meat: issue twenty-seven's Khalil West.

September 25, 2018

I met Khalil earlier this summer on one of meat's Manchester adventures. We talked about representation in meat, art and sex work.

 

 

Hey Khalil how’s it going?

Hey Adrian! Not bad, hot stuff.

 

What’s a nice American boy like you doing in Manchester?

Mostly, I’m taking your meat pies and your dads.

 

How did you end up there?

 

A million years ago I met my ex when he was on holiday in NYC. We fell in love, because it was the most inconvenient thing we could do… and we did the whole transatlantic romance thing for a few years until I moved over and settled.

 

Do you miss the states?

I definitely miss elements of my life there, but not the States as an entity, I guess. I miss my family, my friends… I miss 24-hour convenience, the PATH train, the subway. I miss the fuck out of good Mexican and good pizza. I miss the Jersey of my childhood, the Manhattan of my adolescence, the Brooklyn of my early 20s. I don’t miss the police, or how America’s national obsession with race plays out in its expressions of power. I don’t miss having to calculate tax at the till, haha.  I guess I don’t know if I miss America as a ‘thing’, or a unified experience, but I miss the people whom I love there, and certain parts of the cultures and infrastructure in the places where I grew up and lived and partied. Sorry. That’s such a non-answer answer, haha.

 

You seem to be a real mover and shaker in Manchester, what are you working on at the moment? (this could be from the bio you sent but feel free to add a bit more, I’ll have a follow up question).

Haha, I’m just a hustler, baby.

I’m finishing my MA in Queer History at Goldsmiths which, after nearly 20 years away from any formal engagement with academia, has been fucking terrifying, exhausting, and incredibly rewarding in equal measure. It’s really changed my approach to my practices and my ways of seeing.

I’m also working on two main projects. The first, I Am For You Can Enjoy, is an ongoing Arts Council England-supported multimedia collaboration with my friend (and basically my idol) Ajamu, a London-based artist and academic. It’s a series of Ajamu’s portraits and my video interviews with gay/bi/queer Black men who do sex work, exploring the impacts of race on erotic labour. The project looks at the points where desire, agency, performativity and commerce interact with identity, commodity, respectability politics, and colonial constructions of Black masculinity. It’s really the first in a series of projects we want to work on together. Ajamu’s work is mind-blowing and so inspiring, that I can’t believe he wants to work with me, haha. So far, the work has been shown in Manchester, Liverpool, London, Toronto, and we’re working toward a New York show in 2019.

The second is a new queer visual/oral history project called Violet that I’m developing with another friend who is an amazing fine artist and academic, Megan Powell. It’s a brand new collaboration so we’re just starting to work out the finer details, but hopefully we’ll start filming in the next three or four months. It’s really fun working it all out because, without going into too much detail, it’s focused on questioning the strict parameters of queer history, and Megan’s and my sensibilities, experiences and interests mesh in a way that’s really productive and exciting. I’m awed by her work and I honestly can’t wait to start filming with her.

Also, next year is the 10th anniversary of a party my best friend Emma and I started in Liverpool called Chew Disco. It raised money for safehouses and advocacy organisations working on behalf of women, girls and sexual minorities. We were babies when we started it, with no money and like no equipment or support or anything, but over the years we grew and put on and work with artists like Vaginal Davis, Mykki Blanco, Cakes Da Killa, Trash Kit, Shopping, Apostille, Queer’d Science, CHERYL, Golden Teacher, ILL, Sister Mantos, Happy Meals, Marilyn Misandry… literally some of our favourite bands and performers. And because of the night, we got to work and collaborate with some of the most dynamic spaces, festivals and parties up north… FACT, Homotopia, Islington Mill, Queer Contact, Sounds From The Other City, Bollox, Trash-O-Rama, Tranarchy, The Kazimier. We’ve been on hiatus, basically only DJing together as Chew Disco at the odd party in the UK and Berlin (where Em is based), but I feel like the northwest is such a dynamic and supportive region for collaborative DIY arts and nightlife, and we’re looking forward to doing a lot of shit next year when things are less hectic.

 

 

 

You self-identify as a sex worker. Do you think there’s still a stigma attached to male sex work in and out of the queer community?  

I guess that I self-identify as a sex worker to the degree that anyone self-identifies with the labour they perform to generate income. It’s a term that I use selectively and very deliberately in different contexts. I’m also a curator, an artist, a cultural activist and producer, a promoter, an academic, etc. I think that all of these ‘identities’ can stand alone, collide and intersect in ways that are really useful, but ultimately, for me, they’re as politically productive and personally and communally empowering as they can be clumsy, essentialising, and inadequate. And I think there’s an interesting conversation about identity in that tension.

Regarding stigma… I think it’s a really complicated question.

If you use a broad interpretation of ‘sex work’ and remuneration as putting out for a reward… well, then I think that sex work is very selectively stigmatised. Sex work as a clear cash-for-service transaction is still really maligned, pathologized, seen as the height of failure. On the other hand, knowingly exchanging sexual play for dinner and drinks, a holiday, place to crash for a weekend, or gig tickets… these are far more universal experiences, and we’re conditioned to divorce them from the idea of ‘prostitution’. I feel like it’s a false distinction that makes it easy for “good, honest people” to go about their lives while never identifying their ‘normal’ activities as “morally dirty”. So yes, I think that certain interpretations of sex work are stigmatized – along lines of gender, race, and class, specifically.

But I think conversations are changing. In the last decade, sex work has been a lot more visible as a fundamental part of discourse around the meaning and value of work, respectability, feminist and queer politics, legislative/judicial/police violence, (trans)misogyny, power, capitalism and survival, sexual agency…

I guess what interests me is less how stigmatized sex work is in our communities and more how we view and define work, how and why we hierarchize  its forms, what forces and institutions benefit from that hierarchy, who (workers of colour, for example) and what (e.g. pleasure, catharsis, empowerment) are left out of discussions and depictions of sex work, and how sex workers of diverse motivations and experiences are consistently denied a seat at the table when laws are being devised to keep us safe or ‘save’ us.

And I’ll be clear here in saying that a lot of erotic labour involves manipulation, coercion, force, sexual violence, addiction, and vulnerability, and I’m not trying in any way to shy away from that reality and be uncritically celebratory.

 

You were a little apprehensive about posing for meat, how did you find the process in the end?

 

 

 

Haha I was. It wasn’t necessarily the process itself. I mean, I’m profoundly shy and as insecure about my body and looks as anyone else. I’m human. But I also like being photographed, strangely. I think the process engenders a comfort in my own skin that I don’t usually feel. And I dig the idea of embracing different forms of masculine beauty.

I think one issue – and we’d talked about this at length before – was more about the ways that people of colour are represented in gay or queer visual productions. That Blackness itself is seen as the singularly notable ‘alternative’ factor in determining inclusion in projects and publications that are all about diversity or inclusion focused on uncelebrated physical forms. That, and also how the occasional ‘body of colour’ is thrown in to make visual art projects appear to be “doing the work” of inclusion.

I spoke to you really honestly about this before and after the shoot. Heretofore I’d only really seen these (admittedly striking) photographs of acceptable or ‘successful’ masculine bodies that were being placed under a label of queer alternativism and body positivity. For me, the calendar, for example, didn’t do as much radical work as I’d wanted. It didn’t diverge very far from forms that are already represented, celebrated and fetishised in a lot of gay visual cultures – your ‘well-proportioned’ bear, the typical dad bod, etc. And the only Black man I recall seeing featured was, like… really, really, reeeeeeally conventionally good looking. The only thing that made him an “alternative” pin-up was perceived race. So, while I definitely understand the underrepresentation of people of colour in ‘inclusive’ LGBTQ visual media projects as an issue, and that meat is definitely trying to speak to this, I was also really critical about how conventionally attractive, masculine-presenting Black men are positioned as alternative simply for our Blackness. My thinking was sort of like, “So… I’m a Black guy with facial hair and tatts and piercings that are now all fairly standard… I’ve an okay physique, not at all ‘alternative’ in terms of what often represents queerness now in popular visual cultures… so why am I being asked? Let’s discuss that.” And we did.

The fact that this was a conversation that I could even have was what started to sway me. I felt like you understood where I was coming from. I mean, you weren’t insincerely deferential and you weren’t defensive, either. Even after the shoot, we talked a lot about your frustration at not being connected to different networks that might make for a more inclusive project, and we talked about why a lot of men of colour might be reluctant to pose for projects in which we feel like our bodies are just going to be an amusing, exotic interruption to a visual narrative of white beauty.  And these conversations are, in my opinion, like super important when it comes to a project like meat, because every project is on a journey and has to remain open and self-critical.

So, in the end, it was the fact that we actually chatted about this stuff without it ever becoming combative or weird. I feel like we became actual people to each other, rather than shooter and subject. It made me super comfortable with you, and the openness and respect of our chats was totally replicated in our session. That’s really rare.

I also just like the magazine’s aesthetic. I like the awkward relationship between the carefully staged and the overlooked -- the deliberate and the accidental – that happens in home portraits. Also, I grew up during a time when there was this huge renewed interest in vintage men’s physique photography, so I love the work of artists like Bob Mizer and Plato/Haimsohn, etc…. So, like, taking all that into account, posing for meat felt like a really cool fit, and it ended up being really, really comfortable and fun.

 

You can still grab a copy of meat twenty-seven HERE

 

 

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