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She-Male of the Species

Filipino-born artist Mike Chavez, who lives and works in Melbourne, is concerned with notions of identity. On a recent visit back to his home country his imagination was gripped by those Filipino women known as ‘bakla'. "We don't really have an equivalent in Australia," Chavez says. "These transsexuals are socially acceptable - there is no stigma and they have a special function in society. Even in the poorest ghetto, where everyone around them is in rags, you can see these tall glamorous women dressed like superstars." Chavez's new exhibition Ghetto Superstar is sexually provocative, but he says that he didn't want the sex-trade issue to overwhelm the works. "That is the wider context, but I didn't want to dwell on that. It is a celebration of individuality and a metaphor for the third world. The Philippines is a superstar waiting to emerge."

 A piece titled ‘Double Penetration' hints at how to read the images. Though it speaks about the work's form and sexual element, it also warns us that there is a deeper message and that we must penetrate to find, whether it's about the gender of the people depicted or the society they inhabit. "It's The Crying Game effect," Chavez explains. "You get the full effect if you don't know, and you find out later on. It's a really interesting experiment. People want to dismiss it because they think that it is just pornography and there is nothing artistic about it. I think that if you are willing to put the time in, it's rewarding." This becomes another metaphor for the Philippines: "It's about first impressions and looking more closely to find a hidden beauty."

 The deceptive portraits are created through a Warholesque blending of photography and screenprinting. "There is a similarity in the look, but it wasn't deliberate. It's not a direct reference to Warhol, but we are from similar backgrounds. We both started in commercial art. He was from an advertising background and I was in animation. In making the switch to fine art, we both began with drawing, but I realised I could get better results if I screenprinted the images." 

 Ghetto Superstar exhibits the work of an artist on an exponential rise. A finalist in this year's Archibald Prize for his portrait of indigenous artist Richard Bell as a gangsta superhero, Chavez is equal parts painter, provocateur and social observer. Erin Moy

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