21 Questions With Artist and Activist Chella Man

Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photo: Antonio Ysursa

new York‘s “21 Questions” is back with an eye on creative New Yorkers. Chela Man is an artist who creates films, paintings, and performances about the intersections of his deaf, trans, Chinese, and Jewish identities. “pure joy,” an exhibition he curated for 1969 Gallery, features 14 emerging disabled artists interpreting the feeling of joy through paintings, sculpture, film, drawings, and photographs (on view through August 13).

Name: Chela Man
Age: 23
Neighborhood: Sunset Park
Occupation: Filmmaker, performance artist, painter, actor, and curator

What’s hanging above your couch?
There isn’t anything, unfortunately. I live with my best friend and we just moved, so we’re working on getting everything together. I always prefer minimalism, and my friend loves a lot of color and pop. We’re working through it; it’s a lot of coin coughs.

What’s the first job you had in New York?
It was very hard for me to get a job here. There was this distinct day I remember when I printed over a hundred résumés and applied to every single restaurant near Parsons, where I went to school, and near where I lived in Williamsburg. The interviews went really well, but as soon as I would tell them I was deaf, they would kick me out. So I started turning to social media and really working on that. My first job ended up being creating and sharing work online.

What color are you always drawn to?
Blue, because it shows the continuum of emotions. Sometimes I look at blue and experience deep grief; other times it has the power to lift me out of any kind of anguish that I’m experiencing.

What art or artifact are you most surprised you own?
Christine Sun Kim, one of the artists in “Pure Joy,” gifted me her hand palm sketch. I stumbled upon Christine’s TED Talk when I was in high school. At the time, I was this young, cisgender teen girl who was Asian and deaf. Seeing Christine, who is also Asian and deaf and an artist, was the first time in my life I felt represented. Today we’re close friends, and I just can’t believe she’s in my life that way and I get to know her on a personal level.

Which New Yorker would you want to hang out with?
Someone who is older, who has seen gentrification and change in New York and also experienced queer and disabled protests in the city. Being able to sit down and talk with someone who didn’t just write or read about it, but was actually there, would be extremely special.

What’s the last thing you made with your hands?
Myself, since I just administered testosterone.

Is there one thing you own multiple versions of?
My diaries. There’s a lot of wacky shit in them. I started my first one when I was 7 and still have it. I write every day. As we grow up, we’re socialized to filter out thoughts, and in my diary, I try to throw that out the window and allow myself to say things that might be mean to other people or myself. I also use it as creative visualization and to figure out what I want for my future. At the same time, it’s very grounding for the present moment because when you write, you have to slow down.

What New York City museum do you always go back to?
Museum of Modern Art. I grew up in a very conservative town in central Pennsylvania. When I was 14, I begged my parents to take me and some friends to MoMA, but I couldn’t even talk to them when we were there because I was so overwhelmed and stunned by the art and architecture. I feel sentimental and nostalgic whenever I walk into MoMA, because I think about how visiting it was one of the first times that I felt deeply, deeply connected to art.

What do you always have next to your computer?
My diary — and coffee.

Where is the best view of the city?
In Sunset Park there are some really beautiful piers you can sneak onto. To be out on the water on a pier that is completely abandoned — I’ve never seen a view like that of New York. The skyline is stretched out and you can see downtown Brooklyn, lower Manhattan, and New Jersey. My friends and I were there on the Fourth of July, and I felt like I could breathe easily for the first time in a long time because the space was so expansive.

What building or object do you want to redesign every time you see it?
Headphones. A lot of deaf and hard-of-hearing people wear headphones throughout the day without them being plugged in because non-disabled people will be more considerate of the fact that we can’t hear. They’re my choice of armor. I actually made a sculpture that reinterprets headphones as armor, which is up right now at the Leslie Lohman Museum.

What’s one thing you would change about your field?
I would discard stereotypes in every single field. By discarding the stereotypes, you also discard any kind of gatekeeping. You allow for the expansiveness of who a person can be. Stereotypes and gatekeeping create binaries that don’t allow us to authentically share our complexities and the continuum of our identity. If we welcomed other possibilities, we could welcome change and allow people to change and shift and be human beings.

If you could live anywhere in New York City, where would it be?
I feel at peace when it’s golden hour, and being in Dumbo you’re able to access that experience every day. And it’s one of the few places where I feel like people kind of slow down, which is rare. I’m also part of a transgender boxing club, and Gleason’s Gym is right there. I’m there three or four times a week. I started boxing about a year ago, and I love the sport’s nonviolent violence.

What would you hoard if it stopped being produced?
Watermelon. I eat like one whole watermelon every day in the summer, and I wouldn’t be able to survive if they were gone. Ninety-five percent of my blood is watermelon juice.

What do you do to get out of a creative rut?
I make myself bored because I’m often most creative when I’m consuming so much. So finding silence, maybe sitting in a room with just a coffee and a piece of paper for like five hours.

Where was your first NYC apartment, and how much was the rent?
Oh God, this is so classic: My first apartment was in the McKibbin Lofts. I was living with my partner, MaryV, at the time and a bunch of roommates. Officially, there were six or seven people in the loft, but people were in and out and sometimes you’d show up and there would be a pretty naked man on the couch. The rent couldn’t have been more than $400.

Where in the city do you go to be alone?
I pick a spot somewhere, depending on my mood, and just walk without a destination. If I want to experience contemporary culture, I’ll choose Canal Street or Soho. I recently chose Park Slope because I was thinking about the possibility of having a family, which is something I didn’t think I would ever connect to. It’s really cool how the different boroughs and parts of New York can fulfill different cravings that you have.

What’s the worst piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten?
Someone told me, “You’re too ambitious.” It had a lot to do with their own ideas of what they thought I could accomplish being a disabled trans person of color. I am very persistent and determined with the work I do, and the project I was working on ended up being successful. You rarely see someone like me being the stereotypical definition of what success might be. Why would you ever tell someone that their dreams are too big? Even if you truly believe that, what could that person possibly get out of hearing that? I don’t know how you could tell someone, especially an intersectionally marginalized person, How dare you imagine taking up more space.

What have you given away to someone that you wish you could get back?
My core memories. I’ve shared them with people who didn’t deserve it. They didn’t have the amount of conscious care that I expected them to have. But I don’t regret it, because even if your heart feels come to smithereens, you come out stronger than ever.

What’s your favorite NYC restaurant and regular order?
East Harbor Seafood Palace, which is a dim sum place that still has carts. I’ll get sea bass, char siu bao, sticky rice, and jook. I go there with my grandparents. It’s like eating your memories.

What descriptive phrase do you want on your obit headline?
“He did his damn best.” Legacies are tough, because I don’t want to be known as one thing.

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