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Chella Man

Passport Profile

by Lawrence Ferber
Chella Man (Photo by Myles Loftin)

I identify more and more as a philosopher because I'm asking more and more questions of myself or whatever is next for me.

Chella Man (Photo by Myles Loftin)

How does one categorize Chella Man (chellaman.com), who at age twenty five has already dipped his toes into so many disciplines, from visual art to fashion to acting to writing to activism, all while shattering the intersectional representation ceiling as queer, trans-masculine, half-Chinese, Jewish, and deaf?

“I honestly feel like ‘artist’ is an all encapsulating term,” he muses via Zoom, “because it’s so broad and general, plus now I identify more and more as a philosopher because I’m asking more and more questions of myself or whatever is next for me.”

Recently selected as one of Forbes’ “30 Under 30” for 2024, the strikingly handsome, Pennsylvania-raised Chella first blipped on radars while documenting his gender transition from female to male circa 2017-2018 via social media and a series of columns for them. Although Chella went deaf as a child (the exact cause remains unknown), cochlear implants have afforded him some hearing ability since he was a teenager, a sort of bionic boost he explored and struggled with in a deeply personal, visionary short film from video channel Nowness, The Device That Turned Me Into A Cyborg Was Born The Same Year I Was. Co-commissioned by Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum, it can be seen on YouTube and the film festival circuit.

Chella Man in Titans (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros)

Chella Man in Titans (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros)

Some may recognize Chella from his 2019 acting debut in the DC Universe superhero series Titans; as the face of Yves Saint Laurent beauty’s Nu Collective campaign in 2021; or on the Boss runway at Milan Fashion Week in late 2022 (he’s the first deaf and transmasculine model to sign with international agency IMG Models). He’s collaborated with fashion brands Opening Ceremony and Private Policy; had his autobiography Continuum published by Penguin Random House in 2021 as part of their Pocket Change Collective series; and curated the 2022 NYC gallery exhibition “Pure Joy,” featuring 14 disabled artists. Via Zoom, Chella discussed his delve into filmmaking, experiences in Italy, local recommendations, and of course travel.

How did directing the Cyborg short film happen?
I was traveling in Europe for the Venice Biennale and I lost my cochlear implant. At first I was terrified because I was surrounded by hearing people and didn’t know how I was going to be able to communicate. But I found it shockingly, refreshingly liberating, and that made me realize how living as a cyborg has immobilized my body in so many ways. I wanted to meditate on that and unpack it and create something, so that led me to start storyboarding. On the plane back to the USA I got an email asking me to create an artistic film about the cochlear implant from Powerhouse Museum because their collection features the historic devices [which were developed in Australia] and have documented how it came to be as we know it today. They were very interested in my take instead of a chronological, historic approach, so I told them I’m actually already working on a film and this is perfect!

Chella Man in The Device That Turned Me Into a Cyborg (Photo courtesy of Nowness)

Chella Man in The Device That Turned Me Into a Cyborg (Photo courtesy of Nowness)

You were a producer on the 2021 documentary series Trans in Trumpland, which felt outdated for a while after Biden won, but now seems pretty damned topical again with an even uglier new wave of politically motivated attacks and panics about trans people and even drag queens. Your thoughts?
I’m disgusted! I don’t know what else to say! I’m not surprised, and continually disgusted, by the extreme hatred and it’s a reminder to me that visibility is not safety. If anything, sometimes visibility can make us more unsafe. It’s a dangerous balance, and I’m so grateful for the trans community I have around me right now. I have so much admiration for ACLU’s Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, Chase Strangio, who is fighting this continually. I have so much admiration for him.

You’ve traveled a good bit for your work at this point. Tell me about the artist residency you did in Italy a few years back.
That was in Brescia, and it was stunning. Being there, I was reminded of reasons why I want to be alive. Just to have a room to make art with a beautiful view of Italy, there’s nothing more! I also got to make other connections with artists from all over the world and really got to live somewhere else for a bit, which is like a physical Feng shui.

Where has your art taken you recently?
This year to Englewood, Florida for the Hermitage Artist Retreat. I spent about two weeks in solitude. I worked on my brain, did a lot of reflection. A lot has happened in my life over the past five years, and I didn’t have a lot of time to reflect, so having those two weeks on the beach was exactly the kind of medicine I needed. In addition, I was a mentor at NYC’s Silver Art Projects alongside Tourmaline, an incredible artist, and that was beautiful because we were given a very big space at the World Trade Center to create art and I never had that much space in New York! I’m usually crammed in my apartment with giant canvases, so it was very liberating.

Where abroad have you been invited to make an appearance or collaborate?
I was supposed to be in Japan earlier this year, but I decided that I needed to take a break and rest. For six months last year a team in Tokyo followed me around to document my life, and there’s an hour long documentary only out in Japan, and it’s beautifully well done. I was stunned when I saw it. They invited me to fly out for a little bit [around its premiere], but I took a little break. I think they’re working to submit it to more English language festivals.

You’ve done some fashion collaborations around clothes and accessories, but so far no colognes, perfumes or
scents. Would you like to?
I’d love to do that! I’ve been thinking a lot about how smells are emotions and noticed my sense of smell is more heightened lately. I’d be down to do it. I’ve been wearing Cypress essential oil. I have it here, and it’s been really grounding to have certain scents like this.

Where would you most love to travel for fun?
I really want to go to Hong Kong because that’s where I’m from. My grandparents and I planned to go, but the pandemic hit. Eventually I would love to see where they grew up, even though it’s going to be drastically different now. I’ve been wanting to go to Cape Town. I’ve heard it’s a beautiful art hub, and Mexico City as well. I’ve lost track of how many people have told me to go to Mexico City because I’ll love it, and I need to get on that.

Let’s play local NYC tour guide. What are a few places you recommend people check out?
Personally, I’ve been drawn to the water a lot recently, so I would advise them to go sit by the Brooklyn Bridge in DUMBO. There are a few really large steps by the water and an incredible view. Also, to walk from Brooklyn to Manhattan. You see the neighborhoods shift and change so rapidly yet subtly at the same time, the people and cultures morph, so go walk outside and watch the landscape transform around you. As a board member of the Leslie-Lohman Museum, I’d like to say that I truly love that museum! It’s genuinely incredible, and some of their events are among the most accessible and inclusive I’ve been to in terms of queerness, disability, and BIPOC artists. Another must see is the Lower East Side’s 1969 Gallery on White Street. I curated a show there last summer of fourteen different disabled artists, “Pure Joy,” and they literally built a ramp and shaved down some of the doors so people with wheelchairs could get in. They changed their landscape to accommodate all people. And Hannah Traore Gallery. Her full heart and soul is in that place, and the people she chooses to uplift are truly incredible. It’s actually new.

What about a place to eat?
Well, Brooklyn’s East Harbor Seafood Palace in Sunset Park is where it’s at for dim sum. Get the sea bass, so good!

Although you keep pretty busy with different pursuits and activism, is more filmmaking in the works, and do you have any dream collaborators?
I’m working on another film I can’t say much about yet, but [yes] I plan on continuing to lean into filmmaking more. I’m taking my time, but in the future I hope to do projects developed over a few years instead of a few months. I have so much admiration for the movie Everything Everywhere All At Once. That message of ‘fight with love’ is what I feel with my soul. I would love to work with everyone involved in that film.

What about multidisciplinary artists you’d love to next collaborate with?
My favorite artists tend to be my friends. All the artists in my “Pure Joy” show. [My ex] MaryV, obviously—amazing photographer. And Douglas Ridloff is a close friend and incredible poet who predominantly performs ASL slam poetry. We’ve talked about collaborating for a while but it’s been hard to nail down the time.

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