An Interview with Z
ZGrowing up in Lakeview, Florida, church was a constant in Ms. Z Tye’s life. This wasn’t the stereotypical, “my parents dragged me to church” story; Z’s parents weren’t actually interested in going. So, she would instead go with her grandmother. And while in the church it is the preacher and his sermon that get top billing, in the confines of Z’s Pentecostal services, it was frankly everything else that was the draw: the fashion, the fellowship, the praise and worship, as well as the Holy Ghost spirit that ran through it all.
“I was always very interested in the performative aspects,” she says, having now built a practice as a performance artist on referencing rituals like baptism. “I idolized the people who were able to take all of that and make it their own. I feel like the reason why I was so interested in being baptized and living through the Word was to create my own little Holy Ghost dance to the music that was in the church. I think I’ve always been drawn to that performative creativity.”
That “Holy Ghost” dance, as well as speaking in tongues, seemed to be manifestations of those individuals accessing something beyond themselves. They had tapped into something greater than themselves, and from that these creative expressions were born. Z wanted a part of that.
In those early days it extended from just going to church: Z tried putting on her own performances. In the living room, to an audience that was often only one person, she’d turn on contemporary gospel tracks from Kirk Franklin and Mary Mary, and put on a performance. The hope was to put on a show so good that the audience would feel compelled to get involved in some way, much like in the call-and-response nature of the Black church. She wanted to provoke them in any way she could: clapping, moving, or something — anything.
As Z got older that thirst for the church waned. The fellowship she initially had looked at with reverence was revealed to be filled with gossip. And more and more as she came into herself she began to feel like she was a target of that very environment. Adults began to question her gender, before she ever had, and she found herself at odds with the space. What was then called her “androgyny” — Z has since identified it as her trans identity — became an issue. But what she learned there about fellowship, about rituals and how they can help you tap into the divine, have laid an invaluable blueprint that have helped her not only uncover and explore her gender identity, but also build a community of support to facilitate her new life.
Z is a bi-racial, trans performance artist based in New York City that creates work that functions as an offering to the queer community. That it is performance seems a foregone conclusion: she’s been entertaining since she was young either through the concerts she put on for her grandmother, doing chorus in her earlier school years, or even in musical theater later on — at Kennesaw State University, she studied dance.
In school, the dance rooms were sometimes the safest places. “It felt like a safe space to express ourselves in whatever we wanted to,” Z says of artistic spaces. “I was always really grateful to have that time and space in those institutions.”
“I THINK I’VE ALWAYS BEEN DRAWN TO THAT PERFORMATIVE CREATIVITY.”
That it is often Z’s own body on display in the work, being observed at the center of the piece seems also like a natural progression. “Growing up [in Florida], is interesting — as a queer, androgynous child I would always get stared at and talked about,” she reflects, admitting that she’s often felt like a spectacle. “You know all the attention that comes with being queer and a person of color. There were a lot of questions, a lot of curiosity about me and my experience. But I made it through with a lot of beautiful family and friends that were supportive of me.” In some of the works in her practice, Z is still the spectacle, but on her own terms.
“I’m working through ideas of being a spectacle because that’s how I’ve experienced much of my life,” she says.
In 2017, Z made the shift into the work she does now. In a piece entitled Fem Culture, Z began to experiment with her performance, putting on lipstick in a mirror, smearing the lipstick on the wall, and more over a period of hours. Audiences could see themselves in the mirrors as they watched the show, placing themselves into the work. It was an investigation of masculinity and femininity and made space for her to begin to interrogate things she had often been previously interrogated about.
The piece was a departure for Z, for a variety of reasons. Hosted in a pop up exhibit, the staging of it was different from her other performances — in fact, there was no stage. This was a gallery space, at eye level with the audience. As well, the piece needed to be much longer than any choreographed piece she had previously put on. The result made her conceptualize work that fed off of the interaction with the viewer, destroying the fourth wall. It made her create in a new way, realizing a piece that saw her revisit how she came into her queerness in college. Reminiscing on some of the first times she met trans people in real life, seeing drag queens, and also Atlanta’s underground culture of competitive J-Setting in gay clubs opened Z to creating and expressing in new ways. It was from there that Fem Culture and Z’s new practice were born.
“From Fem Culture onward, a lot of my solo work is really my process of transitioning,” she admits. Projects like Available Body, Fruitcake, Trans Baptisim, and the Queer Offerings series all center on identity. Trans Baptism, for example, is about cleansing the body of cisgender norms and constructs. “In the beginning of me attempting to have some type of practice, it was definitely a lot about self discovery.”
In those early days, due to a lack of resources, Z’s was often the primary body on display. She was the spectacle, starting, provoking, and guiding conversations about identity, traditions, and more. It was through this that she was ultimately embarking on a process of self-discovery. And while that is still a component, there is another that has come to the fore. “I was very alone and I was looking for people who resonated with my experience,” she says of some of the work like Available Bodies, which differs from Available Body. It is built on hours of interviews with trans folks about their depictions on the media and the lack thereof. Other members of the community have also been brought into the work itself, at times removing Z from the center of focus in a way that extends the practice so that it is a shared space. “I was really looking to have meaningful fellowship with people of my community.”
A NEW FELLOWSHIP AND COMMUNITY, THROUGH WHICH Z CAN ACCESS HER OWN, EXPANDED DIVINITY.