Nola Hanson, founder of Trans Boxing, moved to Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood six years ago. Newly graduated with a BFA in visual art, they were in search of a gym, eventually joining New Bed-Stuy Boxing Center. By 2017, their collaborative art project that doubles as a boxing club was born.
Cut to August 2020 and the project has brought Hanson — virtually, due to the pandemic — to Cincinnati via an art residency at Camp Washington's Wave Pool.
When they first came to New York City, Hanson said that they didn’t yet have a studio practice; they were supporting themselves by working in service industry jobs.
“When I started boxing, it was a really deeply meaningful thing,” Hanson said during a recent phone interview. “It also touched on a lot of concepts that I was interested in and introduced to in my undergraduate education — concepts of identity and embodiment.”
Around the same time, Hanson was becoming more comfortable with identifying as non-binary and less so with competing in gendered categories. An injury in the summer of 2017 allowed them time to slow down and ask how they could engage with the practice of boxing as an artist from a conceptual place while also being in community with others.
That came in the form of Trans Boxing. Per its description, through centering on the participation of trans and gender-variant people and partnering with local gyms/community organizations, "Trans Boxing critically intervenes in the rigidly gendered system of athletics, and increases availability to people who typically experience barriers to access.”
In the three years since its founding, the project has hosted weekly boxing classes for trans and gender-variant people at the Lower East Side of Manhattan’s Overthrow boxing club. Other classes and workshops have been held in other boroughs as well as everywhere from Seattle and New Orleans to San Francisco and Portland.
Since March, classes open to all LGBTQ+ people have taken place virtually. As part of the Wave Pool residency, Hanson is hosting free boxing training via Zoom at 7 p.m. on Wednesdays through Sept. 7. (Meeting code is 967-090-926. For more info, and for the meeting password, email [email protected].)
Hanson will also be exploring Cincinnati’s boxing history — particularly the Queen City’s only World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Ezzard Charles, aka the Cincinnati Cobra — through various participatory and conceptual art projects. The work will culminate in a May 2021 exhibition at Wave Pool titled An Effort to Defend.
“In addition to the title of the exhibition — An Effort to Defend — being about the defense and appreciation of the sport of boxing, it is also a very direct response to the effort to defend against the prevalent and unceasing murders and attacks of trans people, Black trans women in particular, both in Ohio and across the country,” Hanson said in a follow-up email.
The National Center for Transgender Equality reported on Aug. 7 that murders of transgender people in 2020 have surpassed the total for all of 2019 — 26 compared to 24 — pointing toward the fact that such violence is also “particularly pronounced for Black and Latina trans women.”
“This is a seemingly Sisyphean task,” Hanson continued, “but I do hope that the work I do, if not having a direct impact, can at least serve as a gesture which supports the right of trans people to self-determination, bodily autonomy, and safety — all of which continue to be systematically denied across many domains.”
Hanson said that the title is also meant to honor boxing’s historical roots while making the sport available to other people. The phrase comes from a place of reverence rather than antagonism — as they have seen (and felt) so much value and richness within the boxing community.
Alongside the virtual classes and research, Hanson will be hosting various talks and participatory events. They see the Wave Pool residency as part of a longer engagement that will run through mid-2021, culminating in An Effort to Defend.
Also in the works is a zine, which will be on hand at the exhibition. That’s fronted by Hill Donnell, a collaborator with Hanson, along with Liv Adler. Donnell joined the project shortly after moving to New York in 2017 from New Orleans to pursue an MA in Public Policy from the City University of New York. A recent transplant, they were in search of a boxing gym and queer community. Trans Boxing married those needs.
Donnell is aiming for the zine to be finished by this winter. Hard copies will be sold and mailed to Trans Boxing’s Patreon subscribers but will also be available digitally in a PDF format.
They have seen Trans Boxing evolve in the years since its founding in terms of engaging with the project in new ways outside of the basic boxing club format. But Donnell says they have also been able to see participants grow as athletes and feel more at home in their bodies.
“When I teach boxing, it's a way that I can share my skills with other people in a community setting,” Donnell says. “It provides something for me — friendship, camaraderie, a shared interest — but it also is a way that I can be of service.”
Both Hanson and Donnell noted their excitement to see Trans Boxing evolve into new projects, as well as stretching its reach to different cities and people of all experience levels. Now that its legitimacy as a boxing club has been well-established, Hanson said that they’re able to be more explicit about the conceptual goals of Trans Boxing, a project bent on collaboration and experimentation.
“I’m excited to be able to potentially create something that could bring attention to what already exists in Cincinnati,” Hanson says of the residency. “Right? And invite people into that tradition to see themselves in that history, or in that contemporary lived experience that they might not otherwise think is available to them.”
Nola Hanson is Wave Pool’s current artist-in-residence through Sept. 7. The residency will culminate in the exhibition An Effort to Defend in May 2021. More info: transboxing.org.