Sexual Identity, Native Americans, and a Beauty Pageant in the Desert

by Molly Surno

All photo by Molly Surno

We met Molly Surno a few years ago at a dinner she hosted for Kickstarter. We know her as a talented photographer, a smart curator, and a powerhouse cultural connector, not to mention a fun and charming lady. She's adding another entry in her resume: filmmaker. When we heard about Two Spirits, the documentary she's making about the Native American Transgender Beauty Pageant in Arizona, we had to learn more. (There's no website.) Here's her story about how she got involved in the project, as well as pieces from The Glittering World, the series of Polaroids she took while working on the project.

ARIZONA – As both artist and curator, the body of my work is largely concerned with aesthetic and cultural ritual. I'm interested in how gender, memory, performance, sexuality, and anthropology function in ceremonial practices.

For the last several years, I have been photographing the Native American Transgender Beauty Pageant in Arizona. In 2009, I saw a flyer online for the pageant. Three oval portraits of transgendered Native American women were showcased, using their names and tribes. I looked at the small print and found a contact number. One phone call later, I had a cordial and friendly conversation with Trudie Jackson, the pageant director who completely spearheads the project. Little did I know that an impromptu trip would evolve into a powerful friendship and a major body of work.

The project began as The Glittering World, a series of Polaroids in Phoenix, Arizona, where the biannual pageant occurs. I've heard from the women who are contestants their tremendous stories of transition, of ritual, of the perseverance to pull out of prostitution, addiction, and abuse. This inspired me to transform the photos into film.

The particular color palette of the work is a result of a code that I wrote to replicate that of a digital glitch. A glitch only occurs in a random instance when there are too many formats to read, producing a momentary schism in a material reality. You cannot export a glitch, but I decided to reproduce this to enhance the feeling of being taken out of the material realm and into a fantasy space.

Still from "Two Spirits"

Still from

Stills from "Two Spirits."

As my work deals with the body, gender, sex, and sexuality interpreted for performance, the resulting non-linear documentary, Two Spirits, takes a fragmented look at preparation for the beauty competition. I hope to complete it by end of the year.

I've always been completely enamored with the desert. I moved away from the West Coast ten years ago, but the tensions and desires of the cultural landscape keep reappearing in my work. Many childhood weekends were spent heading out to my grandparent's house in Palm Desert, California. Rattlesnakes, round runners, and saguaros all pepper my infantile memories. The implied fantasy and mirage inherent in almost all cultural reproductions of the arid landscape find themselves articulated in many forms in my practice, an examination of the collisions between the real and imaginary, the interior and exterior, the fluidity between male and female, cult and consumption, ancient and modern.


The Glittering World, Polaroids by Molly Surno


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