitted against each other, as Puar has demonstrated. Through the positioning of a disabled subject that becomes trans, she highlights the intersections of heteronormativity and ableism whilst offering the audience a glimpse of what it means to inhabit both. Through affective narrative, Barry hints at the difficulty of formulating and maintaining interpersonal relationships. She expresses the difficulty posed by the quest for love and acceptance in the face of the ever-present and brooding threat of loneliness should this acceptance not be found or achieved. Barry weaves small tales (small in their scope, and dedication to the everyday, the overlooked, the undermined) of loss, abandonment and structural loneliness.

In ‘The Malignant Melancholy’, a blog post on abiding discourses of loneliness, Amba Azaad notes how loneliness is individualised to serve the whims of a racist, xenophobic and sexist status quo that privileges the white male subject. For Azaad, loneliness is structural and is part of a pre-existing politics of othering and otherness. Azaad surmises that broadly speaking there are two types of structural loneliness, the one most important for reading Barry’s work, being that of “the benign loneliness of the socially alienated.” [6] According to Azaad, “the loneliness of the oppressed is the condition of being exiled, being shunned or having to flee relationships and community structures that are abusive.” Further, loneliness is thrust upon domestic abuse survivors, migrant labourers, queer and trans people, religious minorities, ethnic transplants, non-men identified individuals in organised workforces, people living with physical and mental disabilities. [7] In Azaad’s theoretical and Barry’s cinematic view, the people who make up the groups identified, are punished, as an identity for existing because “the prejudiced people with structural power around them reject them.”

Retrator/ Portrait. Video still. Courtesy: Shelley Barry
Retrator/ Portrait. Video still. Courtesy: Shelley Barry

The film Retrator/ Portrait traces the at once, fraught, intimate and cold relationship of a trans, disabled subject with their mother. It follows a Spanish speaking youth’s quest for love and acceptance but also their quest for freedom of expression and an affirmative gender identity. In the film we see the protagonist first in a suit, seemingly performing a normative gender identity that is accepted and applauded, seated with their mother playing dominoes. This scene is aptly abbreviated “Games” and references both the game of dominoes and, at the symbolic level, the seemingly banal act of assuming a gender identity you don’t want or believe is a genuine expression of who you are. The following scene titled ‘Prayers’ sees the protagonist’s mother praying at an altar to what appears to be the Virgin Mary, the Madonna. This image is juxtaposed with that of the protagonist, who is performing their prayer, poised as a meditative exercise. These images are presented as bifurcated, one a conservative religious rite and the other performed within the framework of a more open spirituality. This contrast is indicative of a schism between religion and spirituality and sets the tone for the coming scenes. In the penultimate scene, the protagonist has fully transitioned, accentuating their desired gender expression with make-up and living as a feminine trans subject. It appears that the realisation of their preferred gender expression prompts the protagonist to review their relations with their mother, particularly to question their intimacy. The sentiments “I feel like I don’t know you mama”, are illuminating, they signal the isolation and loneliness that often exist side by side with intimacy. “What is your favourite fruit?” the protagonist asks. “Tomatoes, Mario, I like tomatoes” the mother responds. Tomatoes magically appear on the table between them. We assume that Mario is responsible for having made the tomatoes appear, now knowing what his mother desires. However, while he is able to fulfil these wishes, this happens almost as a peace offering, a means of negotiating acceptance or cultivating their relationship in light of an unnamed rift that has occurred between them. Mario puts her hands on the tomatoes Mario has made appear, Mario puts her hands over those of her mother, an intimate act, an act of affection in continuance with her desire to bridge the gap(s) that exist between them. Mario’s mother quickly withdraws her hand. The two converse further, and there is a poignant exchange where Mario beckons her to ignore the things being said about her. Perhaps as another desperate attempt to bridge the divide, Mario asks: “Do you like it when I sing for you ?” … then asserts “then look at me mama” after which her mother vanishes into thin air. The conclusion of the film is at once murky and revealing. Mario’s mother, who was present when she performed as a man absents herself from Mario’s life rather than look at her living as a trans woman. This film captures with depth and clarity Azaad’s ideas of structural loneliness. It also ruptures the possibility of transness and disability in a different way from which Puar has done and underscores the ways disability can be seen as naturalised, as an effect of chance and therefore more palatable as opposed to becoming trans, which is pathologised and a sexual and gender deviance of the subject’s own making.

Discomfort, Apathy, Disengagement

Sadie Wearing, Yasmin Gunaratnam and Irene Gedelof , the editors of the ‘Frailty and Debility’ issue of the Feminist Review, contend that the concerns of disabled women have been marginalised by both feminist and disability politics. As a thematic concern, disability inhabits myriad positions. For many it is the antithesis of ability, whilst others perceive disability as a form of illness. Often it is as a referent point in the way Puar has highlighted, and hardly worthy of concern in and of itself. There is an apparent discomfort with thinking about disability. This discomfort is complex and not uncontested. According to Barry, speaking on people’s tendency to pity her disposition, the discomfort stems from both disbelief that disability happens, and that it can happen to anyone. The realisation that bodies can easily become disabled bodies leads to a pulpable fear, which assumes the guise of apathy. This view is resonant with that of Rosemary Garland-Thompson who, in Staring: How we look, surmises that because:

‘each one of us ineluctably acquires one or more of the disabilities — naming them variably as illness, disease, injury, old age, failure, dysfunction, or dependence… this inconvenient truth nudges most of us who think that mostly happens to someone else as a fate somehow elective rather than inevitable.’

Ironically, it is the inevitability of disability, rendered through an intuitive understanding, that precipitates this apathy. Through the use of the imagination, and from the perspective of her wheelchair, Barry forces us to inhabit, if only momentarily, the disabled queer woman’s view, bringing Garland-Thompson’s point about the inevitability of disability home.

Apathy is also embodied in feminists’ refusal to speak on disability. Susan Wendell, states unequivocally that when feminist politics ignore disabled women’ s experiences of impairment, there are different but equally disturbing sources of disabled women’s alienation from feminism or their marginalisation within it. Eli Clare draws our attention to the complicated ways in which gender, race, class and disability converge. Clare asserts that ‘Gender reaches into disability, disability wraps around class: class strains against abuse, abuse snarls into sexuality, sexuality folds on top of race … everything piling into a single human body.’ [8] Barry mobilises this particular feminist lens whose concern with gender, embodiment, and the movement of the body marked as female through time and space, bears the promise of articulating the much-negated truncations of gender and disability. Barry’s inward-looking films address the vacillation of the body, both discursively and as a corporeal entity. Whilst Clare provides an invaluable system of mapping the intersection of disability, race, class and gender, Barry expertly deploys this intersectional bedrock to catapult her quest for self-authorship. Through carefully constructed visual narratives that draw on her experience as a gendered and racialised subject, Barry articulates her being in the world as a queer disabled woman, not only giving credence to disability as a thematic concern but excavating the poorly extrapolated inner and outer lives of queer disabled subjects.

Gender, Performativity and Doing a Wounded Body

In the celebrated essay, Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, gender and feminist scholar Judith Butler suggests that, “one is not simply a body, but in some very significant ways one does one’s body and indeed one does one’s body differently from one’s contemporaries and one’s embodied predecessors and successors. Butler’s statement resonates with the variously gendered bodies whom she claims are performed, but also raises questions for other bodies, such as bodies which are not only marked in racial and gendered ways but which are wounded. Following Butler, one may well ask: “how does one do a wounded body”?

Barry’s films offset ableist visual strategies. Her visual narratives out-manoeuvre sensory norms and propose new ways of seeing, ways that bring to the fore the existence of other modes of being and doing one’s body. In the retrospective Str/oll, Barry does a body that uses a wheelchair. She undermines ableist notions of disability as the site of lack by creating from the position of one perceived as having limited mobility and thus limited agency. Str/oll forces one to reconcile with what it truly means to be a wheelchair user. Having decided to shoot from her chair, meaning that all camera angles would be from a low-lying position, Barry captures her journey through a busy street. The camera poised at what is Shelley’s eye level captures the turbulence of negotiating the backs of knees and posteriors. The doing of her body in this way is jarring in that it brings home the realities of being a wheelchair user. Through an intimate experience with Barry’s purview, we are confronted by greater questions of mobility, and the aspects of the everyday that we take for granted.

Str/oll. Video still. Courtesy: Shelley Barry
Str/oll. Video still. Courtesy: Shelley Barry
Speaking the wound

I have to speak you see, because I almost can’t” – Shelly Barry, Whole – A Trinity of Being.

In Whole – A Trinity of Being, a provocative, inward looking montage, the realities of pain and feminist trauma are made the foci through an engagement with the loss of speech through disability. According to theorist Gayatri Spivak, the plight of the subaltern is figured and defined by a discursively constructed inability to speak. Spivak insists that the colonised subaltern subject is heterogenous, I surmise that not only is the subaltern woman irretrievably heterogenous, the state of being subaltern realised through the embodied experience of gender and coloniality, is not fixed in time and space. The experience of a subaltern subject is a vacillating one, indicating varying levels of discursive and physical corporeal recourse to speech.

In Whole – A Trinity for Being, Barry betrays an anxiety around the possible loss of speech. Unlike Spivak’s articulation of the subaltern’s recourse to speech, Barry’s speech is literal. It unfolds in real time as a consequence of medical malpractice. Barry’s account, like that of Spivak, depicts privilege as something that has the potential to be lost. Lisa Cartwright and Brian Goldfarb suggest that purposeful mobility, like speech and gesture are key signifiers of human agency and personal expression. Speech represents human agency and personal expression. The ability to speak bears the promise of cementing one’s place in the world, speaking of one’s marginality through a narrativisation of the pain and suffering one has endured. For Barry and her lover the loss of mobility and the loss of speech, through damage to her throat and larynx and the subsequent use of a speaking aid, have an explicit profundity. The preoccupation with speech belies an intuitive understanding that a body that speaks can without warning, become a body that does not speak. That a body can be wounded, and that this woundedness can signal the loss of speech.

Underlying this new-found knowledge of the vagaries of speech, rendered as a product of the retrospective cantonises the work of sociologist Nthabiseng Motsemme. Motsemme argues that members of marginalised groups such as black women, even when rendered ‘mute’ by regimes of violence and repression such as that of apartheid, weaponize their silence. This work by Motsemme, although highly celebrated has not been without critique. Of the contentious positions that have emerged the most salient to my thinking around the perverse silence that abounded during apartheid, are sentiments the question the positioning of state repression that demanded silence from black subjects as an agentic move on the part of the black women. Whole – a trinity of being, forces us to reconcile the physical ability to speak with the usurping of women’s right to speech by oppressive systems and institutionalised violence. Through this intimate tethering of violence to the loss of speech, we come to terms with the precarity not only of gendered and racialised life, but the imminent threat of silence.

Queer Intimacies

The disabled body is read as victim and perceived as the site of lack. Disability is posited as the antithesis of ablebodiedness, and personhood is perceived as inherent to and thus associated with the ablebodied subject. Anthropologist Julie Livingston describes the perception of disability as impairment, lack or loss of certain bodily abilities. The perceived limitations of the disabled body are not only read as physical limitations but extend themselves to many aspects of the social. Margrit Shildrick argues that what may be taken for granted in the non-disabled subjects, particularly the assumption of self-sovereignty, becomes a matter of doubt or denial in the matter of the differently embodied subject. The self-sovereign subject is an agentic being with capacity and freedom to feel and act on this feeling. Feeling and the enactment of tenderness, passion, pleasure, intimacy and self-love are the preserve of the non-disabled subject and beyond the reach of the disabled body.

In Whole – A Trinity for Being, Barry centres the corporal wound, now both a scar and orifice in her throat in which she inserts a tube to aid her speech. The wound becomes, through self-affirmation, the site of queer intimacy. In a series of close shots of hands, Barry’s hands caress the flesh of her neck, circling the wound which she figures as a scar. Barry then narrates this act, orally superimposing the importance of speech onto the visual surface of the scar. In ‘A Scar is More Than a Wound: Rethinking Community and Intimacy Through Queer and Disability Theory’, Karen Hammer bridges notions of desire and love with those of pain and trauma through the metaphor of bodily and/or psychic scarring. Whereas Ann Cvetkovish asserts that daily life is truncated by a “traumatic textures.” Hammer notes that it is these traumatic textures that inform the creation of alternative patterns of community and relationships. Indelibly, the scars that arise from these traumatic textures become not only evidence of wounding but a new surface on which to form relationships and intimacy. [9]

Whole – A Trinity of Being, 2004. Video still. Courtesy: Shelley Barry

Whole – A Trinity of Being, 2004. Video still. Courtesy: Shelley Barry

Whole – A Trinity of Being, 2004. Video still. Courtesy: Shelley Barry

Whilst Cvetkovish references the sexual violence meted out on queer bodies as part of a regulatory framework that seeks to curb the excess that the queer body denotes- too feminine, too exotic, too masculine, too brave, too unapologetic -as the traumatic textures that mark their quotidian, it follows that other violences may also form part of a traumatic fabric that typifies the quotidian. Shelley Barry suffered injuries to her body whilst in a taxi in Cape Town. The gun shots meant for the taxi driver in a war over the much contested taxi routes in the City of Cape Town, punctured through Shelley Barry’s body, ripping right through it . The singular bullet that ruptured Barry’s spine exited her body after, and found root in the body of her partner who was travelling with her and seated beside her.

Taxis are a public mode of transport largely operated by and used by black people. In an increasingly neoliberal framework, where a myriad systems of oppression collide, creating subjects that are defined by race, gender, sexuality and class, safety becomes a commodity often afforded only to the white subject. For people living on the periphery of whiteness, more especially queer black bodies these daily interactions with violence are the norm. They too typify Ann Cvetkovich’s poignant notion of traumatic textures.

Following the shooting which not only injured her spine, but punctured her lungs, Barry suffered further injuries from untrained medical staff who during surgery to restore her lungs, damaged her trachea. Barry then had to have further surgery to rectify the damage done by medical malpractice. She now requires a breathing device. In Whole – A Trinity of Being, Barry gives the viewer access to her relationship with her scars, the one on her throat more especially. Barry’s caressing of her throat is both erotic and lucid and belies the entry of violence into the everyday lives of black people. She brings to our not so immediate attention the ways in which black people live with violence and cope with it. She calls us to bear witness to the many but necessary ways black bodies build an ‘after’ from the wreckage done by violence. Barry caresses the scar, adorns it with jewelry, intimately and passionately draws our attention to the aftermath of violence.

Whole – A Trinity of Being, 2004. Video still

Barry’s films are not romantic tales. They are not whimsical stories of indomitable willpower, of overcoming the odds and making it out, severely scathed but alive. They are simple stories, common but quite unspoken stories, examples of the ways in which bodies tread the tenuous line between ability and disability, how they can, through recourse to violence, injury, disease time, move quite unexpectedly or degenerately into the realm of the latter. The narratives that play out in Barry’s films, and the act of making them serves as testament to black women’s creative passions. They map the complex inner lives and lived experiences of queer disabled subjects and bridge and offer important insight into the afterlife of life altering violence.

Sihle Motsa is a writer and researcher whose research interests include representation of gender and black women’s subjectivity in contemporary visual culture.

Notes

[1] Poet and feminist Adrienne Rich first presented the ground breaking work at The Critical Semiotics Conference on Women, Feminist Identities and Society, elucidating an approach to understand one’s position in the world through physical political location, vis-à-vis the categories of race, gender, sexuality and class. See: Rich, “Notes Towards a Politics of Location.”
[2] Bakare-Yusuf, The Economy of Violence, 312.
[3] Giddens, Social Theory Today, 8.
[4] Rankine, Citizen, 28.
[5] Puar, The Right to Maim, 36.
[6] Azaad, The Malignant Melancholy.
[7] Azaad, The Malignant Melancholy.​​​​​​​
[8] Clare, Exile and Pride, 127.
[9] Hammer, “A Scar is More Than a Wound”, 169.

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