Vocabulary.com states that unity is “being together or at one with someone or something. It’s the opposite of being divided.” But here in Philadelphia, Unity is a multi-site, multimedia visual exhibition and in-home experience from the Asian Arts Initiative. The exciting interactive exhibit is designed to give visibility and community to skaters, Queer and Trans Black, Indigenous People of Color (QTBIPOC), and Asian Americans. 

The exhibit is inspired by the art and social justice practice of California artist and skateboarder, Jeffrey Cheung and Unity Skate. “Unity” can be experienced at home and/or in multiple sites around the city, places like PAT at Giovanni’s Room, The Attic Youth Center, Mina’s World and at the Asian Arts Initiative (AAI). There are online components and sidewalk art throughout the city, and at AAI there’s a carefully crafted replica of Cheung’s printmaking studio in Oakland. The replica features artwork, flyers and a really cool (but small) indoor skate park. The exhibit can be viewed from the street but if you want to get close, limited numbers of visitors are allowed inside. If you go, feel free to bring your own flyers or prints to add to the walls. If balancing on a board with wheels is your thing, skateboarders are also invited to use the indoor skate park (though you need to sign up in advance). 

A truly collaborative event, artists from across the Philadelphia region were invited to participate, including this week’s Portrait, Malachi Lily. The multi-talented Lily is a poet, an illustrator and a curator whose work interrogates the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and aesthetic expectations. Their website describes Lily as a shapeshifting, black, genderfluid poet, artist, curator, and moth who connects to the Collective Unconscious via energy work, Active Imagination, mysticism, myth, magick, folklore, and fairy tales. I got a chance to enter their world for a discussion on things both mystical and tangible. 

I see that you have an out of town area code, where are you from?

I was actually born in Philly, but I spent about half my life in rural, central PA. 

How would your family describe you as a kid?

Considerate and kind, and extremely independent and imaginative. I could be left alone and be completely content with a stack of paper and some paints or markers. I didn’t need to be entertained because I was in my own little world of fairies and dragons and the like. I always wanted to perform and to find ways to bring people into my world of imagination, but I was fine by myself as well.

That’s me, I always joke that if I were ever sent to jail, I’d be the one asking for solitary confinement! Tell me something about the family.

My mom and my sister are my rocks, I love them so much, and they live in the city which is great because they’re both accessible which means the world to me. My sister is also an artist and dancer, my mom is a dancer and an educator and a disability rights activist. She taught us to be very vocal about our beliefs and to be supportive of all people, to be stewards of the land and each other. I’m fortunate that during this pandemic they’ve become an extension of our little house pod so I’ve been able to see them throughout. 

Where did your mom teach?

She taught at the University of the Arts for 30 years and was the Associate Dean of Liberal Arts. She also works with DanceAbility, which is an International dance institution for any bodies, non-neurotypical or people with physical disabilities. She still works with them as a board member and master teacher. She also works with Disability Pride here in Philadelphia. 

Amazing! What’s something that sparked your imagination as a kid?

I don’t know who or what introduced me to the concept of fairies and magical things, but I attached to that pretty young. I was always inspired by the nonmaterial, things that exist not on this plane, not in this reality. But I was always bothered by the ways that magical creatures were depicted, like if you showed me a picture of a little white girl in a tutu with some wings slapped on her, I’d be, “Absolutely not, that makes no sense! How would she survive in nature if she can’t camouflage? Why doesn’t she have insect parts?” I was always comparing the science with the magical, like when I saw mermaids with shell bras, I’d think, that’s not right, they’re part fish, so they don’t lactate, and those sea mammals that do lactate have a lot of fat to store it. So if you’re going to draw mermaids that lactate, they better have some blubber, they better be fat and gorgeous! [Laughing] I was very specific about my creatures! 

How did that translate in school; was it difficult because you were different, or did you fit in because you were creative?

A little of both. I’ve always been very adaptive. I was always very gender queer, like my head was shaved as a kid and I’d wear overalls, very trans/agender which is how I identify now. When we moved to Central, PA, I was one of the only Black kids in my class, so when I walked into that space and saw all these white children look at me, something clicked that it was not a safe space and that I would need to do my absolute best to try to adapt in order to survive. As a result, I became an overachiever and hid the otherness in me. So unless they were extremely close to me, no-one knew about my nerdy side and that I was into fantasy and anime and all that. I wore my nerd-dom in my heart rather than on my sleeve. But if I saw a classmate who was visibly nerdy, maybe had an anime keychain, I’d whisper to them, “Hey, I like your Naruto keychain” and make connections that way. And I always stood up for those that were more visibly vulnerable, I made it my charge. Especially when we started getting more Black students, mostly from Baltimore at our school. I noticed that the darker skinned students were often unfairly targeted. If they sneezed, they’d get detention. I began to recognize the fact that my fairer skin and overachieving in academics gave me privilege that a lot of the other black students didn’t have. 

Was there a BSU (Black Student Union) at your school?

No, not out there, but after HS, I went to UArts where they had the African Diaspora Collective. [Laughing] During the Freshman orientation for the school clubs, I basically threw myself on the table and cried, “Oh my God, Black people! Please be my friend!” and they were extremely welcoming. I ended up being one of the co-presidents and am still friends with a lot of folks from the organization. At the time I wasn’t as politically radical as they could have been, I was still in that survival mentality of achievement and not recognizing that institutions play and reward respectability politics and those who keep quiet and don’t shake things up. Though we did a lot of fantastic events, I regret not doing more to shake things up.

I went to school at Emerson in Boston and remember going to the freshman welcoming party for the BSU. I’m mixed too and am very fair, so when I first walked in some folks looked at me like, um, are you in the right place? Then they put on some music and we all started dancing and it was, “Okay, I see you dancing, you’re definitely a sister.” 

I miss dancing! It was an important part of my survival as well. They had a lot of dances, not just the proms, at my school, and that’s where I would always shine. None of the other folks had much rhythm! Now I’m surrounded by a lot of people who can dance and it’s still a sanctuary for me. It’s one of the biggest thing I’ve missed during the pandemic is being able gather with my queer community and enjoying music together whether it’s at a club or a house party. 

What did you study at UArts?

Creative writing, but then I found a way to sort of double in illustration. I actually was able to do my thesis in illustration even though it wasn’t technically my major. 

If I were to ask which art form describes you best right now, which would it be?

I’d say an animator first, even though it’s something that I’m teaching myself so I’m not as versed in the technical side of it as I’d like to be. But I’m able to imagine all of it down to the final frame, so one of my ambitions is to be an animation writer and director. 

What is your involvement with the Unity project?

I created a booklet for the 250 care packages that went out to queer Philadelphians. I’m also an energy worker and I channel the ancestors and beings that guide me, and I’ve been posting their messages on Instagram and in the booklet. It was a great opportunity to reach out to 250 queer people in the city with messages of support. A great way to get on the page of collective, energetic, transformation and a re-centering of black trans femmes as a way of keeping them women safe. We need to create a world where black trans women feel safe and secure, which will be a better world for all of us. 

How have you managed to keep your sanity in the 4 years preceding this?

I don’t give that man my energy. That’s all. 

How did you begin to discover your queer identity?

I did not have the language for who I am until the tail end of high school, but I’ve always been trans, I’ve always been omnisexual, I’ve always been polyamorous. But back to that adaptability, when I lived in Central PA, we were very involved in the Christian Church which told me that in order to be righteous I had to be a straight, pure woman, and I did my best to be that, though it was seeping through the cracks that it wasn’t my truth. Finally after college I burst out of that completely and now I’m the amorphic, shape-shifter, queer poly deity that I am!

I love it! How did the family respond?

My dad is very touch and go in my life. He’s extremely religious and I only recently came out to him, not only as queer, but as trans/agender. I did a lot of personal work to be prepared for his answer and was surprised to find him at least trying to be respectful and use correct pronouns, etc. But I know he still prays for me to repent and become a God fearing woman again. My mom has always been more grounded in the spiritual aspects of religion and connected to the Gnostics, but for a while when we were in Central PA she too got caught up in a more conservative Christianity. As a result, I didn’t really have anyone to talk to about or question what I was taught, so I didn’t. I was a very faith based human being. My sister questioned it all and was left with radio silence from everyone. But the three of us have pretty much all released those attachments to organized religion and are exploring collective consciousness, and oneness and our own spiritual journeys. It’s beautiful that we can share it together. 

What’s a tradition from another religion that you admire?

The integration of poetry and dance in Sufism. I remember watching religious documentaries growing up and seeing the beauty of that faith practice. It was suffused with love. The energy and joy was so different from what I was surrounded by at church and the dry and proper God that I was presented. 

If you could journey into the land of any book or painting, which would you choose?

Wow… (after a minute) you know, I don’t think I’ve read a book yet that has a balance of fantasy and surrealism that doesn’t still contain the oppressive societal confines our world has. For example, lots of traditional fantasy novels contain replicas of white culture and supremacy. I have the desire to connect with fantasy escapism, but they all tend to be very white centric and I don’t know how I’d thrive there. [Laughing] Of course this also speaks to the fact that I should probably do more reading.

Sounds like you need to write your own story.

I am, I literally am. 

What’s your most unusual possession?

I’m looking at it right now. We have a little library in our dining room and the top of it is covered with dolls from around the world. And if that’s not strange enough, above it is… I’d say sculpture, but that gives it too much of a fine art perspective. It’s a kind of carved display from maybe a 1950’s biology class of a giant frog that’s been dissected and its guts are exposed. To me it looks like it’s splayed in some kind of religious postulation which makes it oddly beautiful. I love frogs, and I refused to dissect them or any animals in school, but since this is not a real animal, I find beauty in it. [Laughing] I like to think of it as a matriarchal deity for all the dolls beneath it. 

And who is “we” in your house?

I live with one of my partners, and two other housemates who are artists and poets. One of them is Angel Edwards who is also participating in the Unity project. They’re both strong community activists who do a lot of work on food distribution, reparations and housing. I also live with a farmer, Bria and a mom and her partner and their baby, who are the light of my life. So it’s a full house and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The quarantine has only proved how well we work, learn and grow together. We balance each other well and I’m extremely grateful for it. 

Tell me a little bit about your name?

Malachi is the name I would’ve been given “if I was born a boy,” and when my mom told me that when I was 7, I felt an extreme jealousy and I didn’t know why I felt that way. When I came out as trans/agender I knew that had to be my name. On a deeper level the name means “my angel” or “my messenger” in Hebrew which are both roles I highly relate to as an energy worker/channeler. 

It sounds like it was meant to be. 

For more information about Malachi Lily and their work, visit www.maggielily.com/. For more information about Unity, visit www.asianartsinitiative.org/.