“The body is a repository of marks”, we are told at one point in one of Carlos Motta‘s visual essays, Lágrimas (2017). Many of the works of this Colombian artist speak about colonial and postcolonial marks, metaphorical scars on flesh and desire, indelible despite the passing of centuries.
Jacques Derrida, for whom the concept of cultural “sign” or “scar” was so important, said that it is not possible to escape the Judeo-Christian tradition. Even the death of God is a Christian theme, and if we think that we have “saved” ourselves from religion we are already using “redemptive” concepts.
Deconstruction is, therefore, more effective than illusory destruction. Carlos Motta deconstructs the colonial legacy, disembowels it, rescues underlying readings, archived and silenced stories, denied narratives.
Q- Conversations in a Colombian river (Nefandus), imaginary epistolary relationship (Wishes), film poems (Corpo dated), chronicles of oral tradition (The Defeated) …, your videos often start from historical data or real people, whose traumas you reweave as tears of a repressed past. Banishment, witchcraft convictions, biopolitics written on intersex bodies … Law, Religion (Moral), Medicine and Culture, today as yesterday, form the same ideological corpus whose cracks your counter-narrations show. Is it like that?
The videos you mention are part of a series of works through which I have investigated colonial “criminal” archives in Latin America and Europe searching for traces of lives archived precisely because they have defied the moral and legal norms of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. I have focused on cases of penalty related to sexual and gender transgression.
During the Conquest of America, not only political, religious, social and cultural norms were imposed, but all European epistemological concepts, including the understanding of sexuality as a strictly reproductive behavior, and in some way, gender performativity as strictly binary.
The characters and stories in my works are part of the History only because they ran into the inquisitive Catholic processes. We can know them in the present because they have become evidence of this violation of their personal and collective autonomy.
It is important to note that this “autonomy”, that is, their right to be sodomites, sorcerers, intersexes, etc., had no name in America before the Conquest, nor did it belong to a hegemonic and dominant cultural vocabulary.
My videos then seek to highlight the bad luck of these individuals have become into historical cases and objects of study, but they also approach these stories as fundamental examples of modern attitudes in relation to sexuality and gender. Although nowadays, the sex-gender diversity communities have certain visibility and legal rights in some parts of the world, the truth is that attitudes towards their difference continue to be deeply colonial.
Q-Marcella Althaus-Reid, to whom Linn Tonstad paid tribute in your exhibition “Requiem”, wrote something like: it is not about asking for a chair to sit in the Vatican as did the initial feminist theology but about questioning the structures of power that they support the mechanisms of capitalist exclusion. Not wanting equality within an unfair system but reread the Scriptures and “take God out of the closet”. I see a parallel with your doubts about the search for legal equality by the LGBTI groups and their gradual conformism.
Yes, my projects seek to challenge and think in a critical way level playing field – the fundamental pillar of contemporary LGBTQI movements- that has fostered a culture of tolerance and assimilationism. Within that framework, some sexual minorities are invited to eat the leftovers of a dinner where they are not really welcome.
Think of equal marriage, a perfect example that illustrates the need to be part and to be tolerated by a solidly patriarchal and orthodox system that, historically, has oppressed women and excluded homosexuals, and has never considered transgender or non-binary people – promising legal and cultural rights, which although they have resulted in moderate benefits for certain people, have not produced radical changes in the structures of the dominant power.
From documentary projects, community art processes and historical research I was interested in understanding why a sex-gender movement that started as an act of radical protest in the sixties -and that was defined as anti-imperialist, pacifist, feminist, anti-racist, ecological, etc.-has been conformed in the last two or three decades with the mere inclusion in all these exploitation systems. Was not LGBTQI activism a great opportunity to fight in a community for the radical transformation of the system?
Q- I would like to ask you about those pieces in which you pose something like museographies of desire. Replicas of pre-Columbian statuettes (homoerotic historiography), drawings that collect the universal erotic (Turkish manuscripts, sketches of Michelangelo, the coitus of Pan with a goat …) in “La puissance et la jouissance”: bestiality, homosexuality … everything that art has tried but museums obviated for centuries. Your way of exposing them brings me back to the idea of “secret cabinet”, as it was called that of Pompeian archeology labeled “obscene”, which only were open to scholars and wealthy collectors.
My installations approach institutional aesthetics as a process of the production of historical knowledge that must be disarticulated to understand how aesthetic conventions have contributed to the way some objects and histories are validated and others excluded.
One of the strategies I have used is to intervene the formal mechanisms of characteristic presentation of archaeological, anthropological and historical museums with objects and narratives that have been consciously ignored by the social sciences, as is the case of pre-Hispanic homoerotic sexuality.
In Towards a homoerotic historiography (2014) for example, I present a selection of miniature replicas in gold, tumbaga and silver artifacts and original sculptures of some Latin American indigenous cultures, where homoerotic acts are protagonists. The lack of documentation, studies and consideration of these pieces as referents of the processes of colonization of the body, desire, pleasure and homosexuality as a modern categorical construction, led me to think that creating a conventional institutional presentation could be an interesting way to indicate that what we understand as “objective” historical and narrative processes have been deeply manipulated. The visitor of my installation is seduced by the formal presentation and, due to the small scale of the objects, he needs a closer look and he must deal with his own prejudices to understand the processes of invisibility.
Q- In “Inverted world” (video-performance, 2016) you stage a kind of martyrdom-bondage tinged with eroticism. Series of baroque paintings pass over our minds (San Pedro was crucified upside-down). The term “invert” was used to stigmatize gays. In Devil’s work (2018), you recover engravings by Gustave Moré and others who illustrated the 7th circle of Dantesque Hell, where those who practice a “contra-nature” sexuality were condemned… But homoeroticism pervades Christian iconography despite the homophobia that the church promoted.
The Catholic Church and its moral doctrine are undoubtedly responsible for the historical stigmatization and categorization, initially of sodomy as a challenge to morality, and more recently of homosexuality as unacceptable behavior. I do not know if the Christian iconography is homoerotic in itself as you put it, but I think that the suffering of Christ, the torture of his body, as well as the representations of the martyrdom of the saints, are images that have been appropriated by homosexuals and their imaginary of the desire and expression of sexuality, in a kind of psycho-spiritual identification.
Marcella Althus-Reid believes that discussing the sexuality of Christ and the Virgin Mary should be steps required to make their role as humans more complex and their effect as referential and totalizing icons.
Q- You recover the voices of the losers, the excluded…, from the past and present. In The Crossing, queer refugees explain their crude stories, this time without drawing on fiction. The change of tone is inevitable when dealing with today’s abuses when dealing with media manipulation, the post-truth… Living in New York, with the current regression on issues of rights and immigration, how does this affect your work?
At this moment I am in the process of conceptualizing a project that responds directly to the migratory crisis in the United States. I prepare a documentary and community work that discusses the fate of the so-called “Dreamers” in this country, young migrants seeking their legalization as American citizens, who were promised a way to that legalization by Obama and that was recently denied by Trump. I focus on the “Dreamers” LGBTQI, a segment of this population that suffers several levels of discrimination: for being undocumented, for being latinxs and also for being homosexual or trans *. This is a very important and personal project for me because although I always had the privilege of being in this country in a “legal” way, I understand the difficulty of being marginalized and considered an “other” (saved proportions) as a Latin American. I am interested in using my social, cultural and political privileges to help make visible the unjust and precarious living conditions to which these young people are subjected.
Interviewed by Anna Adell
Carlos Motta’s solo exhibition Corpo Fechado
can be visited in Galeria Avenida da Índia–EGEAC, Lisboa
until 10th February 2019