Mirning artist Tyberius Larking uses the motif of the butterfly to explore his identity as a trans man. Ahead of an Adelaide Contemporary Experimental (ACE) show that features his work, he explains to CityMag what pride means to him.
From caterpillar to butterfly: (Trans)formation with Tyberius Larking
“Pride is about bravery,” Tyberius Larking tells CityMag.
The bright, first-year University of Adelaide science student explains he has always had a penchant for the environment, but he began observing the prowess of butterflies in particular on bushwalks in 2020.
He would venture into different pockets of Tarndanya Adelaide Plains, including the eucalyptus-rich Mount Lofty Ranges, the banks of the freshwater Onkaparinga River and the pine-tree-filled Kuitpo Forest, with a DSLR camera and a mission – he wanted to get up close and photograph butterflies.
Tyberius quickly learned that some critters, depending on their species and habitat, would scatter like “dandelions blowing away in the wind”. Other butterflies, however, would let you get close enough to observe the dust on their delicate wings.
“They know that they’re powerful and that they can get away or let you get close,” Tyberius, a trans man of Mirning and Indian heritage says.
“Sometimes they approach you and I look at it as boldness or pluckiness, self-confidence, and I think there’s something about that, which reminds me of the kind of pride that I have to have in order to insulate and deflect hatred.”
Asked what kind of hatred, he says: “Discrimination on the front of both my Indigenous and LGBTI identities.”
The incipient slam poet and visual artist is contributing a digital illustration, depicting orange and brown geometric-patterned butterflies above a figure in the midst of their own transformation, for the mixed-medium exhibition titled PRIDE.
The exhibition is part of the state-wide Tarnanthi Festival of Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art and focuses mostly on the multi-disciplinary work of Melbourne-based Ngarigo cross-disciplinary visual artist, Peter Waples-Crowe.
PRIDE, showing at the contemporary art gallery ACE on North Terrace from 2 September until 28 October 2023, was curated by ACE’s artistic director Patrice Sharkey and Ngarrindjeri, Kaurna and Italian writer Dominic Guerrera.
In a press release, Dominic – also a former farmer of Sovereign Soil – says the collection is about: “The colours of survival, the attitude of punk and a deep love of community – Blak and queer, we have always been here.”
Although PRIDE prioritises the political and urgent work of Peter, a queer Indigenous artist infusing over two decades of experience as a community health worker and his personal story as an adopted child, it also includes a mentorship component.
Three local emerging Aboriginal Australian artists – comprising Arrente ceramicist and APY Gallery artist Alfred Lowe; Gugada and Wirangu mixed-medium artist Jayda Wilson; and Tyberius – have all been mentored by Peter. They will exhibit these pieces as part of the exhibition.
In a similar vein to Peter using the dingo as a recurring theme or “totem” in his artistic practice, Tyberius wanted to find his own emblem.
He immediately thought of the butterfly: an insect that lives for a maximum of four weeks but goes through a massive change. The butterfly is also sentimental to Tyberius, who remembers seeing the insect on Country.
“My most powerful memories of butterflies have been on camping trips with my family whilst sleeping under the stars in tents, and I have snuck out of the tent at night to go pee on the tree or whatever, and a butterfly flitting about the darkness was caught by the moonlight,” Tyberius recalls.
“I wanted to honour that.”
Settling on this concept for PRIDE was tricky, though.
While in the embryonic stages of conceptualising the piece, Tyberius was in the process of relocating to the city to be closer to the university. He was also dealing with a “myriad” of health problems and was in the midst of his own transformation.
Tyberius underwent top surgery late last year. This is a gender-affirming medical procedure that removes breast tissue from the chest.
“It feels like a mirror of me – this settling into my new body in the same way that a butterfly does after they come out of the cocoon,” Tyberius says.
With a smile widening on his face, Tyberius reports that he is immensely happy in his new body. He is so comfortable, in fact, that he can’t recall what it was like to have a chest. This has led him to wonder whether butterflies remember their former lives as caterpillars.
“When a butterfly sees me approaching with my camera, do they think it is the end? Does their life flash before their eyes?” Tyberius asks.
“How do they relate to that? Is that a childhood for them? Or is that a different life?”