Chella Man is an outspoken artist and activist, using their experiences as a non-binary, deaf and biracial individual to access liberation and visibility through his work. Starting as a kid with just a pen and paper, Man learned to create their own visual language and rabel against societal constraints. Their current exhibition, It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense spans over a decade of their drawings and paintings, telling their unique artistic journey. Open at the Hannah Traore Gallery until March 30th, we talked to them about their exhibition, challenging societal standards, and more.
When they didn’t have the words or the tools to fully express themself, Chella Man turned to art. As a deaf, Chinese, Jewish, and non-binary person, Man has constantly had to find space for themself in a society that refuses to accept them. Today, they use their artistic voice to send a message of empowerment and representation, and they have since become a role model for anyone struggling with their identity. They started creating art from a young age, using black ink to fill up their sketchbooks. After graduating secondary school early to attend college, Man has been unstoppable and their artistic pursuits are continuously expanding. From showing their films in international film festivals, participating in art galleries and artist residencies, working as a columnist for the queer publication Them, signing as the first deaf and trans-masculine model with IMG Models, and even being cast as a superhero in the film Warner Brothers DC Universe show Their work transcends boundaries, using a diverse mixture of visual performances, social media influencing, and even writing their own book, Continuum that was released in 2021.
It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense takes it back to Man's early sketchbooks drawings from 2014 to the present. The intimacy of their small scale black and white drawings not only tells their personal story of self love, but also recognises the multitudes of the binary system. In order to free himself and give voice to their intersectional identities, Man refuses to make themself smaller to fit into society. Instead they expand their art and prioritises how it resonates with themself personally, rather than explaining it to audiences with prejudiced notions. Their unique visual language is electrifying and inspiring, and they’re paying the way for better representation and visibility for everyone who can relate to their story.
Chella, thank you so much for talking with us and congratulations on your current exhibition! It Doesn’t Have to Make Sense is a very personal and intimate collection of art that tells your story as someone impacted by intersectional identities, how does it feel to have these drawings displayed?
Having these drawings displayed for It Doesn’t Have To Make Sense is honestly helping catalyse my memory. It's the first time that I’ve seen these side by side, the drawings and the writings, all of it span a decade. And I’ve never had the chance to see them so curated and intentionally set to tell what I receive as a narrative story. But it's interesting to watch others garner their own experiences with all the pieces because when I look at them I know exactly where I was, what I was thinking, how it felt predominantly, how it felt more so than the words on the page. But it just does remind me of the commonalities of humanity because, you know, so many people relate to the words and the cycles that I had to dissect and the frameworks that I had to create through these drawings and pieces displayed to come to this understanding of who I am today. It feels liberating and I feel incredibly honoured to have this opportunity to connect with people this way even when I’m not there in person.
Something that really stood out to me was the headline on an article written about you by Harper’s Bazaar, “Chella Man Is Done Explaining His Existence”. I think that says a lot about where you are today as an artist and in your personal identity journey as well, what has it taken to get to this point, in terms of being open and empowered through your art?
Oh yes, so the Harper's Bazaar title is so perfect! I had no part in choosing the title but I also agree it says exactly where I am today. I think, you know, as a person who is at the intersection of many identities it's not uncommon to be pigeonholed as there are only so many of us in mainstream media, not because there are only so much of us in general and life– there are so many deaf people, queer people at the intersections just like me, but it's really really really tough to break the glass ceiling and get through and that's where this scarcity comes from. You know I've done so many interviews explaining what my life is like, what my existence is like, validating that and I'm done explaining. All of my work and my words, continuing on from this point, you know, I feel like it is more so about my un-politicised identities and my humanity, unless I am telling the story first and foremost for myself and trying to reflect on all these identities. For example, in a performance I'm working on right now with Performance Space NY and the Jewish Museum, there's a lot of self-reflection that I'm doing there but that's not me explaining to other people, that's me reflecting for myself. It's taken so much trust in my own journey, in my own feelings, because there is no representation for someone like me. I've had to just understand what I feel, what I experience is real, no matter how gaslit it may be at times. And it's been incredible to watch so many people realise, just like I'm saying, that there are so many of us, that they see their story in my story and things are actually abundant, not scarce.
You mentioned that you prioritise how your art resonates with yourself personally, so how has creating as a multimedia artist through film, writing, speaking, and sculpting, helped to create a better understanding of yourself? What is the challenge behind finding that space to express yourself and connect?
I think the largest challenge is unfortunately finding companies, institutions, platforms that actually are willing to dedicate attention, time, respect, towards uplifting something that they don't understand. And that's where it's taken, you know, so much labour to continuously explain why this should be important to them. And luckily I feel like I found so many gems over the years in various industries of entertainment or art or speaking, ect, that see themselves in me even if we don't have a common shared, politicised identity. You know, I think if you are living at the core of a marginalised identity you can simply understand neglect, you can understand isolation and even if you're not, you know, disabled, if you're queer there's something there. There's some myriad experience of continuous discrimination and neglect that can evoke personal empathy. And I think finding people who can understand perspective has been the key, but it's been tough and it's taken a long time and I've definitely had to be extremely strategic about it.
You're also very open in expressing yourself online through social media and your popular YouTube account, what is the importance you find behind telling your story and being open to people's questions?
For this next question it's really about, I mean, I can't imagine myself not being open to telling my story when I have the capacity to, and wanting to have the personal willpower. I just want to connect, you know I think at my core as a human being I want to feel connected to people and part of that is having them understand me and having me understand them. And if I really want to be authentically, transparently, fully understood, it's about sharing everything, you know, for me to feel understood and connected to others. It's also just– I feel blessed with the ability to articulate a lot of the frameworks that I've had to discover and experience throughout my upbringing, which I've come to realise is such a gift. And I want to be able to share that articulation and understanding in ways that are accessible to others who don't experience it directly, because again, it just opens the door for connection and beyond connecting to me, they're then able to take that understanding and connect with a lot of other people.
The Hannah Traore Gallery where your exhibition is being held describes themselves as being committed to advocating and celebrating marginalised and underrepresented artists, how has it been to work with them and have your art held at their gallery?
Working with Hannah has been absolutely breezy! I say that as I'm looking out at these trees here where the wind is just blowing at all hours of the day but you know working with Hannah truly makes the bare minimum feel like the bare minimum.
You said that you find art in questioning the values of the world, why do you think it's important to find that space for questioning and challenging those values? In terms of trans rights and disability awareness, what is the impact of this challenging?
Well I mean, questioning the values of the world has everything to do with trans and disability rights because at our core, as at my existence as a trans person and as a disabled person, the world isn't made for you. And you're being told all these facts about the world that don't fit you, and so of course you're like this can't be true. So I mean the challenge– there's just no way that you can exist as a trans person, as a disabled person, and not question the frameworks this world and culture is built on. Anywhere in the world, there is no culture that I know of that exists anywhere where it is solely built for collective liberation to lift up the people most oppressed by systemic oppression, which are disabled, trans, bipoc individuals. And so you just have no choice but to question the values around you.
You were named as an artist on the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, what weight does that title carry for you?
For Forbes 30 under 30, it was wild to be named as an artist for that list because, I just, I don't know, I honestly don't really have many words other than I’m incredibly honoured to be among all the other artists who were chosen on that list as well. It's just like a dream and what I will say about being on that list, as well, is it's just throwing ageism out of the window. I found there are so many other Industries that can be super ageist, like people just will not take you seriously because of your age, and unfortunately I feel like being named on this list is one of the only things that can thwart that perception and debunk that myth that, you know, young people actually have something powerful to say. So I'm very grateful as well for the super power I guess that that title can carry. I really wish that it didn't take being named on this list though for people to give young people more power.
I think that your work is really inspiring, and it connects with a lot of people. Who is someone who inspires you? 
There are so many people that inspire me but actually one of the first people that came to mind is my friend Jade, who goes publicly as Puppies Puppies and now has an exhibition where she's literally living inside of the New Museum. We have many conversations privately about art and what it feels like to be a trans artist in America, and she inspires me just by her decision to keep going and to never retract her values in her work. I appreciate her and love her dearly as an artist and a friend.
Self love is a continuous journey, what has it looked like for you in your everyday life and how has your art been an extension of that journey?
Self love is continuously mutable as I practice it. Right now it looks like being somewhere warm and sunny while writing my script for my Autonomy performance on May 2nd. It's understanding my needs, fundamentally, and trusting them. I think that we're often taught to neglect our needs because of the way capitalism encourages us to view our bodies and minds like machines and work that way, and operate that way, which is to say, non-stop. And I feel like it often forces dissociation. So self love to me is this constant battle against dissociation and tuning in somatically and giving space and time to rest. I also think about the book Rest is Resistance by Tricia Hersey and the works of Lama Rod Owens as well, which have been really grounding and encouraging me to tune into loving myself.
Self expression and identity are also dominant themes in your work, what is your hope for others who are struggling with their voice or with feeling underrepresented by the media? How would you describe that connection you build between the artistic message and the viewer?
For other people struggling with self-expression and identity or feeling underrepresented in the media, I would say place no rate on who the media chooses to uplift. It's only when I let go of that and decided to internalise and practice being my own representation that I truly felt free. To this day I feel extremely grateful for the platform that I have in public media, but it definitely didn't come from the validation and the empowerment that I feel, it definitely does not come from who chooses to deem me worthy to uplift. It comes from myself and the people that I love and surround myself with. You know, I guess in a way I'm saying make sure that where you receive validation is wired primarily to yourself and your loved one. That's the most important thing, that's the most real thing, and to not lose yourself in what you think other people want to see from you. And even sometimes what you want to see in the world, because to an extent you don't– we don't have control over that. For the connection that I build between the artistic message and the viewer, it's also very circumstantial and depends a lot on the project that we're speaking about directly. In a lot of ways similar to being represented by the media, it's just fundamentally outside of your control. You don't know someone's brain, you don't know how they're going to look at a piece of yours, you don't know what they're going to choose to dwell on or extract and so I think it's just providing what is most fulfilling for you as the artist and trusting that the message will be received in the way that you want it to by the people who are meant to understand it. However, I think if we're speaking about this from like a less creative standpoint and we're talking about this from frameworks of accessibility, it's very different because you really do need to understand how the content you are putting out is going to be received because the whole point is to make sure it's received in the way that you want it to.
Your upcoming project about the medical industry complex and reclaiming the body with ink is very enticing, what can you tell us about this?
So working on Autonomy, balancing the reclamation of my body as a disabled trans person of colour and understanding how I have had to unlearn and relearn its perception without the lens of the medical industrial complex has required so much healing, and healing is not pretty. You know, I think oftentimes we talk about healing in mainstream spaces and it's cute and it's pretty and we're getting like baths and like washing our body and stuff– and sometimes it is that, but a lot of times it's just really fucking painful and you have to kind of pull the curtain back from your eyes that you may not have even known was there. You need to find the language to be able to acknowledge that there is a curtain, then you need to remove the curtain and finding whatever is behind that curtain is different for each person, but it will forever change the way that you view the world and you view yourself, which is a part of healing and it's worth it in my opinion. But it's also very much like taking that pill from The Matrix movie, and never being able to look back at life in the same way again. And so Autonomy, is very much about what it has looked like for me to find the curtain and remove it, and everything that has come with what I've discovered behind that curtain. And it's not so much about dealing with what has come after, I mean, I think that the process of doing this performance piece is an expression of what I do to cope, I create art, right? But the whole performance is mainly about the process that I've had to discover, build, and endure, to free myself and to reclaim autonomy over my body.
Finally, I wanted to give you the space to talk about something you feel needs to be brought to attention more or that doesn’t get brought up in interviews. Is there anything you want readers to know?
Oh yeah, okay this is a great question! I am just so tired at this point of seeing disability be the last thing that is mentioned. I see so much dialogue about race and queerness, which I'm so obviously grateful for it but there's so much pain from the ratio of disability and the history of disability, and I really do feel passionate about turning my focus to uplift a lot of disabled stories, which I've done by a curating Pure Joy in the past. But a lot of things that I'm looking to direct and build, and spaces moving forward definitely are working to highlight a lot of disabled stories and disabled individuals. So I would love for people who mention inclusivity and diversity as a pillar of their work to make sure that includes disability as well.