Born with Nager syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that left him deaf and with only four fingers, artist Barry Lee has been expressing himself through art, photography, written word and, surprisingly, sound. By the age of 21, he had gone through 20 surgeries to improve the quality of his life. On July 29, Lee presents his solo exhibition “How Nice” at Murmur as part of its 1/4 Program artist residency. Lee sat down with Georgia Voice to talk about the upcoming show.
Tell us what a visitor can expect from “How Nice.”
This solo exhibition will display my work of vibrant photography, video and sound installations. Through surreal – and often pink – imagery, I address experiences with disability, sexuality, ableism and empathy.
This is definitely my first body of work that mentions my queerness. I think it’s important not to be involved in bi-erasure, which is why I decided to show various images of myself with both men and women romantically. I feel personally under-represented in queer imagery and I wanted to create some works that show my body type and show that I am comfortable with myself, my disability and I just so happen to be bisexual as well.
I came out about four years ago. I knew most of my life that I was bisexual, but coming from the small town of Nags Head, North Carolina, I didn’t know that “bisexuality” was actually a thing. I just knew “straight” or “gay.” When I moved to Atlanta, my view of sexuality was broadened.
“Bi-erasure” – let’s talk about that for a minute. Sometimes, straight people think they are confused or promiscuous while people in the gay community feel that they just aren’t admitting to their being gay. Why do you feel that some people are uncomfortable with the idea of bisexuality?
I’m not sure if it is something that folks are uncomfortable with or if it is more of some people often being unable to concept identities outside of an established normal spectrum. As a bisexual, I sit in the middle of the norm of what most consider straight and gay. In my exhibition, I hope to help people stretch their thinking into understanding that the idea of a norm tends to only exist to support division and judgment. Although my exhibition explores more elements of my disability than my sexuality, I feel it’s important to encourage people to take a step back and look within themselves to determine why they may be feeling sorry for or making a judgment at someone for being different from themselves.
I’m intrigued by the idea that you are hearing impaired, yet you include sounds as part of your exhibition. Can you elaborate on why you included them?
Sound is always intriguing to me. I love music, specifically electronic or funk, however sound is also overwhelming for me. Even though I rely on a hearing aid, this doesn’t mean I can hear everything – especially when I am in a crowded space. The other scary thing is when I lose my hearing aid in a public space. One time, I lost my hearing aid in a club. It was a terrifying experience.
I created a sound installation illustrating the wonderment of sound while also showcasing the overwhelmingness of sound. Some sounds in the exhibition are sounds I hate or I am sensitive to like ringing, horn honking, traffic, the revving of an engine, etc.
What do you feel is your greatest challenge?
I think the greatest challenge is trying to get people to understand – specifically strangers – that I don’t feel as sorry for myself because I have a disability as they feel sorry for me. Part of this show tackles the absurdity of the way people treat me and part of it creates representation that I haven’t seen personally in a queer or disabled sense that I have been longing for. So in terms of that question, I think the challenge is to be understood for who I am as a general person versus what I look like. I want for people to understand that sympathy isn’t always the answer when it comes to differences. Taking the time to empathize situations versus immediately apologizing for one’s experience is important and integral for social change and understanding.
What does a day in your life look like?
Usually when I get up, I spend a few hours in a coffee shop doing work and journaling. I am mainly a freelance illustrator, so the days vary depending on the project. I either work on an editorial illustration, or a mural, or a personal project. It makes life interesting.
You are trying to share your experiences living with your rare syndrome with this exhibition. How can people meet you in the middle?
I’m trying to take an empathetic perspective versus a sympathetic one. When people hear about my syndrome/experiences, they often pity me. They usually respond with something like, “I’m sorry you went through what you went through or go through.” For me, I’m used to my experiences. Everyone in their life goes through frustrating things and I think it’s how you handle it.