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^ Jess Kohl, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

OTP Short-Forms: Jess Kohl

@jess.kohl

An interview with the London-based film-maker and photographer.

Anime Salve and the intersection between religion and gender non-conformity in Naples.

Best known for producing un-pretentious and celebratory portraits of individuals from marginalised sub-cultures, Jess Kohl’s film-making and photography orbits around a central interest in depicting those whose socio-political identities diverge from prevailing normative structures. Themes of parallel families and the relationship between queerness and spirituality often play an important role.

Favouring a natural aesthetic, Kohl’s new style of documentary vérité depicts individuals in the spheres where they feel most comfortable, often removing the viewer from the familiarity of the Western socio-sexual paradigms they may be most familiar with. A prime example of this technique would be Kohl’s 2019 film Nirvana, depicting the Koovagam festival celebrating transgender identities in Southern India.

The following interview was recorded to co-incide with the artist's most recent solo exhibition: Anime Salve at The PAN - Palazzo delle Arti, Napoli (11/09/2020 - 27/11/2020). 

OTP Many of your documentary projects seem to come together around the idea of giving a voice to a particular marginalised subculture - why is this idea important to you?

JK I’m interested in individuals or communities who are authentically themselves, who refuse to conform to their culture or communities expectations of them.

 

There are certain elements I’m drawn to within different subcultures which helps create a uniformity to my work - for example, focusing on subjects who are outwardly expressive of their beliefs through their aesthetic choices.

As a result, my directorial voice can be driven by my subjects to some extent. Focusing on craft helps me to find a unified visual language to my work - the format, colour palette, the story structure…

 

Though the way I approach each project will be unique, and I would like to keep progressing rather than become tied down to one particularly style of creating.

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^ Jess Kohl, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

OTP How did you first come across the “femminielli” in Naples?

JK I had been in India working on my project ‘Nirvana’, which focuses on the contrasts between Eastern and Western LGBT+ cultures, and the intersection of religion and gender nonconformity.

 

Through this, I began to research other parts of the world with a history of queerness, and came across the rich tradition of femminielli in Campania which fascinated me, so I went to Napoli with a desire to find out if historically liberal attitudes towards queerness still existed here.

OTP Could I ask you to talk a little bit about your experience of the Matrimonio de la Zeza?

JK The Matrimonio de la Zeza is a very unique annual event that happens in the town of Pagani in Campania. It is essentially a farcical wedding between two men that has been being celebrated for generations, yet is still relatively unknown even within Napoli’s queer communities.

 

The tradition is being kept alive by a small group of friends, who are fiercely protective and dedicated to their cultural roots. To me, the atmosphere of this event is symbolic of attitudes towards queerness in Campania.

The whole town come together to celebrate this surreal wedding, without prejudice, which I found to be quite a moving experience given the hostility LGBT+ people face in many parts of the world.

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^ Jess Kohl, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

OTP In Anime Salve theres seems to be an equally strong focus on architectural transformation as there is on the development of cultural attitudes towards gender non-conformity in the region - how would you describe the relationship between these two processes of change?

JK The architectural transformation of the Scampian landscape has always felt like a narrative which is unfolding, or looming over the lives of my subjects documented in Anime Salve.

The women in this series have fully transitioned, so the destruction of the Vele Di Scampia, which has been happening over the years I was shooting this series, became more symbolic of interpersonal relationships than of physical transformation - specifically the relationship between Amalia and Alessia, mother and daughter and the focus of the series.

The two are so closely immeshed - reflecting the Vele Di Scampia’s deep roots as a symbol of Scampia and the Camorra. And as the destruction of the Vele began, Amalia’s health also started to deteriorate.

OTP Much of your work to date has touched on the intersection between queerness and religion - why do you think queerness and spirituality so often overlap?

JK I think historically, individuals who possessed both female and male qualities were celebrated in different cultures. In Indigenous North America, those who didn’t conform to gender norms were known as ‘two spirited’ and they were respected.

 

In India, ‘hijras’ or eunuchs are written into Hindu mythology. The South of Italy and India are both extremely religious, spiritual places, which I think creates a space for mysticism and otherness to exist, as societies here are already accustomed to extraordinary or miraculous events occurring.

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^ Jess Kohl, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

OTP The tension between prevailing norms and the subcultures that diverge from these norms seems to be a dominant theme in much of your work - what is it about social ten- sion that makes for interesting documentary film-making or photography?

JK I’m interested in documenting spaces where tension exists because I think it is here we can see individualism and need to expressive creativity prevail even in the most challenging of circumstances.

 

I’m drawn to groups or individuals who are unashamedly themselves, and who are willing to suffer consequences in order to retain their authenticity.

OTP A couple of artist bios online mention your time studying at Central St Martins and Goldsmiths but nothing before that. What was your early life like? How did you get into photography?

JK I grew up in London. I got into skateboarding when I was quite young, and I was never very good at the sport but became obsessed with the culture that surrounded it.

 

I had a couple of 411 VHS tapes and would watch them repeatedly, I particularly enjoyed the ‘day in the life’ sections, which were essentially very mundane short documentary profiles of skateboarders, showing their everyday lives. So I can trace my interest in documentary back to those days.

I had quite a disrupted education, being expelled from various secondary schools, and deciding education wasn’t for me. I worked various jobs in London - making pizza, bar tender, on a factory line picking clothes - and I always practiced photography on the side.

At age 24 I decided I wanted to develop my practice and reclaim my education. I studied Moving Image at CSM which gave me the space and time I needed to focus on my work, and then went on to do an MA in Cinematography at Goldsmiths to refine my technical skills.

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^ Jess Kohl, Pareti Mostra, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

OTP What sort of effect do you think ideas of generational transmission have had on atti- tudes to gender non-conformity in Scampia?

JK Scampia is a relatively new suburb, but talking about wider society in Napoli, my observation is that peoples attitudes towards queerness are more tolerant in this part of the world.

 

Gender non conforming people seem to be more integrated into society even more so than somewhere like London.

 

That isn’t to say they are necessarily treated any better, or have a better quality of life or opportunities, but it feels as though they have more of a place in everyday life.

OTP What did the research stage of this project consist of? When it came to producing the work, what were the biggest surprises for you?

JK The research stage of this project started subconsciously whilst I was making Nirvana.

In retrospect I also see my first visit to Napoli, when I met my subjects and started getting a sense of the physical and cultural landscape of the region, as a research trip. This was also when many of the images that culminated in Anime Salve were taken.

On subsequent trips I continued to photograph, but have mainly been shooting moving image, collecting footage for my first feature length documentary.

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^ Jess Kohl, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

OTP Which artists did you feel most inspired by at the time you were making this project?

JK I was shown the work of photographer Lisetta Carmi during the making of this project and was subsequently inspired by it.

 

It was shown to me by Paolo Valerio, an Neapolitan academic who has written books about feminielli and guided me during this project, writing the foreword for the catalogue that accompanied Anime Salve.

 

Carmi’s seminal work ‘I Travestiti’ saw her photograph the trans community in Genova in the 60/70’s, and I felt a strong connection with her depiction of trans lives because her approach is very tender and intimate, her images don’t seek to eroticise or ‘other’ trans lives, but rather humanise them by showing people in everyday situations - in their kitchens, relaxing at home, hang- ing out with friends.

 

Carmi’s images don't feel voyeuristic or exploitative, the subjects are clearly comfortable with her presence. In Anime Salve, I sought to create this same dynamic with my subjects.

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^ Jess Kohl, Untitled, 2019. Courtesy of the artist.

Born in London, UK in 1989 Jess Kohl graduated from Central St. Martins, London in 2016 before completing her MA at Goldsmiths, London in 2017.

Her exhibition history includes: Anime Salve at The PAN - Palazzo delle Arti, Napoli, Italy (solo) as well as Friends of the Dead at The Vaults, London, UK (solo).

Jess Kohl has been the recipient of the Best Director award at the Milan Fashion Film Festival, 2019, the same festival at which her film Nirvana (2019) received the award for Best Documentary. Kohl's film Anarchy in the Phillipines (2018) was nominated for Best Documentary Short at the Raindance Film Festival, 2018. Her films have also screened at festivals such as BFI Flare, LSFF, and Ciclope.

Selected press includes: Vogue, Another Magazine, Kodakery, Dazed, The Face, Vice and The Independent.

 

 

See more from Jess Kohl:

@jess.kohl

www.jesskohl.com