Nude Nite highlights transgender rights in this year’s Tampa show

By : Billy Manes
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There is a litany of reasons people are driven to Nude Nite, most of which begin with the obvious gawk and gaze at nudity – it happens – but there’s also a social pertinence to the intentionally salacious affair which now exposes itself in both the Tampa Bay area and Orlando.

Past iterations have seen an unflattering nude portrait of teen-pop impresario Lou Pearlman, and, as is required on certain occasions, sushi presented on the body of a naked woman. But there have also been incredibly thoughtful pieces involving all the mixed media that mixed media has to offer: steelworks to fabric-works, portraits to abstract reinventions, love to hate. It’s become a social affair that exists on a level far beyond your typical flirt-and-walk art maneuvers. It’s making a statement about society, about what we’ve become.

“As much as Nude Nite is just an event, I think it’s recognized as something bigger; it’s a platform and it’s a space where not only artists can express themselves,” Nude Nite Director Kelly Stevens says, “but Nude Nite has been able to create an installation that matters. When you have thousands of people coming to an event, the responsibility is not to give them fluff.”

This year’s Nude Nite promises not so much fluff as provocative social commentary. The central theme of the event is transgender rights – “Revolution Evolution,” it’s called – and it’s bound to raise some eyebrows during its stint at the Tampa Warehouse (6818 S. Manhattan Ave.) on March 2-4.

“If Nude Nite can help enrich that gap for people who may not feel comfortable with that topic and nudge them over to the understanding side, I think that might result in evolution and equality in these people. And right there is really what Nude Nites are and should be doing,” Stevens says. “These people bare their soul and their bodies, their nude bodies. One of the works is ‘Civil Wars’ and [the subject] has a beard … and this model has allowed himself to be seen, and that’s a gift of understanding. He has trusted us, he has trusted [photographer] John Burke to show him in the best light and honor him, and we’re going to do that.”

There will also be a bit of historical and cultural revisionism centered around the famed Norman Rockwell covers and paintings of American historical significance.

“These eight models will be at the show and talking with people, engaging, asking questions, answering questions, because in this particular exhibit, The Transgender Project, I think what’s most important is that these are images of Norman Rockwell,” Stevens says. “John Burke created all the images around some of Rockwell’s famous works; instead of the red-state American Protestant, we’ll show these different transgender men and women modeling all the parts and reflecting more of what America looks like now. The man and mom and dad in one of these Norman Rockwell paintings are outdated to the transgender man, the transgender woman and transgender man. So, we don’t see grandma with the American flag but we see a transgender man.”

Burke concurs, adding that it’s time that America see itself for what it really is.

“The idea was, I was taking classic Americana images,” he says. “They were all very exclusive, all heterosexual white people. For the grand project, I want to do something for the whole LGBTQ community.”

It’s jarring, Stevens admits, for a Tampa crowd that she sees as possibly more elevated and intense than Nude Nite’s historically based home in Orlando. Though Tampa is ripe for this kind of engagement, she adds.

“It’s interesting because we’ve kind of created a new concept, kind of changing the way people experience art. Tampa doesn’t have a lot of local galleries and in a sense we thought using Tampa during the economic downturn, when many local galleries were closing, [Nude Nite] really gave artists a forum to express that and show their work. And what I learned from going to Tampa was that the age of the city and the culture there, from the small neighborhoods like Ybor to the beaches to the downtown scene, gave it a completely different vibe than your standard Central Florida kind of art experience.”

Stevens, who has led as director for Nude Nite since 2005 (following a change in power and a couple of years of regrouping), says she empowered by the annual institution.

“I went to Tampa; I had picketers every year and I really grew to love the picketers. It made me feel important,” she says. “I grew up in the south in Alabama, and there’s nothing I like more than rebelling against the norm. I can’t stand repression, oppression, no. I have to keep moving forward that’s why I think we have to be fearless and protect the show from people who want to exploit it. And the internet can exploit everything.”

And how better to protect rights than showing the bodies that those rights are meant for? Four thousand people, the number that showed up last year, can’t be wrong, after all. Nude Nite is making its impression by utilizing full expression. There’s nothing to hide, here. There is much to be gained, however.

“A very interesting thing is the ‘Love It or Shred It’ booth,” Stevens says. “If you can imagine the Transgender Project, focusing on body image and loving your body and gender equality and acceptance, you take that into a further level, and there’s a giant shredding booth where there’s a model inside and you write on a piece of paper what you don’t like about your body, and you shred it in the shredder and eventually the shredder fills up with the model inside. And the goal is to, we do hashtags, to get people to shred what they hate about themselves and call it a day. How could you not look at this political situation and not be inspired to express something?”

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