Terrell Villiers, “Club Oasis,” 2021
View Club Oasis, 2021, in the K21 gallery here →
Terrell Villiers spent his teen years in conservative, mid-state Florida, a bastion of homophobia further divided by racial fault-lines. As a Queer Black, CIS-presenting male, his talents as an illustrator were a lifeline. Drawing was his superpower. Because he knew no one quite like himself, Villiers composed characters — peers, friends, and mentors — to populate a world otherwise devoid of nuance. But his path to a career as a celebrated digital cartoon illustrator and to being the proprietor of Terrell Villiers Creations was not linear. There were years lost to self-doubt fueled by drugs and alcohol, difficulties at home, and an immersion within an almost all-white world of allies.
To bolster his confidence and align himself with those he most respected and desired, Villiers created the online avatar named Frostgawd, who initially was known for his avant-garde film photographs of the underground, predominantly white, punk communities he occupied at the time. Villiers then began posting drawings of self-possessed Black men and trans women online. Subsequently, and for the first time in years, he developed his first “fleshed-out” cartoon — a transgender Black woman named Ramona who struts, preens, and poses her way through a fully illustrated life. She evolved as a talisman of sorts in response to the cultural anguish that jump-started the Black Lives Matter movement and the ascendancy of the Trump presidency in 2016.
Ramona pulled Villiers through a portal of self-actualization. It was her presence that catalyzed a still-ongoing collaboration with creative director and artist Akia Dorsainvil, founder of Masisi Studios. His enthusiasm for the illustrator’s cartoon-infused vision helped Villiers concretize what has become the mantra of his practice: to produce Black Queer art for Black Queer people. Together they created the comic book Myristica, with cellist and composer Kelsey Lu as the protagonist, whose personal journey as a Queer, gender-fluid Black musician is told through a fantastical visual vocabulary steeped in Afrofuturism, Caribbean magic, and metallic pop that defines Villiers’s signature style.
In the interview below, Villiers shares the motivation behind his epic drawing Club Oasis (2021), a liberatory vision of eros at play in a community too long denied the agency that comes with freedom of self-expression and the safety that protects it. His is an activist art; he throws down the gauntlet with this politically charged work. Celebratory representation is only half the battle. Villiers intends to use this NFT to help lift up the lives of the most vulnerable in his community. And he challenges all of us to do the same.
What is the genesis of the drawing, Club Oasis (2021), you minted as your first NFT?
This drawing is a visual manifestation of what I see for the future of Masisi — the Haitian Creole term for “faggot” — which is a collective that hosts monthly parties and programming for the Black/Afro-Caribbean Queer community in Miami. For me and for multiple members of our community, we’ve had to deal with a grave sense of discrimination, queerphobia, and transphobia in many clubs, parties, and nightlife spaces in Miami. We didn’t feel safe going to these spaces anymore. So, as a response, we began throwing our own parties in underground warehouses throughout the city to create an inclusive safe space for Black and Brown Queer people.
How did you create a safe space?
One of the biggest things that made Masisi stand out over the rest of the party or event collectives was that we were implementing a tiered pricing system, so that the people who are the most marginalized pay the least and anyone who is straight, CIS-presenting, or white pays more. They’re more than welcome to attend the function, but they have to acknowledge our community guidelines, which we list at the door, letting them know that this is a Queer space, and to know their place. We want people to know that we created this space for a specific reason. If any issues arise, we have Cupids & Angels, people designated around the party to comfort and attend to the needs of the victim, while the perpetrator or perpetrators will be escorted out by security, immediately. For Masisi, it’s not just a party, it’s way more than that.
How were you involved?
I started out by designing the flyers for these parties, which imagined what Miami would look like in the future. Which is how this illustration came about.
In this futuristic club-scene, the floor is flooded. What is happening?
This illustration depicts the rising sea level in Miami created by the climate crisis. Miami should be seeing a lot of the grave effects of flooding in low-lying areas like South Beach as early as 2040. This is my way of envisioning what clubbing will look like in the future Miami — in “underground” Miami, because it would technically be under water. But there is another layer here. A lot of my work explores the resilience of Black bodies against the many forms of violence, harm, and discrimination they have experienced throughout the history of the United States. I wanted this illustration to show both this resilience and the sense of carefreeness we feel. Like, “This club is flooding, but that’s not going to stop us from living our lives and being free and liberated in this space.” This drawing is part of an entire comic narrative I’ve been working on for the past couple of years that dissects Queer Black life in Miami. I’m creating a visual manifesto for what is to come, for what my community and I are doing in order to carve out space for Queer Black people in the nightlife scene.
Why do you work in the cartoon idiom?
When people talk about identities, specifically Black identity or Queer identity, I think a lot of people lead with the harm and the violence that many of these individuals endure. I wanted to stand apart from such an exploitation of trauma when it comes to the stories of our lives. I don’t see enough sharing of the highlights and resistance, and the joy that comes from that resistance. I’ve always looked at cartoons as being a lighthearted, joyful exploration into a narrative. As early as the Jim Crow era, which saw the birth of cartoons, there were these disgusting, racist cartoons being used as anti-Black propaganda. They came across as playful, harmless, innocent, which allowed for racism to be deemed “OK.” I’m trying to keep that same idea of how to explore heavy narratives through cartoons — but flip it. Not racist, not prejudiced in any way — just exploring the other side of racial and Queer discrimination, while still allowing them to be easily digestible. I think it’s easy for people to understand these narratives. At the end of the day, this is my life. I’ve been honored to be able to see spaces that look like this, maybe not to this caliber, but it is what I want to experience, so we’ll continue to manifest.
Why is it important to picture the scenes you do?
Black Queer people are responsible for so much of popular culture and have been for generations, but they’re constantly being erased, and their identities profited off of. It’s really important that we’re naming who’s responsible for this joy and who’s responsible for these spaces and no longer trying to just capitalize on their trauma. I think a lot of history and a lot of art in the United States is rooted in trauma, but I don’t want us to continue to go down this route of exploiting other people’s trauma or exporting the identity of trauma for profit.
Were you at all influenced by the work of Kara Walker, who deploys the silhouette to illustrate the unspeakable horrors of the antebellum South with a dark and searing humor?
I love Kara. I have been really inspired by her use of animated silhouettes and her cartoonish sculptures to explain the dark narrative around racism and segregation that has persisted throughout the history of this country. I took a Black feminism course at the University of Miami last fall led by the incomparable Marina Magloire, and we explored Kara’s work in depth. That inspired me to really articulate my practice. I think I’ve always been doing this, but before a year or so ago, I was creating from more of a subconscious state of mind, not articulating where it was coming from or how it was directly connecting to me and my experiences. But I began to take time to rest and process after creating. It’s such a valuable tool as an artist, rest. That moment of isolation with the creation, to just reckon and take in the energy of the work, will allow you to arrive at a much deeper understanding of what you created.
How does your work serve your community beyond just representing it?
First of all, I didn’t go to art school, I barely finished college. I haven’t occupied very many institutional art spaces in my life. A lot of my knowledge has been directly sourced from the nightlife and organizing communities. I don’t know if anyone would have come to know my work if I hadn’t worked directly with organizations like Fempower and been a part of these communities. I’m very CIS presenting, I’m very aware of that privilege and try to use it to infiltrate spaces and demand whatever resources I can obtain for the people who need it the most in my community.
What will you do with the resources that stem from your participation in K21?
There are a lot of grassroots organizations coming up in Miami, but very few of them are centered around Queer or trans people. I don’t really understand how we can talk about helping the most marginalized communities without acknowledging the most marginalized people within every community, who are trans — people who meet with the most violence, the most harm, the most prejudice. So I’ve been thinking of ways in which I could fund an initiative to help provide housing security and financial assistance to Black trans people. I won’t call myself a socialist because there are layers to that title that I’ve yet to dissect. However, I do believe the most important social value for me is: if you have it, you share it. If we have access to something, we should be sharing it with those who don’t have it — especially when they are responsible for building the very infrastructures that give us access to these resources in the first place. I stand firm in that and will try to make sure that if I’m going to be participating in any hyper-capitalist cultural institution, I’m directly using whatever access or exposure or resources or money I can get to directly give back to the communities who are in desperate need of it. I hope my presence in the art world can urge other artists or curators or investors or collectors to do the same. I’m very happy to see that we’re moving into an era in which people are no longer being silent about their experience of harm and what they need to rectify it. I want to be at the forefront of that revolution.