Artist Lilly E. Manycolors confronts gender binary, healing and trauma with Emerson Contemporary


Courtesy of Emerson Contemporary

Artist Lilly E. Manycolors spoke about her mixed media art at a virtual forum hosted by Emerson Contemporary on Nov. 6.

By Clarah Grossman

Performance artist Lilly E. Manycolors began her presentation about mixed media art with a moment of silence and a land recognition of Indigenous territory. As a mixed Choctaw, African-American, and Anglo-Australian person, Manycolors finds it important to remember where she comes from and the privilege her elders give her in allowing her, and other members of society, to operate on tribal land.

Emerson Contemporary, the rebranded name of Emerson’s gallery program, hosted the event with Manycolors on Nov. 6, organized by the curator-in-residence Leonie Bradbury. With the gallery focused on art and activism this semester, after a summer of protests and demonstrations, Bradbury said Manycolors was a perfect artist for “The Art and Healing,” an ongoing artist series for the Fall 2020 semester.

“Manycolors’ work fits within both the themes of activism and healing, as she uniquely addresses the power of art and the role the artist can play in society,” Bradbury wrote in an email.

Bradbury reached out to Manycolors after her work had been recommended by a colleague. She  was blown away by Manycolors’ Rhythms, a series of performances where she stood in public places with white signs covering her whole face. On the signs, text exploring ideas of mixed racial identity and belonging were displayed. Manycolors creates a powerful image of protest while bringing light to an ongoing situation, and through this, she created a space of healing and care. 

“Her work reframes identities and questions how we exist in a world where Indigenous people continue to feel erased,” Bradbury wrote. “Even as they are still here, and they will continue to thrive and will be here for many more years after the settler-colonists era ends.” 

Monday’s presentation began with Rhythms, where Manycolors discussed her process and the motivation behind her art.  This series of performances became the foundation for Manycolors’ later work, which started in the Goddard College cafeteria. 

Rhythms is a series of four performances, each one where Manycolors covered her face with a sign and asked another raw, exposing question. Blinded and placed in a public place, Manycolors’ intention was to create a mutual, safe space for everyone experiencing the performance as a way to create intimacy between the audience.

Manycolors recalled the amazing experience of her first Rhythm, Walking wounded, and how her peers came up to her in the Goddard College cafeteria with words of support and compassion—literally reaching out in some cases and hugging the blinded Manycolors, whose face was covered by the sign and question: Why can’t I let myself be loved?

“When we’re healing, we are changing, and whoever we come into contact with is changing based on our changing,” Manycolors said.

The presentation then moved forward, transitioning from Manycolors’ early and first performances to her most photography project, Loving Leads to Ego Death and Liberation. The photograph was taken in October at Turtle Island and shows Manycolors sitting in a long skirt with her legs apart, holding a bloodied knife in one hand and her metaphorical heart in the other, her bare-chest decorated with a broken, bleeding heart. The image came to Manycolors through a wave of powerful emotions. She wasn’t sure what to make of this emotion, but knew that she had to get this image out of her mind. From the powerful stance to the fiery look in her eyes, Manycolors calls the piece an emotional tantrum.

“In an emotional state, but I hadn’t quite figured out what the emotion was telling, what my pain was telling me,” Manycolors said. “So I just had to get this image out of my head and now when I look at it, and really comb through the emotions that I was going through, I’m understanding more and more and more… My work comes out and works me.” 

Moving forward in the presentation, Manycolors went back to some of her more formative work, bringing up a series called Need to Connect. In a series of three public performances, Manycolors evokes a connection between her and the audience. However, it is only in the middle piece, “There is no binary,” that Manycolors allowed the audience to see her face.

In There is no binary, Manycolors works with the audience to strip off layers upon layers of different gendered clothing until left naked before them, or as naked you can be with legal parameters, she said. In nude underclothing and her underwear stuffed, the illusion of androgynous nudity created an intimate space between Manycolors and the audience, she explained in the presentation. 

“I had to connect with the audience completely, and in order to do that, I had to be naked… Another intention was to give permission for people to not have to engage in the binary,” Manycolors said. “Liberation can be obtained. I hope and work towards a future where we are not operating in a colonial binary. I think that in order, sometimes we have to experience complete vulnerability to muster up the right courage.” 

Some of the themes Manycolors focuses on in her art includes the gender binary, healing after trauma, and emotional turmoil. (Media: Courtesy of Emerson Contemporary)

Manycolors always had the goal of being vulnerable and exposing her raw emotions. 

In her first big series, and her undergraduate thesis, 7 WMXN Series, Manycolors said she entered her cocoon and allowed herself the time and space to deform and lose her shape, her sense of self, only to reform into something else again. 

“Healing is the caterpillar and the butterfly, but no one talks about the cocoons,” Manycolors said. 

With an undergraduate focus in decolonization from trauma healing and integrating from Goddard College in Vermont, Manycolors came up with trauma integration tools and tried them on herself for this series. She laughed at this point in the presentation, citing that these paintings kept her alive and at the same time, made her go a little insane. It was hard and draining, but at the end, Manycolors said she came out for the better as a beautiful butterfly.

As an undergraduate pouring her soul and trauma onto the canvas, Manycolors didn’t have a foundation to ground her through the process. Now, many years later, Manycolors said her space, her community, and her traditions hold her together while she is in the cocoon. Manycolors had grown up without these support systems and it is only now that she has them and that she understands how vital they are.

“A huge part of being able to get through things gracefully is having the people around you to check your ass… having people who are anchored to your sense of self,” she said.