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In My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross, her first album with The Johnsons since 2010, the acclaimed singer, visual artist and activist ANOHNI sets her sights on biblical patriarchy. By Nick Buckley.

Singer-songwriter ANOHNI

Musician ANOHNI.
Musician ANOHNI.
Credit: ANOHNI with Nomi Ruiz

“I’m just going to turn off my camera so that I can get a bit more comfortable,” says ANOHNI, the acclaimed British-born musician, visual artist and activist, who is currently stretched out on the floor somewhere in Amsterdam. “I just wanted you to see who I was.” Her shock of white hair disappears from the screen. And then, in her gentle, soothing voice, she begins to rip Abrahamic religion to shreds.

“[Embedded in Abrahamic theology] is the male archetype’s desire to crush and subjugate femaleness and nature and his desire for his own annihilation so that he can return to his father,” she says. “There’s something in that mythology that I think is at the root of our sickness. We all suffer in different ways from that illness.”

“Your god is failing you. Giving you hell,” ANOHNI sings in a one-take performance on “It Must Change”, the opening track on her stunning new album, My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross. Released this week, it’s her first studio album under the “and the Johnsons” moniker since 2010’s Swanlights.

According to ANOHNI, Abraham is the archetypal patriarch, a consummate zealot whose violent obedience is the origin of the world’s ills. In the book of Genesis, Abraham sets out for Mount Moriah where, at a purpose-built altar, he builds a pyre, binds his son Isaac and prepares to sacrifice him as a test of his faith in God. Abraham is portrayed as righteous, while his wives Sarah and Hagar are characterised as envious meddlers and expendable possessions. Elsewhere in Genesis, God makes Eve from Adam’s rib, anointing Adam as the source of creation.

“Boys pour out of women’s bodies,” ANOHNI says. “They’re made of women’s flesh, they’re nourished [by] the milk from women. Most of the Western Christian world enforces a fantasy that women are plucked like a rib from the creative genius of maleness and that women are at best a portal through which male brilliance passes. It’s an exact reversal of the empirical physical reality of life on Earth.”

ANOHNI says this theological misogyny has leached into secular society and systems of governance and the economy. She felt it as a child in 1970s Chichester, England, where she and her three siblings were raised in a Catholic household by an engineer father and photographer mother, who raised her as a boy.

“As a kid, and really I would say throughout my life, my main battle cry has been: ‘I have the right to feel.’ That was a war that I was waging even within my own family,” says ANOHNI. “[Possessing those] feminine modalities of existing, of perceiving, were grounds for disqualification from any table, any conversation of reason.”

When she was 10 years old, ANOHNI’s family moved to the United States, where she still lives. She says American fundamentalist religions use theology to justify the subjugation of women, while in Western European countries and colonies such as Australia, patriarchal evangelism has been replaced by a “perverted rationalism”. The present rapacity of capitalism and environmental destruction is, she says, a symptom of millennia-old female subjugation.

“A more female paradigm for spiritual dreaming was crushed thousands of years ago throughout the West. It was executed,” says ANOHNI. “The idea of its reinstatement is laughable in the imaginations of almost everyone. People can more easily imagine the collapse of the biosphere than a shift in systems of governance.”

In 2011 ANOHNI and some friends – the visual artist Kembra Pfahler, the DJ and dancer Johanna Constantine, with whom ANOHNI co-founded the avant-garde New York City theatre troupe Blacklips Performance Cult in 1992, and Bianca and Sierra Casady of the band CocoRosie – began to meet regularly to figure out what alternative systems of governance might look like, discussing their experiences as women and trans femmes in search of a consensus on a way forward.

The product of those meetings, 13 Tenets of Future Feminism – a set of rose quartz discs inscribed with propositions for a feminist future – was exhibited in New York in 2014. They include edicts such as “The subjugation of women and the Earth is one and the same”, “Deconstruct the mythology of male spiritual supremacy” and “Restore the female archetype as central to creation”.

When we spoke, ANOHNI had just installed the work in Amsterdam, where she briefly lived as a child, as part of her role as the Holland Festival’s 2023 associate artist. Also at last month’s festival was She Who Saw Beautiful Things, a major exhibition of ANOHNI’s photographs, paintings, silk-screened fabrics, video and sound works. These were interspersed with a series of portraits of ANOHNI’s former The Johnsons collaborator Dr Julia Yasuda, who died in 2018, which were taken by Yasuda’s late wife, Erika, in 1980s Tokyo.

Among other visual and performance works, ANOHNI included the Australian filmmaker Lynette Wallworth’s HOW TO LIVE (After You Die), a live memoir recounting Wallworth’s experiences as a teenage prophet in a Pentecostal community. The pair connected in 2013, when Wallworth took ANOHNI to meet the Martu people living in the Parnngurr community in east Pilbara. In 2016 ANOHNI returned to Parnngurr, joining a group led by the Martu artists Ngalangka Nola Taylor and Curtis Taylor on a 110-kilometre walk across Martu Country to protest against Mitsubishi Development and Cameco Australia’s uranium mine at Kintyre.

“We’ve fallen out of balance with nature, we’re stealing resources and sucking the value out of people’s lives,” ANOHNI says. “I think the idea that a more meaningful spiritual existence waits for us behind the curtain of life, in a death separate from nature, has been like a virus. It has opened the door for us to screw nature by believing it was no longer the source of our lives.”

ANOHNI says the colonial eradication of First Nations knowledge and ways of life includes the brutal enforcement of cis-normative and heteronormative concepts. She describes how early North American settlers encountered gender-variant people in some Native American cultures. Now described as “two-spirit” people, they held high status within their own societies.

“There’s letters and documents that the colonists who first arrived in the Americas wrote, where they discovered Native American gender-variant people,” says ANOHNI. “The language they use to describe the experience of happening upon them, that lust to extinguish their lives, was a really clear indication [that transphobia] has been centuries, thousands of years, in the making.”

The battle rages on. Globally, transphobia is being weaponised to unite social and religious conservatives under a common cause. In 2023, 79 anti-trans bills were signed into law across the US. In March this year, neo-Nazis bearing Australian flags and a transphobic banner marched in front of the Victorian parliament in support of British anti-trans campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull.

“I didn’t really understand that [anger] when I was younger,” says ANOHNI. “Why would they become so incensed, so outraged, so vitriolic? What is it about the manifestation of gender variance in a male body that triggers a certain male archetype into an almost rabid hunger to extinguish and annihilate that expression?”

From the cover of My Back Was a Bridge stares a black and white portrait of Marsha P. Johnson, the pioneering activist and drag performer after whom ANOHNI named her band – “Marsha is the best example of Jesus as a girl,” she explains. Johnson was at the 1969 Stonewall uprising that protested against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a popular queer bar in Greenwich Village.

ANOHNI recorded the album with producer Jimmy Hogarth (Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Tina Turner), whom she chose for their affinity for soul music, a departure from the chamber pop of her previous Johnsons albums. Shrieking guitars on the album’s second track, “Go Ahead”, embody the spirit of early NYC punk activism and her spellbinding one-take vocal performance imbues “Can’t” with the spontaneity of bottled lightning.

A touchstone is political ’70s soul, in particular Marvin Gaye’s plea for pacifism and social justice, “What’s Going On”. “It Must Change” nods to Gaye’s masterpiece with its delicate groove, graceful strings, pattering hand percussion and subtle brass accents. It’s not the first time ANOHNI has riffed on Black American musical traditions: in 2008 she turned disco-house diva on Hercules & Love Affair’s self-titled album, including its disco-revival landmark, “Blind”.

When I suggest that the track “Rest” reminds me of the gospel-tinged rock Nick Cave and Warren Ellis have recently been performing, I’m met with a matter-of-fact response: “The difference between me and Nick Cave is that I’m not a Christian.”

My Back Was a Bridge’s beginnings can be found in her 2016 album, Hopelessness. The album channelled her fury and frustration into jagged electronic textures and thundering, martial percussion. It addressed military strikes on “Drone Bomb Me” and global warming on “4 Degrees”. She stares down the world’s crises as a reluctantly complicit cog in a capitalist, militarised system. “Conceptually, semantically, spiritually, we work with what’s available,” she tells me.

ANOHNI is evasive when I attempt to discuss her new album. “You can try and shove words around it at the last minute,” she says. “But you’ve already made the work from an intuitive place.” Even so, she says she discovered Hopelessness became a totem of solidarity and decided to continue that work on My Back Was a Bridge, an album intended as a scaffolding in which emerging activists can find protection or stability.

“We’re all in the grips of a late stage of an illness,” says ANOHNI. “It’s very beautiful to do the work of swimming against the tide of that illness, and each individual in their bedroom or in their own dreams or consciousness might feel lonely thinking about these things. But they can be buoyed or feel confident that there are hundreds of thousands of people in their lonely rooms, trying to address the exact same crisis.

“That’s the best-case scenario for me, with my limited agency: to support someone who’s boots on the ground doing work. If I can be of use to them, then that’s me applying my skill set to the trajectory I care about,” says ANOHNI. “[I wanted to] do that more tenderly this time, in a less weaponised way… be less strategic in that regard. It’s not like I’m gonna change any minds on this stuff.”

Here I push back, because her 2005 album, I Am a Bird Now, changed me. Listening again to this album of my early 20s was an emotional time warp. I thought of transphobic comments I made as a teenager and how in the mid-2000s, as a cisgendered, straight, pakeha man, I thought ANOHNI’s gender identity was merely performance art. For me, I Am a Bird Now’s aching beauty germinated a seed that’s still growing.

“Guilt and shame are useful indicators, but… they’re not particularly empowering emotions,” ANOHNI says generously of my youthful ignorance. “But your experience of I Am a Bird Now may not be my version of it. I Am a Bird Now has been characterised in a certain way but it’s not necessarily the way that I would see it ... At the same time, I’m delighted that it has been useful to people.”

She points to her new track “Scapegoat”, an anthemic post-rock number that links the present intensifying of transphobic rhetoric to the existential threat of environmental collapse. “It’s the Roman colosseum, they’re looking for someone to tear apart and blame because the actual problem we are facing is too frightening and overwhelming for them to sit with,” she says. “I think it is a sign of how far we’ve come. With movement comes resistance.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross, ".

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