Illustrator Kayla E. Knows Gender Is Hard
This is the third profile in our Est. Summer Arts Series, featuring female creators hailing from Texas, who are using their work to explore gender, race, reproductive rights, and sexuality — in other words, to fight the good fight. Stay tuned for more multimedia profiles every Friday.
First launched in the summer of 2012 by Anna Ploegh and Andrew Ridker (while still in undergrad!), Nat. Brut (a biannual art + literary magazine) was intended to be simple, impactful, and interdisciplinary — elements it still maintains — although it has also evolved into one of the most exciting publications you can get your Homosapien paws on.
If you care about art, literature, and inclusivity that is.
And even if you’re not into the aforementioned trifecta that is all things culture and visibility — even if you’re a monster! — you’d still be foolish not to read Nat. Brut.
Anna and Andrew passed the torch to Kayla E. in 2014; for their inaugural issue they had used a painting of hers, and she edited the comics section of their last issue before they entrusted her to head up the helm. A self-described queer Tejana artist, editor, and designer, Kayla has taken the magazine to meteoric places — its visual art, which ranges from found photographs to oil paintings, comics, and illustrations, is beautifully flanked by fiction, poetry, and non-fiction. And all the artists, writers, makers, and shit-kickers involved are a kaleidoscope of colors, sexualities, and identities; she’s gone to great lengths to surface voices and visuals that serve the spectrum of the species we call human.
I realize I’m well-known for hyperbole, but my joy at discovering Nat. Brut was palpable; here at The Establishment we felt as though we’d stumbled upon our own beautifully witchy and brilliant sister (who is decidedly a bit sexier and has more motor skills) but together, we were lifting the same hammer, ringing out our anger and love and trying to take up more space.
Tyler Richard, a Nat. Brut board director, said in an interview with The Harvard Advocate that Nat. Brut:
“is a piece of purposeful nonsense. It is an empty signifier just waiting to be imbued with meaning, a meaning that we create through what we associate with the magazine . . . One might say that Nat. Brut’s name is similarly a piece of found language, of langue trouvée, whose sense entails only in relation to the artistic, social, and environmental context that the magazine’s editors, contributors, and readers construct around it.”
So put that in your Ceci n’est pas une pipe and smoke it. Nat. Brut is a kind of vessel — not a womb, however, for that implies a kind of passivity, a kind of waiting to be filled. Instead I think of it more as a lithe battleship, its belly filled with precious cargo, its sails manned by a dogged crew of philosophers, and tinkers, carrying with them the most spectacular of stories and sights — things the world has never seen but should. And must.
Kayla E. herself is an impish — but don’t you dare underestimate her — self-eviscerating superhero who wended her way from Texan poverty to Harvard; her art is alternatively hilarious and harrowing, often obsessively examining her journey into, through, and within gender.
This is what she had to say about all things Nat. Brut.
I think a lot of “good art” aims to make people “uncomfortable” — can you describe Nat. Brut’s particular brand of making people uncomfortable? Why is this sensation — literally and metaphysically — important?
Our intent is to disrupt the mainstream landscape. Personally, there’s work that makes me uncomfortable, which can be transformative in that it’s forcing you to confront or come to terms with some truth in an absurd or unsettling way (like Elise Liu’s “John and Mary and Jenny and Mike,” for example).
But then there’s work that disrupts the way I experience the world, and stays with me in a way that maintains that disruption. With much of the work we publish, and with the vision of the magazine at large, we’re trying to work toward this sort of decolonizing effect, which is inherently uncomfortable because the systems in which we all operate are all colonized to some extent.
Stories like Afabwaje Kurian’s “Butter,” and Cecca Ochoa’s “Sugarcoated, Victorious,” poems like Joan Naviyuk Kane’s “Headline News,” and visual work by artists like Chitra Ganesh and Daniela Riojas all take things like racism, pornography, patriarchy, and environmental destruction and frame them in a way that is surprising or disorienting, but those feelings are byproducts of artists turning something inside out and exploring it in a way that disrupts the cis-het white patriarchal status quo.
This is important simply because it allows us to experience different ways of thinking and of being in the world. With Nat. Brut, because we want to be able to reach people regardless of their background, we work to find a middle ground between accessibility and raw humanity. But there are so many ways to work toward what we want to see, and I’m constantly inspired by other publications that do so beautifully, like Apogee, Nepantla, The Fem, and Selfish Magazine.
I always ask artists and writers whether they believe art can exact social change . . . Why is it important to use art — be it poetry, paintings, essays or nude friezes made of pop tarts — to comment on/take aim at the world around us? What imbues art with this power?
The art we’re drawn to — visual or literary — digs at the emotional truth, the humanity, within any given social issue. Aren’t social issues, at their core, directly linked to what it is to be a human in your particular time and place? We live in a world in which we are constantly dehumanized for being this or that — for being who we are — and often we end up internalizing this dehumanization as it works its way into our own experience of reality.
When we explore this or seek to transcend it through the expression of our own truths, that is art. And when we share our truths in this way, through a story or a poem or a film or a painting or a comic, that truth has the power to reach a viewer or reader through the artist’s chosen medium, and to affect the way the viewer or reader experiences their own reality.
This is what we mean when we say that only reading stories by straight cis men or white folks impoverishes our reality, hinders us from feeling empathy for those we don’t (or won’t allow ourselves to) relate to, and keeps us from being able to see others as human beings. When we expose ourselves to others’ expressions of their truths, when we allow ourselves to see them, hear them, and validate them, we take a step toward changing our own thinking and our own lives, which is, I think, where social change begins.
How do you conceive of the power structures that have placed cis-het-white-able-male voices and narratives at the center of human existence, as the paradigm in which we compare all else? What is the danger in perpetuating this?
To put it simply, they’re the definition of pervasive. These power structures are actively destructive of women, people of color, disabled folks, and LGBTQIA folks, either through violence (I consider work that is racist, homophobic, fat-phobic, or transmisogynist, for example, to be inherently violent), misrepresentation, or complete erasure.
Those who seek to uphold these power structures are beholden to the traditions and precedents that they have benefitted from, which are built upon othering people through dehumanization. Their aim, conscious or not, is to perpetuate this dehumanization in order to maintain the precedent. The danger is clear: As long as these power structures are in place, violence, erasure, and other forms of dehumanization will continue to be perpetuated and permitted.
Myopy and dehumanization go hand-in-hand. As long as cis-het-white-able-male voices and narratives are the paradigm, everything else will continue being seen as deviant, will be fetishized somehow, or will be completely ignored, and those who subscribe to this paradigm will continue to find it difficult to recognize humanity in those who do not “fit” into that paradigm, and will continue to invalidate others’ lived realities.
What is the most exciting or provocative art you’ve encountered recently?
My partner Laura and I tabled for Nat. Brut at Charleston Zine Fest recently and met a badass young musician named Anjali Naik. Her stage name is Diaspoura (look her up and buy her new album!) and her work is some of the most exciting I’ve come across lately. And it probably goes without saying, but, in my opinion, Morgan Parker has to be one of the most talented living poets. Her work stirs me to my core.
I am obsessed with Nat. Brut’s obsession with surfacing obscure work, which is ironically, not obscure at all, it’s just been obscured by The Man as it were. Your publication aims to to publish (in part!) “creative work that has been buried, ignored, or has disappeared from public consciousness.” What is an example of something you’ve “discovered” like this and brought into the big beautiful spotlight of Visibility?
This is one of the things I couldn’t help but work into the vision for the magazine, and I’m so glad you appreciate it! I’m fascinated with the public domain for so many reasons, but mostly because you’ll find incredibly profound images and work that’s been all but forgotten and is now just there for you to use and explore. And often the work will be incredibly offensive, but even that can be profound in that you can see how the exact same shit is still perpetuated in our culture, just in slightly different iterations.
This is a huge part of my comics practice — in which I re-appropriate sexist, racist public domain comics — and I based the collaborative Nat. Brut project “All of Them Witches” around this. I plucked four awful, beautiful 1950s witch comics from the public domain and re-drew them all, and our Fiction Editor, RL Goldberg, got four women to re-write the narratives.
Now it’s a (very purchasable!) risograph printed comic! We also use photos and images from the public domain (which we find on Flickr Commons) as illustrations for all of our fiction and poetry content. This was how we discovered the Documerica project from the 1970s, which the EPA launched to document the ways in which climate change was affecting people and landscapes on the ground-level around the country. We did a two-part feature on this project in issues five and six, resurfacing some of the most affecting images.
What is love? How can we love each other better?
I won’t go so far as to define love, but I think it can be as simple as recognizing another person’s humanity. Be present with others; listen to them without the expectation of adding anything to (or subtracting anything from) their truth. This, in itself, can be validating. I will say, though, that we should prioritize self-love. And in this world, loving yourself can be hard. When you aren’t practicing self-love, it’s hard not to feel like something’s missing, and it’s easy to project the need for what we aren’t giving ourselves onto others.