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soft strong boys and houses of joy

Caitlin King and Rene Matic respond to FACT Liverpool's exhibitions Soft Boys by Kiara Mohamed and B.O.S.S at the Liverpool Biennial 2021

Images from 

Part I by Caitlin King


Soft Boys by Kiara Mohamed brings a sense of joy and vibrancy to the discussion around trans masculinity which is so often explored exclusively in terms of its relationship to trauma. The physical space has been carefully curated to mimic the theme of softness. The viewer is made to feel light as they’re held by various sensory aspects.  From the life in the plants in the window, to the comfort of the beanbags, to the delicate fabric sectioning off the room. I left the space having been challenged with themes of identity and pain yet utterly still and calm, a testament to the power of softness.  


In the main film Kiara talks about his grandfather and how he was the original soft boy living with an ‘open heart and open hand’. I found it comforting to hear a depiction of cis masculinity which subverts toxic narratives. Kiara recalls his grandfather’s assertion that we are ‘worthy of tenderness’. He reflects, ‘I’ve tried to keep my heart soft, it hasn't been easy’. This idea that the world will try to harden you brings up the theme of softness as resistance. Resistance to the injustices we encounter. The trauma we’ve inherited from living in a world which institutionally marginalises our identities. Softness is something we have to protect at all costs and it will protect us in turn if we nurture it. 


The footage from the same film cuts between Kiara in bed, his skin in the sun, his eyes closed, him learning to skate, tender moments with his child who helps him to bind. The visuals are a nod to the picture perfect nostalgic aesthetic of coming-of age films. I was moved to see such tender imagery representing masculinity. I was also moved to hear a narrative about cis, straight masculinity being the prototype for softness. I found great comfort in the acknowledgement that softness transcends queerness and is within everyone. I too have learnt some of the most important lessons in softness from the cis men in my family and it’s important to reflect on the joy in that fact. Kiara repeats the sign off ‘I love you sweetheart’ with his child's voice replying ‘I love you’ throughout the exhibition. This moment of genuine innocence and softness is beautiful and heartwarming but it also raises themes of breaking generational trauma. Being masc and expressing love and vulnerability so openly and often is key in empowering future generations to remain soft. 


The second film shows Kiara chatting to a friend about various aspects of their trans masc identities. Something which stuck out for me was Kiara’s friend’s use of the word ‘we’ in reference to their mutual responsibility for Kiara’s ongoing top surgery fundraiser. The pair strategize about what to do if their target isn’t met, using communal language throughout. Joint responsibility and community effort to come through for each other is one of the most brilliant things about our community. It’s an acknowledgement that gender affirming surgery isn’t a personal battle, it should be in the interest of public health. Until that becomes a reality we will continue to support one another. It’s clear that this conversation is difficult and sad and the pair sit in silence, giving time for each other to process their thoughts. There’s no solutions offered, just softness and quiet. This calm moment quickly transitions into laughter and silliness, emphasising the joy within the pain of queerness. The queer community are incredibly good at holding space but they’re even better at having fun. We experience everything in extremes which makes our friendships and queer family bonds unstoppable. Divine. 

I’ve been exploring softness in my own identity and work and I felt an overwhelming sense of solidarity with Kiara. I am grateful that our stories are being told on this scale. I have spoken with cis male friends who have visited the exhibition who were also moved by this portrayal of masculinity. Kiara’s work spoke to me as a trans person but it would speak to anyone who can relate to existing within binaries and social pressures to toughen up. Soft Boys is a must see. I hope that viewers take with them not only a message of hope but a sense of urgency to support gender affirming surgery fundraisers and call out transphobia and toxicity as and when we find it. 


Part II by Rene Matic


In Liverpool, ‘boss’ is slang for all things good - a good song becomes a ‘boss’ song, a good art work becomes a ‘boss artwork.’ Black obsidian sound system ain’t abbreviate to B.O.S.S for nothing. JUST SAYIN.


As you walk into the installation you are guided into a pitch-black space by LED strip lights. You follow the vibration of the floor like you are blood on the way to the heart. I almost felt like I had heels and a likkle dress on – like I was coming back into the club after a fag. It was familiar but disorientating. Obviously, I haven’t stepped into a club for about 18 months. Do I miss it? I don’t know. 


My wife and I sat on a hard bench in front of a TV showing what looked like archival posters and leaflets; as if to say, before you enter this space just know it’s existed forever. Forever and ever, amen.


We actually had our wedding reception at FACT 5 years ago to the day I’m writing this. Whilst we sat on the bench, I smirked at being in the same place as that memory and how my wife and I worked hard on the playlist that hummed over the heads of our guests. Yung selectors. We had Stir It Up by Bob Marley, Uptown Top Rankin by Althea and Donna and Do I Move You by Nina Simone - songs that have brought hips and hands together. I wonder how many times those songs have whispered over joyous heads and through skankin legs. This work is like you are guest at a party, you are a joyous head. 


Black voices fill the air. I pick out Evan Ifekoya voice, they repeat the word ‘abundance,’ which is actually a word I learnt from them a few year ago. Abundance is everything we have behind us and in front of us as member of the QTPOC (Queer, Trans, People of Colour) community. It is what we are working from and towards. It is us, TOGETHER. Another line I picked up from the sound piece was ‘we have everything between us’ – as in when we come together, we ain’t need no help from no body. I nodded my head. My nods matched the beat. By agreeing with the words, I was dancing to the rhythm. Like church. Forever and ever, amen.


This was a soft club. Like a club that is also a home. like a house party that isn’t your house but a house where you know where to find the glasses and the rum. Soft club. House of joy. One of Jamaica’s first custom-built sound systems was called House[s] of Joy. I think that captures the ting. 


House of joy. Yeah – thas good. 


We fell down onto some beanbags and watched another screen. The words RITUAL, ROOT, RESOURCE, RITE flashed at the same time an interview began to play. The person was speaking about their experience of blues party’s. Maggie whispered, ‘how cool’ knowing I was in my element. Knowing how much I crave that experience. 


In the middle of the space I found the heart; water balanced on top of a speaker like a fountain or a shrine. Pray here, drink here, live here. This is the ritual, the root, the resource and the rite… this is all you need.


Bun Babylon. I’m staying here. There really ain’t no better system.

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