Ancient Futures: An Interview with Lio Mehiel

Trans futurity, history, and the body

This year, I have found myself startled by the amount of art and inclusion of trans bodies in museum spaces. In the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Fashioning Masculinities, I saw more representation of trans bodies, particularly trans masculine bodies, in a non-queer space. Often, when trans bodies are highlighted in exhibits like these, the emphasis is placed on the individual or the process of transition. While clearly an important point, it is easy to overlook the connection between the personal and the historical.

This July, I had the pleasure of seeing Lio Mehiel’s exhibit titled Ancient Futures. This project situates trans people within and across historical contexts and, in doing so, reinforces that trans people are connected across time. Shortly after the exhibit closed, I met with Lio and talked about the exhibit and trans existence, trans futures, and possibilities.

Lio Mehiel is a Puerto Rican and Greek, non-binary, trans, artist, filmmaker, and performer. 

One of the things that I am interested in is how trans people pass on stories about trans pasts and futures. Can you describe the heart of Ancient Futures?  

Ancient Futures is inspired by a few different projects I have been working on over the past year or so — including a short film, Suspension, and a mixed media piece called Phantom Feel. The vision for the exhibition came to me one morning at 4 am as a fully formed download. Literally. I could barely write quickly enough to catch the idea as it was passing through. 

The questions at the heart of Ancient Futures reiterate what many trans activists, theorists, and artists are all discussing right now. Why is there a sudden surge in trans and queer visibility alongside this simmering uptick in fascism? What is the role of trans people in our society, if there is one? What can we do to heal and celebrate life during this time? How might we build a more loving, accepting world?

Not to be totally woo-woo, but trans people feel like real-life angels to me, and Ancient Futures is a love letter to our beauty and magic. 

The first trans person I met was a friend from college. Not only is she one of the most visionary artists I have ever met, but she also grew up in rural Pennsylvania before the internet existed as a space for the queer community. She has two very cis-normative older brothers, lumberjack types. Somehow she was able to imagine beyond everyone and everything in her environment. Through deep and magic listening, she was able to imagine beyond the perimeter and prescribed stories of her own body to discover her truth. Her story feels like an act of creative genius, divine channeling, and ancient wisdom. The capacity to imagine beyond feels like it is at the core of the trans experience, and it is this capacity that makes me feel like trans people are here visiting from some other timeline. 

Trans people carry with them the knowledge of body autonomy and acceptance, embodied creativity, and collective care. These ideas are key to building a better future. So I guess Ancient Futures tries to render them tangible. 

Ancient Futures at Outfest Film Festival. Photo by Jen Pirante. 

“Trans people carry with them the knowledge of body autonomy and acceptance, embodied creativity, and collective care.”

Lio Mehiel

You traditionally work with more narrative form; why did you choose this artistic medium and exhibition space?  

Ancient Futures creates work in the style of classical and biblical art as a way to interrupt the narrative that gender non-conforming people are somehow a contemporary “fad,” or that begin trans is just an aesthetic choice. TGNC people have been around for as long as humans have existed, and yet it is so difficult to access our history. To create a collection of stone sculptures of TGNC people feels like a way to honor and revere our existence over time. In these artifacts, our lives and our beauty is made permanent and tangible, which feels like one small movement in the direction towards collective liberation.  

We were lucky enough to be invited by Outfest Film Festival, the biggest LGBTQIA+ film festival in the world, to present a pop-up exhibition of Ancient Futures as part of Outfest’s 40th anniversary. It was a no-brainer to accept the opportunity to share our work with the Outfest community, which is a vibrant, multi-generational community of queer artists and their allies — many of whom travel from other states (and countries) to attend the festival alongside a substantial contingent of folks local to LA. To share this work for the first time with a queer and trans audience was a dream come true because while we want the work to have a broad reach, ultimately, these pieces are for us. 

Halo Rossetti and Sydney Mae Diaz in Fruit Trees of Ancient Futures. Photo by A. Klass.

I love what you said earlier about trans people carrying acceptance, embodied creativity, and collective care. What did you learn about transness in the process of collaboration and creation of this exhibit?  

For me, being trans is both rooted in the body and yet it also transcends the body. I wouldn’t be trans if I didn’t have a body that existed in relation to other people’s perceptions. However, However, I was only able to discover I am trans by imagining what could be possible if I could expand beyond the body I was given. When in conversation with other trans artists throughout the process of Ancient Futures, it was amazing to learn that for some folks being trans has almost nothing to do with their body. For them, they root their gender in their mind and process any bodily transformations as logistical — something they must deal with, but not necessarily the “point” of it all.

Still from Purgatory of Ancient Futures. Video piece by Dulcinee DeGuere. 

“One of the most beautiful surprises of working on this piece was the realization of just how different everyone’s experience of their gender is, even within the trans community.”

Lio Mehiel

It’s always interesting to hear what is currently influencing artists; what are you reading right now?  

In the morning, I read Shaman, Healer, Sage by Alberto Villoldo as I sit in the sun for about thirty minutes. Apparently, getting direct sunlight (not filtered through a window) allows you to begin your circadian clock so that approximately 14-16 hours later, your body will release the hormones needed to get you ready for sleep. My mom gifted me this book from her personal library for my birthday. I like to think of her twenty years ago reading about the energy healers of the Americas and experiencing healing in her own life. 

In the afternoons and evenings, I am reading the book Testo Junkie by Paul B Preciado because I just started taking testosterone, and well, who better than Paul to be my companion in this weird experiment?! 

There has been so much good art on display, especially as we exit the heart of the pandemic.  What was the last art exhibit/installation you saw that you liked (other than yours, of course)?  

I got to see Pipilotti Rist’s exhibit at MOCA earlier this year! Talk about world-building! It was fun and playful and hypnotic. Not exactly the kind of work I make, but still so enjoyable. 

I I got to see the opening of Lylex 1.0 by PHILITH HAUS put on by Human Resources, Feminist Center for Creative Work and Navel in LA. The exhibit centered around these sculptural encasements that contained oyster mushrooms, which were fed with the blood from an anonymous body of a transgender person undergoing hormonal and dietary modulation therapies. It was creepy, sexual and subversive and really got to the core of themes of exploitative globalization.

Lio, it is such a pleasure to hear about you and your work. What’s your next project that we can look forward to?  

Well, our pop-up of Ancient Futures at Outfest was just the beginning! I am currently fundraising and looking for partners to help produce the full exhibition later this year or early next year. So, if anyone reading this has ideas, please reach out! 

More immediately, I am super excited to star as the lead actor in Vuk LK’s debut feature film, Mutt. He is also trans and also of mixed ethnicity (he is half Chilean and half Serbian, while I am half Puerto Rican and half Greek), so it’s even more exciting to be working with a writer/director who shares so much of my identity and who is looking to tell a story that feels very close to my own. We are shooting for a month in NYC starting at the end of August, so preparing and getting into character is how I spend most of my creative time these days.

Lio’s work spans film, television, multimedia installation, and theater. Lio began their career as a child actor on Broadway and can now be seen in shows like WeCrashed (Apple+) and Tales of the City (Netflix). They are starring in the lead role in the upcoming Sundance Labs supported feature film, Mutt, Executive Produced by award-winning filmmaker and transgender icon Silas Howard. 

As a filmmaker, they produced Chaperone, a queer short film that premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2022 and won a special mention for Best U.S. Short at the Palm Springs International Shortfest. Lio wrote, directed, produced, and starred in Disforia, a short film that premiered at Outfest Film Festival in 2018. Lio is now adapting Disforia into a feature film.

As an installation artist, their immersive piece Arcade Amerikana was included in the list of 10 Best Immersive Shows in NYC by TimeOut and GOTHAMIST.

Lio attended Northwestern University and is an alumnus of the Emerge NYC residency program for artists-activists. They are a co-founder of Voyeur Productions with creative partners Russell Kahn (Scrap Paper Pictures, Amazon) and Dulcinee DeGuere.

Dr. AC Panella is a teacher, activist, and rabble-rouser located in the SF Bay Area. His research is focused around queer and trans collective memory and his day job is work with some brilliant community college students.

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