There is such a thing as the call to be an artist. You either get it or you don’t. For those who do, the artist life has no finish line. You’re never “done” being an artist. Your practice is your life journey, where you’re only ever racing against yourself. We’ve chosen four mid-career artists—Yang Li, Gianni Lee, Sevdaliza, and Benjamin Milan—who embody this spirit, both in their mindset and the roads they’ve traveled in their careers.

For each of these artists, there’s no finish line because they’re racing against themselves. Because progress is a mindset. Discover each of the four artists’ stories below.

Benjamin Milan

Yang Li

Gianni Lee

Sevdaliza

More

Benjamin Milan

To be a dancer, you can’t be afraid of pain. In practice alone, you have to repeatedly push your body to the limits of what you think is possible to move in ways that are supposed to appear effortless. Benjamin Milan performs as if it were effortless. “My happiest place is all of the external things that can look very glamorous from the outside,” he says. “But exploring inside, listening to your intuition: What kind of art can I create that I feel is fresh and new? This is where I want to be.”

Benjamin’s style of dancing—voguing—is something he first encountered in New York’s queer underground scene, when he would show up every week to the Sunday parties at the Greenhouse club in SoHo. The parties were known for the drag queens in looks, but also the voguers, who didn’t show up to the party until around two or three, when they’d appear spontaneously and start serving on the dance floor. Benjamin remembers waiting all night for that exact moment, and being like, “Okay, I’ve been waiting for you.”

Many of these voguers were black and latino queers in their mid-40s, who came from the original ballhouse era of the ’80s. The House of Milan was one of the original houses of that era, founded by the late Eric Christian Bazaar, who was one of the first MCs in the ballroom scene. It was through nightlife that Benjamin first encountered the House of Milan.

Here’s how ball culture works: you compete in balls and the judges gives you 10’s to move forward and compete or a chop if you still need to improve on your craft, houses invite you to join if they see potential in you. When Benjamin began competing, he was approached to join several houses, but he chose the House of Milan because of the legacies of its house legends Stan and Aviance Milan, pioneers in the New Way dance category, in which Benjamin competed.

Today, Benjamin is the father of the House of Milan in the U.K., somewhere he only could’ve gotten by relentlessly striving to meet his own standards of pure excellence. Now mentoring four other house dancers—whom he calls “kids”—he says his house is known in the scene as the “Silent Storm” because, “you don’t see them coming, but then they come, they storm the ball.”

But it would be Benjamin’s collaboration with FKA twigs that marked a turning point for him, allowing him to scale up to a mainstream audience. He had been at a house night in London, when twigs, who happened to be there and saw Benjamin dance, came up to him and said, “Oh my God, are you voguing?” From there, Benjamin became a close collaborator with twigs, as well as mentor, educating her on the history of vogue. He went on to choreograph and perform in twigs’ Congregata tour, as well as the ballroom sequence staged in her music video for “Glass and Patron.”

Reflecting on how far he’s gone, he says, “This is not a life I ever imagined that I could have. Especially in terms of self-esteem and confidence—that I could break so far away from the environment where I grew up.” After the twigs collaboration, Benjamin continued to drive himself further into newer territory. He expanded into fashion, working for Chanel and Gareth Pugh, modeling for MCM and dancing in the film version of Cats, starring Taylor Swift.

Silent
Storm

Now that Benjamin is established in the mainstream both as a dancer and choreographer, he wants to continue to shatter boundaries and challenge conventions with no end in sight. He says this moment is a breaking point for urban dance, when it’s no longer put in a box that only makes sense to nightlife. “I think we’re slowly breaking out of that.”

On what he wants people to take away from his work, he says, “That it feels truthful and honest, not just in the performance aspect of it, but in the soul of the movement.”

“This is not a life I ever imagined that I could have.”

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Yang Li

If anything distinguishes the fashion designer Yang Li’s career, it is his singular vision and world. He consistently finds new ways of communicating that vision, unafraid to bend genres and push fashion forward into new and uncharted territories.

Our aim is wakefulness,
our enemy is dreamless sleep.

Li likes to talk about “the weirdo.” In high school, the weirdo doesn’t hang out with the jocks or the cheerleaders, but somewhere in the corner, out of the spotlight. For the weirdo in high school, there are two options: a downward spiral, or—if they push through it—they can mature to become artists who can articulate a unique vision that cuts through the noise. The ultimate weirdo: late punk legend Genesis P-Orridge, the first musician Li collaborated for his eponymous brand. Li chose P-Orridge “because I’m a weirdo,” he says.

Li is a master of “pushing through it.” Having grown up in both China and Australia, Li learned to navigate between cultures as a child. At 23, he decided to launch his own label in Paris. He knew he was young, and he didn’t really have the resources, but “that risk and fear attracted me to keep going.” For his first collection, he didn’t have a show, just a showroom, a staff of one, and some lookbook shots.

Out the door, that first collection only had five stockists, but they were good, including the prestigious Dover Street Market. In 2013, Li staged his debut runway show, which Vogue called “a pretty phenomenal debut.” The show was mostly black and leather, with grunge interpretations on luxury classics, like the Chanel jacket. “A punk Hermès” is Li’s way of describing his aesthetic, right from the first collection.

Though even deeper than aesthetic was a hunger to move forward, to race towards further sights and reach what might previously have been thought impossible. On his philosophy, Li prints a quote on his clothes that describes the core drive that propels him forward: “Our aim is wakefulness, our enemy is dreamless sleep.” This ambition set Li apart in his early years and carried him through to where he is now—he refused to stay in one place, or settle. Yet his ambition also takes him to uncharted territory, which more staid or conservative designers might consider crazy.

In 2018, Li decided to take the biggest risk yet: doing away with fashion shows altogether. He was no longer interested in the runway as a format, and began looking for more innovative ways to showcase his collections and reach the people his clothes were speaking to.

For Fall 2019, Li launched the “Automatic Collection,” which was presented somewhat prophetically, entirely on Instagram. The idea was to pick 27 women from ten cities around the world, most of whom he knew personally, and who he believed represented the ethos of the brand. The women were as diverse as Stoya, Lily Mcmenamy, Asia Argento, and of course Genesis P-Orridge. Each of the women was mailed looks and asked to take photos and style themselves however they wanted, posting them all on the same day on their Instagram accounts. For Li, this was about giving up control and trusting the process of collaboration to yield unexpected results.

Currently, Li is working on his upcoming collection, which will feature 18 fashion collaborations with artists who represent the Yang Li spirit. Artists such as Godflesh, Swans, Ramleh are experimental electro or noise, core aesthetics for the Yang Li brand. Though Li is also expanding his circle to include avant-garde soprano Diamanda Galás, and rappers Yung Lean and Ghostmane, who to Li’s mind embody the DIY spirit.

When asked when he was the closest to giving up, Li says “Many times,” which shows just how far he pushes himself beyond his own boundaries or safety zones. Because with every decision he makes, everything is at stake. How far will he continue to push himself? There’s no finish line.

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Gianni Lee

Most artists, after they’ve succeeded with one recognizable thing—a style, or an aesthetic—they repeat the same thing over and over again throughout their careers. Gianni Lee is the opposite. Lee could’ve easily staked his career on any one of the practices he excels at: painting, streetart, fashion design, DJ’ing, or production. Instead, his restlessness and ambition have propelled him to constantly take risks by throwing himself headfirst into new challenges he knows will push him to his limits.

It’s often said that success is luck with preparation. It’s also having the guts to know an opportunity when you see it. For Lee, that was when he met Rianna. He was backstage at an A$AP Rocky concert when Rihanna showed up. At the time, Gianni had been wearing a camouflage jacket from his own independent clothing label, Babylon Cartel. Recognizing a moment when he saw it, Lee went into the bathroom, took the jacket off his back, folded it up and then handed it to Rihanna. She didn’t say a word. But she took the jacket, after inspecting it the way you hold a dollar bill up to the light to see if it was real. A week later, Rihanna was photographed everywhere wearing that jacket, with the Babylon Cartel logo on its chest. People kept texting Lee, “Is this your shit?” Immediately, Lee’s orders started rising. The brand took off.

success is luck
with preparation.

Lee’s story could’ve stopped here, but he went forward. This desire is a combination of inquisitiveness and risk-taking, but also a deep trust in one’s own instincts. While Babylon Cartel was taking off, Lee decided to pursue DJ’ing and production, falling into a scene of DJs who played Baltimore Club at spontaneous underground parties.

Though it was fashion that brought Lee into painting. Early on, Lee remembers people would tell him that his fashion sketches look like art—it had a distinct style, a voice. At the time, he was living in a loft in downtown LA, and decided to give painting a shot. He bought a few canvases and just started painting—a practice that you can only master by doing it every day, which is what Lee did.

His early work was political—exploring themes of class and race, with influences in Afrofuturism—but it also had a style that was distinctly Gianni Lee. Unwilling to be restricted by the four-wall confines of the studio, Lee expanded his talents to the streets, which he describes as a separate practice from painting. Soon enough, people from all around the world began recognizing his signature icon: the pink skeleton.

In 2017, Lee landed his first solo show at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition (BWAC) which brought him to New York as an artist in residence. From there, Lee began getting commissions in both New York and LA and divided his time between the two cities. Since then, Lee’s work has traveled around the world, meanwhile tagging pink skeletons on walls in every city he lands in. Because of his cross-genre practice, he began getting high-profile commissions from Coachella to Art Basel Miami.

“Ever the polymath, Lee continues to defy the definition of what it means to be an artist.”

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Sevdaliza

“As an artist, you’re always rebelling against yourself,” says Sevdaliza.

The singer, songwriter, and producer is incredibly determined, focused, and works each day in constant pursuit of progress. “In the end, we all die trying. The rise and fall is a continuum, which each human being endures, yet artists are the ones bending the laws of quantum physics. They literally live on the crossroad, forced to continuously reflect and evaluate. This required skill opens doors and enables highly sensitive beings, who are therefore much more available to pick up frequencies in a more overly apathetic society.”

It’s beautiful if
you show rawness

Since childhood, Sevdaliza has quite literally lived on the crossroad of multiple cultures. At five, she and her family fled Tehran in a bus as refugees for the Netherlands, where she was raised. “I was really lonely,” she said about those years. As a teenager, she found company in the voices she heard on pirate radio, recording golden-age rap like Notorious B.I.G., and then falling completely in love with Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope—an important album for Sevdaliza, whose vocals often have R&B inflections.

Describing her practice, Sevdaliza sees herself as a spiritual leader, whose goal is to awaken others into an active engagement with what it means to be human. Her enemy is complacency, sleep. Her drive is to be constantly alert, making contact with the core that exists in all of us.

Unsurprisingly, Sevdaliza sustains a rigorous yoga and meditation practice. Meditation, she says, “helps me to endure hardships.” Such training lends a magnetism in Sevdaliza’s music. Her voice evokes an intimacy that cuts straight to the listener, no matter who or where they might be. (And Sevdaliza’s success is impressively global.) Her performances don’t demand attention so much as invite you in. “It’s beautiful if you show rawness,” she has said, which she demonstrates through her husky, melancholic vocals that, at their peak, evoke Beth Gibbons from Portishead. Raw, vulnerable.

Yet her emphasis on vulnerability downplays the fact that Sevdaliza is extremely hard-working. She is fluent in five languages. She also taught herself how to sing, and use the music-production software Ableton. She dances in multiple genres, and directed her early videos. As a former pro basketball player, she swims regularly, which she says is a practice of “trying to be aware of my body.”

Following the energy, which is both within her and in her surroundings, is what guides her to move forward, to trust the present moment, and venture into uncharted territory. Certainly, her skills in sports, video, singing, and dance are evidence of the many, many roads she has traveled. But even so, she isn’t finished. “I’m at a turning point,” she says of where she is now. Constantly moving, because there is no finish line to artistic progress. “You’re always moving,” she goes on. “Otherwise you’re dead.”

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