Book Review: "Transcendents" by Mariette Pathy Allen
By Frances Molina
Transcendents, a photographic collection by Mariette Pathy Allen recently published by Daylight Books, is a study of liminal spaces; between genders, between countries, between past and present, and even between this world and the next. Allen, a seasoned photographer, writer, and social activist, has been involved with gender-nonconforming subjects since the late 70s. Her body of work, which centers specifically on genderfluid and transgender individuals, endeavors to bring awareness and acceptance to an intensely marginalized community. Her recent stint in Burma and Thailand photographing Spirit Mediums continues to promote tolerance and understanding not only of gender non-forming individuals but of an ancient animistic practice that exists in a world apart from the West.
Although both countries are majority Buddhist, increasing instability in traditional political systems of power have led to a rise in spiritual yearning. According to the essay by Dr. Eli Coleman included in the front of the book, this newfound desire for spiritual catharsis explains the rising popularity of Spirit Mediums (nat kadaw in Burma and maa khii in Thailand).
Spirit Mediums occupy an essential role in their communities, acting as intermediaries of fortune – good and bad – between the earth and the spirit world. The Mediums are usually men who, when possessed by feminine spirits, engage fully in what a Westerner would consider drag: wearing flamboyant costumes and a full face of makeup, bedecked with jewelry, tiaras, and monetary bills gifted to them by the crowd, smoking and drinking as they perform for an attentive crowd. While some Mediums only dress as women during spiritual ceremonies, others live as women in their daily lives; according to Allen, however, very few of them identify as “trans” since that is still a heavily Westernized conception according to those living in Burma and Thailand.
While Burma and Thailand are still considered severely homophobic and transphobic countries, the Spirit Mediums enjoy a considerably protected social status in communities of “believers”. During religious festivals, they are awaited by groups of admirers and pampered by acolytes. Spirit mediums can even make a considerable living, earning acceptance for their non-conventional lifestyles from their families through financial support.
In so many ways, the Spirit Mediums exist in the space in between, as they navigate the traditions of the past and the pressures of the present by way of an ever-changing gender identity. For example, in one photograph, a Medium shows Allen a picture of themselves in full regalia displayed on their television screen; although they are out of costume and presenting as male, their nails are painted bright pink. Allen’s photographs successfully capture the tensions inherent to the Spirit Medium lifestyle, shooting the Spirit Mediums in and out of costume, surrounded by family or other Mediums, and interacting with new Western technology in the midst of an animistic ceremony. As the polarity between gender identities continues to vanish and gender-nonconforming individuals begin to find acceptance in their communities, Allen’s work with the Spirit Mediums in Burma and Thailand represents a step in the right direction.