DREAM WEAVER

Smithsonian Magazine - - Prologue - BY AMY CRAW­FORD

When artist Kyle Meyer be­gan pho­tograph­ing gay men in Swazi­land, or eSwa­tini, five years ago, his sub­jects were ini­tially wary about the ex­po­sure. Their concern was jus­ti­fied: Same-sex re­la­tion­ships are against the law there, and peo­ple who are sus­pected of be­ing gay risk unem­ploy­ment, ostracism and even vi­o­lence.

“The LGBT com­mu­nity is pushed into a cor­ner,” says Meyer, 33, whose se­ries “In­ter­wo­ven” ex­plores sex­ual and gen­der iden­ti­ties in the south­ern African coun­try. Meyer, who is openly gay and lives in New York, was forced back into the closet when he be­gan trav­el­ing to Swazi­land. “I could have eas­ily ‘dis­ap­peared,’ ” he says.

De­spite their anx­i­eties, the men who agreed to have their por­traits taken for the project, on view this month at the Yossi Milo Gallery in Man­hat­tan, seemed to rel­ish the idea of fi­nally be­ing seen for who they are. In­spired by the vi­brant col­ors of Swazi wax cloth, Meyer asked them to pose wear­ing elab­o­rate head­dresses in pat­terns each man chose from fab­ric col­lected at a lo­cal mar­ket. Be­cause the style is tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with Swazi women, the photo shoots of­fered a rare chance to

play with gen­der norms and cel­e­brate each man’s in­di­vid­ual sense of beauty. “They just wanted to be heard,” Meyer says.

Af­ter every visit to Swazi­land, Meyer re­turns to his Hud­son Val­ley stu­dio, where he prints the im­ages on pa­per up to seven-and-a-half feet high. He then shreds the pho­tographs and the fab­ric from the head wraps, and, us­ing a tech­nique he learned from Swazi bas­ket­mak­ers, spends as much as 60 hours weav­ing them to­gether. It’s a med­i­ta­tive process—both craft and rit­ual—that adds a hu­man touch to the oth­er­wise me­chan­i­cal medium of dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, and trans­forms what might sim­ply be a strik­ing im­age into an im­pos­ing, richly tex­tured phys­i­cal ob­ject. One critic praised the un­der­tak­ing as “the per­fect mar­riage of sub­ject mat­ter and process.” It is also prac­ti­cal: Meyer’s ap­proach par­tially ob­scures the men’s iden­ti­ties, much as they are forced to hide their true selves be­hind what the artist calls “the fab­ric of so­ci­ety.”

It re­mains too dan­ger­ous to dis­play his ta­pes­tries in Swazi­land, but Meyer is hope­ful they will be seen there one day. This past June a gay rights group or­ga­nized the coun­try’s first Pride pa­rade, a fes­tive—and peace­ful—march through the cap­i­tal.

Meyer learned the art of mak­ing head­dresses from Swazi women.His ex­ag­ger­ated ver­sions use up to four yards of fab­ric.

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