Muna Tseng, photographed by Tseng Kwong Chi. 1980

The 14th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA VOOM) recognize the contributions of individuals who, through their work, talent and dedication, strengthen our communities and reinforce the mission of Visual AIDS. This year Visual AIDS is proud to honor Tom Bianchi, Joyce McDonald and Muna Tseng.
Below, Visual AIDS interviews writer and performance theorist Joshua Chambers-Letson about Muna Tseng's creative practice and work stewarding the artist legacy of her brother, Tseng Kwong Chi.

Visual AIDS: Your recent book "After The Party: A Manifesto For Queer of Color Life" includes a chapter on Tseng Kwong Chi and Muna Tseng's performance in the context of archive, caretaking, elegy, and legacy. Can you highlight a few of the central readings you make in this book?

Joshua Chambers-Letson: That chapter traces the rise and fall the world that Muna, her brother, and their friends built together in New York amidst the first wave of the AIDS crisis and the Reagan Revolution. It’s a story about what happens when the world you build to sustain yourself in the face of hostile conditions falls apart. After the Party was written in response to a short, devastating period when I lost a number of friends to death in short order: all queer men of color under fifty. I was trying to make sense of life after their deaths. As the story of the Tseng siblings makes clear, queer of color life is lived in intimate proximity to death, which has taken many forms: AIDS, violence, suicide, or the slow death of substance-as-self-medication, etc. After the Party was an attempt to think about the ways people of color, women of color, and queers of color use performance in both the aesthetic realm and in everyday life to keep our dead alive as we undertake the hard work of building a better world that could have sustained the one’s we miss. The book is also about the work performance can do to build those worlds—even if they’re temporary. But when you think about it, most worlds are temporary. The first wave of the crisis was the ending of multiple worlds, over and over again. The chapter on the Tsengs is about what happens when life can no longer be lived as much as it is about those, like Muna, who nonetheless live on, carrying their losses with them and keeping their dead alive through performance.

Visual AIDS: Can you speak to your process of researching Tseng Kwong Chi's photography and working with Muna and the estate ?

Joshua Chambers-Letson: I have to start with Muna because I came to Kwong Chi through Muna. I first encountered Muna and her brother’s work when I saw her perform in SlutForArt at La MaMa in 2002. SlutForArt is a solo dance-performance piece about her brother’s life and work, done in collaboration with writer/director Ping Chong. I’m queer, mixed race (black, Japanese, white) and you can’t imagine what it meant to twenty-two-year old me to see this brilliant woman of color manifesting the story of her equally brilliant brother (a queer Asian man) in collaboration with a legendary queer of color artist like Chong. Watching SlutForArt at that age was like peering into a world of queer and woman of color genius and possibility that the rest of the world was routinely and violently insisting could not and should not exist. Yet there it was, conjured into being by way of Muna’s body dancing with, alongside, and after her brother’s iconic images. A lot of queer of color people in my generation grew up marveling at the generation before us. But we were and are also mourning the fact that, for a host of reasons, many of them (like Tseng, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Gloria Anzaldúa, Marlon Riggs, or Audre Lorde) aren’t here now to guide us. As I watched her perform SlutForArt, Muna lived her own artistic genius and at the same time brought some part of her brother back to life in the process.

I didn’t meet her for another twelve years when I was doing research for an essay about Tseng’s work. His archive is in her apartment in the West Village, so Muna literally opens her home to researchers. I’d gone through the special collections at the NYU archives before coming to her; reading through all the files NYU had with information about Tseng. In the institutional archive it was my job to bring the archive’s fragments to life. But in Muna’s home, the archive was always already living: she was there telling me stories and breathing life into the objects and ephemera I encountered. It was clear to me, as it was when I first saw SlutFor Art, how much she sustains and keeps her brother alive within her body: whether performing on stage, in a gallery tour, or in her home and archive.

Visual AIDS: What have you learned on a personal level through engaging Muna's work, Tseng Kwong Chi's photography and their relationship?

Joshua Chambers-Letson: She taught me about love and about how the combination of love and performance can be a potent means of making More Life (a concept I discuss throughout my book). She taught me about how we keep our dead alive and with us through performance. This is a central component of her trilogy of works about family (SlutForArt, Mother, and the currently developing It’s All True: Grandfather). But she’s also taught me about how to perform the hard work of memorialization without sacrificing the dreams and ambitions you have for yourself. She kept Tseng alive (as a caretaker and then advocate, archivist, and estate manager), but all the while she was developing her own body of work as a dancer and choreography in a world and field that has not held much space for women of color. Both Muna and Eiko Otake, another dancer I write and think about, use dance to open up the worlds of possibility that manifest in performance from within often devastating social, political, economic, and historical conditions. To paraphrase a bad man: and yet, as generations of women of color have always done, nevertheless they persisted. The world is better for that persistence. We owe them more awards like this.

Visual AIDS: Do you have any favorite photographs by Tseng Kwong Chi and/or a favorite moment in Muna's performances that you'd like to highlight?

Joshua Chambers-Letson: He took a photograph of her in 1980 where she’s frozen in pose, dressed in a leotard and perched atop a point shoe. The image documents the interest in technique and formal precision that characterizes both artist’s bodies of work. He has perfectly framed her to the right of center against a white backdrop. Her pose is a study in the queer angularity of the body. She looks sublime and almost supra-human with this fabulous thick black eyeliner that reminds me of early 1980’s Siouxsie Sioux. I love that this image is bursting with queer and feminist potentiality. It is a snapshot of a different way of being in the world, a different way of being in a body. It’s a record from a lifelong collaboration between a woman of color and her queer brother and an index of a moment in time when the world was opening up to brother and sister with the fullness of all possibility. We are seeing her through his eyes when he was still alive and she gazes back towards us with the triumphant ease of a woman in the seat of her genius. It is an image of life within the horizon of possibility.

Visual AIDS: Can you further expand on how you see Muna's creative practice and estate work relating to the mission of Visual AIDS at the intersections of art, AIDS and activism?

Joshua Chambers-Letson: Like Visual AIDS, she is doing the work of keeping the dead alive while reminding us of the fact that there is so much living still being done. Muna’s work on stage and in the estate allows us to think through the historical specificity of the first wave of the AIDS crisis as it was lived and is still being lived. By keeping that work alive in the present, she keeps us in touch with the ongoingness of the crisis so that those of us who live with and in proximity to HIV/AIDS in the present tense have the fullest possible arsenal at hand as we continue the battle into the future.

Visual AIDS: Describe Muna Tseng in a sentence.

Joshua Chambers-Letson: Muna Tseng is life.

Joshua Chambers-Letson is a writer and performance theorist working at the intersection of performance studies, critical race theory, political theory, and queer of color critique. An associate professor of Performance Studies at Northwestern University, he is the author of After the Party: A Manifesto for Queer of Color Life (NYU Press, 2018) and A Race So Different: Law and Performance in Asian America (NYU Press, 2013). He is currently contemplating a project about object relations, reparation, and race, and with Tavia Nyong’o he is preparing José Esteban Muñoz’s The Sense of Brown for publication with Duke University Press. His academic writing has been widely in academic venues and art writing has appeared in catalogues for Teching Hsieh’s exhibition at the 2017 Venice Biennale, the Chrysler Museum/Grey Art, as well as Dirty Looks, The Brooklyn Rail, ASAP/J, and the Walker Reader. With Ann Pellegrini and Tavia Nyong’o, he is a series co-editor of the Sexual Cultures series at NYU Press.

Muna Tseng was born in Hong Kong, educated in Canada, and has been living and working in New York since arriving in 1977 with her brother, the late photographer Tseng Kwong Chi. Muna is a choreographer, performer, and founder of Muna Tseng Dance Projects Inc., which collaborates with contemporary artists in New York and tours worldwide. She has won awards, including a "Bessies" New York Dance and Performance Award, repeat fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts, and New York Foundation for the Arts. Her award-winning dance-theater solo performance SlutForArt, a collaboration with Ping Chong, used photographs by Tseng Kwong Chi and was choreographed and danced by Muna, to reflect on the life of her brother as a sibling and an artist in the 1980s.

After the death of Kwong Chi in 1990 due to AIDS related causes, Muna has managed his photographic estate, taking on the mission of archive conservation, preservation, and provision of access to legacy materials. She has overseen international exhibitions, installations, and publications of Tseng's famous "East Meets West" self-portrait series and the world's largest photo documentation of Keith Haring (a close friend) and other downtown artists and scenes of the 1980s. Currently, his photos are on view at Grey Art Gallery and the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art's
Art After Stonewall exhibit, in Valencia, Spain, the National Portrait Gallery-Smithsonian, the Nassau Country Museum of Art, the Walker Art Center, and in June, at the Tate Liverpool Keith Haring retrospective exhibit.

In 2017, Muna was recognized with a Liberty Award by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, along with the Keith Haring Foundation. She has been invited to give her illustrated talk on the intersection of art, dance, and being Chinese American in the downtown 1980s East Village scene, at museums including the Museum of Modern Art, Seoul Museum of Art, and upcoming on May 19th, at the Nassau County Museum of Art.