In October 2017, Arkhé: Latin American Art Archives, a foundation dedicated to rescuing books and documents of modern and contemporary art, will open to the public. One of Arkhé’s main focuses will be on the documentation of LGBTQ memory, The Queer Archive: a collection that so far has 25,000 photographs and original documents, 76 private archives, 3,000 books and 1,500 magazine editions. Halim Badawi, the foundation’s Director, reflects on the importance of (re)thinking LGBTQ memory in Colombia, and the historical necessity of creating strong institutions that ensure its preservation.
Lucía was a transvestite in Bogotá’s downtown. Her life was both giddy and dramatic, to say the least: raped in childhood; from an internally-displaced family; kicked out of her home at twelve because of her gender identity; a sex worker out of necessity. Early on she discovered an aptitude for art, dance and singing. She made people laugh, was fun, and made a living from her art. Art that didn’t excel at auctions or which could be presented in museums—marginalized by what institutions usually define as an artwork. Lucía was murdered in obscure circumstances; the police considered it a “crime of passion.” Her body wasn’t claimed by her biological family, yet her childhood friends—her true family—did. Her rented room was hastily returned, and all her belongings—mattress, sheets, bombastic dresses, love letters and photo albums, the only witnesses to her art and pride—were incinerated. The room had to be emptied, and there was no place to store her things. Not only did her life end, but in months or, with some luck, years, she won’t be remembered by anyone. The singularities of her artwork would be erased forever, her tragedies doomed to repetition. Their circumstances will become an old statistic without a face. Not all LGBTQ history has been dance, light, and color. Today, in Colombia, there are numerous lives like Lucía’s: difficult, singular, brilliant. If we don’t know them, how can we possibly imagine a new country?
I. The heterosexual tradition
History is a predominantly heterosexual construct. After all, how many homosexuals do we know who have been part of history? In other words, presidents, actors, politicians, soccer players, or visual artists? Let’s do the exercise. Maybe we are left with spare fingers if we do the count with our hands—not because they haven’t existed, but because we don’t know their names. Rarely do we think that the soccer player we like could be gay, or that people in our own family could have been homosexuals. At the end of their stories they all had their heterosexual partners and children—those from whom our genetic heritage comes—as though reproduction and heterosexuality were the same thing, dissipating all doubt.
We also wouldn’t think that our single aunt, or the one who chose the convent, whose life crossed a century, had ever felt, in the words of Oscar Wilde, “the love that doesn’t dare to say her name.” A forbidden love, barred by the social conditions of its time. In any case, Latin American families tend to find explanations that turn the obscure world of forbidden love into theological virtue: “that aunt was a saint,” “she never knew a man,” “she chose purity, chastity,” “god will reward her in heaven.”
So, why work through this exercise? Why numerically count how many homosexuals from the past we know? Why prove they were much more than we thought? Why study and understand their lives? Why make an alternative genealogy—an expanded history? Why queer a past that is thought of as static, loyal, true, and unique? Why question history, or in other words, why democratize it? Why unveil previously nonexistent traditions, reinvent possible bodies and reveal different, affective stories?
Someone could argue against these questions, that such questions concern the private lives of people—following an easy and conservative logic—and that private life should be respected. Since it deserves “respect,” it will be first necessary to understand the sexual life of the past—especially when such a past is dissident and makes us feel ashamed. But then, why do we make heterosexual lives so unashamedly public? Why do we read the love letters between Simón Bolívar and Manuelita Sáenz? Why have there been so many books written where heterosexual love isn’t problematized, but considered to be the highest virtue of a sensitive soul? Why do we watch so many love stories, real and biographical, between men and women, kings and peasants, on TV? Why then, do homosexual stories have to be removed from the public sphere and left to the backroom of private life, as though they had never existed? Why the need to heterosexualize history; of constructing a tradition that negates the existence of different forms of affection and that deems multiple vital options as impossible? We are left to ponder how many prejudices does this exercise of selective forgetting entail.
A second argument that is usually mobilized against the removal of the past in search of alternative life stories, is that history—art, literature and music—doesn’t have a gender. Some traditional historians hold that history occupies neutral territory, is constructed of facts, and therefore that it shouldn’t be dissected by power dynamics in the form of gender and sexuality. If there are no women represented in art history or its museums, it is assumed that it is because there were never as many women artists, and that they were not as good as their male counterparts—rather than because modern historiography was sexist.
If we review the bibliography on Colombian art, there is virtually no reference to the homosexuality of a significant part of the Colombian artistic avant garde, barring three exceptions—most notably Luis Caballero, who was openly homosexual and whose paintings had explicit homoerotic themes. The art historical canon of Colombia doesn’t mention the affective networks of solidarity that were developed between artists because of their sexual orientation. Nor is there any information about the resistance their ways of life necessitated given the conservative Colombian social scene; or within their families, who were generally regional elites: white, landowners, Catholic, conservative, rich, and notably sexist. We also don’t know, for lack of study, how these resistances could have molded a character, a spirit, that found in art a singular and sublime form of expression.
More recent Colombian artists can already be read from a queer perspective; there are even some artists who have made queerness a poetic and critical platform from which to enunciate an explicit historiography. This is the case with Miguel Ángel Rojas, whose photographic series from the 70s focuses on the gay underground night scene in the Faenza theatre; Álvaro Barrios had dedicated different series to Saint Sebastian, done in homage to Tom of Finland, and a Self-Portrait as Rose Sélavy. There are also the performances and installations of Gustavo Turizo and Wilson Díaz, as an example. In 1993, in the midst of the HIV crisis in Colombia, Wilson Díaz created an installation called Sementerio (a play of words in spanish between cemetery and semen), for which he collected some of his friends’ semen—many of them artists—as they ejaculated in a sheet of paper cut in the shape of a tombstone. Díaz arranged these paper tombstones in sequence on a wall, mirroring the columbariums at the Central Cemetery of Bogotá.
The homosexuality of a long list of Colombian creatives from the 20th century is still taboo, including the lives of Enrique Grau, Débora Arango, Hena Rodríguez, Fernando Martínez Sanabria, Carlos Rojas, Hernán Díaz, Manolo Vellojín, and Lorenzo Jaramillo, amongst others. Most publications on their work tend to masculinize and heterosexualize the work of modern art history. Women are barely now starting to appear, and all men are straight. Homosexuality seems an irrelevant anecdote at best, unnecessary and tangential. One of the themes still waiting to be reviewed by art historians is the relationship between Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar and Édgar Negret, the two most important modern sculptors in Colombia, who lived together during the 1950s. It is necessary to understand how this affective relationship determined the aesthetic and poetic affinities between their brilliantly-designed sculptures, and to remember the opposition that Negret faced during his childhood in Popayán and in his own family, because of his sexuality.
Since official history has made invisible these dissident sexualities, several conservative theories have appeared, taking advantage of this invisibility in order to argue that homosexuality is a fashion—an argument already common in nineteenth century France—in opposition to a supposedly heterosexual past. There are even several apocryphal theories that present an apparent proliferation of homosexuality worldwide as an instrument of population control, whether generated by nature or by an international conspiracy. This is what some have labeled as the powerful gay lobby, which moves the invisible threads of power, the entertainment industry, and that promotes the so-called “gender ideology.” All of this, whether it sounds like a joke or a Stephen King novel, would seem unnecessary to mention if it weren’t for the Congress, the government and the churches where it is a seriously discussed topic.
II. LGBTQ Archives
How do we turn this meaning-making universe upside down? How do we defeat the rise of prejudice and ignorance? How do we minimize the impact of these forged theories that arise from a rampant ignorance of human sexuality? How do we uncover the invisible histories of dissident sexualities, public or anonymous, veiled by layers of prejudice, fear, and historical leftovers? How do we construct new traditions? How do we widen history’s radius, and with it, the possibilities of a more inclusive and democratic future? The answer is easy: through archives. History and civil rights will only be possible as a result of the archive. Archives are history’s input, allowing narratives, books, and movies, those that mold our “common sense,” to develop in time. Archives are the condition for the possibility of a new world.
There are many different types of LGBTQ archives: those compiled by activists, who promote civil rights and are barely known popularly, such as León Zuleta or Manuel Velandia. There are institutional archives, such as Colombia Diversa, or archives from nightlife spaces such as bars and discos: places that mobilize subjectivities, beauty standards, and aspirations. There are also social archives: documents, newspapers, and personal photographs of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, intersexuals, transvestites and transexuals, famous or not. There are also archives of photographic negatives, documenting Bogotá’s nightlife; archives of LGBTQ artists, which show incredible quantities of the artists’ iconographic sources, such as Luis Caballero’s archive, probably the most well known after it was exhibited at the Jorge Tadeo Lozano University some years ago; archives of trans beauty pageants and those of trans family houses, the spaces that adopt trans people as their own family.
There are primarily three obstacles that must be overcome in order to document LGBTQ memory in Colombia. The first one is to break the differentiation between “high culture” and “popular culture,” since what is commonly known as “high culture” has a preferential space in museums, where popular culture is usually left out. Most photographic testimonies related to the LGBTQ population are framed within the “popular”—productions of the periphery. Following this logic, these photographs tend to be amateur, autobiographical, meager, and sordid, and they usually don’t have the balance and framing of a professional photographer’s photos. Despite this, they should not have less cultural relevance. In these archives we find singularities such as the Queer Collage, one of the most traditional artistic expressions of the trans community, developed in Colombia mainly by Madorilyn Crawford, the renowned transvestite of Bogotá. We have to work to dignify these works of special poetic and aesthetic interest. In a cultural sense, we must assume that the archive of the International Bambuco Trans Beauty Pageant is as relevant as the Archives of Alejandro Obregón, and that we should overcome the prejudices that make us believe that one thing is more important than the other, that one deserves to be preserved while the other doesn’t.
The second obstacle will be the reluctance of most institutions to incorporate LGBTQ patrimony, an attitude that responds to long standing social and cultural prejudices. How many personal LGBTQ archives belong to major libraries and public Colombian archives? The truth is that there is not a single one. Public libraries and institutional archives prevented the acquisition of material that might be deemed pornographic, and for many years, LGBTQ documentation was considered pornographic. Perhaps this is why the Luis Ángel Arango library only has one of the twenty-four issues of Ventana Gay (Gay Window), the second magazine on gay activism in Colombia, and has not preserved a single copy of El Otro (The Other), the first LGBTQ magazine in the country. Public institutions are fundamental in the collective transformation of the country, and they must advance at the pace of the contexts they are part of.
Another prejudice that institutions will have to face is the actual fear of collecting pornography. Pornography is a cultural expression of high historical and aesthetic value, and libraries and archives should preserve it so that scholars may study it. This is why there are special rooms for rare elements in libraries, which have limited and authorized access. Ruling pornograpy out of our history on a moral basis forecloses recent achievements in social history, and ignores new interests in art history and curatorial practice as well, both which find in pornography an important lens to understanding reality. Such is the case of the Orsay Museum in Paris, which produced the exhibition entitled Splendor and Misery: Images of Prostitution, 1850–1910, which included some of the first pornographic films in history.
The third obstacle will be the common fear and shame of the families, at making their deceased loved one’s private life public. When I say “make public,” I’m referring to the conservation of the archive’s integrity, lending it to researchers, or handing it over to an institution. This situation implies that when the archival document’s owner dies, their documents are usually purged or destroyed, eliminating any clues of the person’s sexuality, heterosexualizing them, and ultimately heterosexualizing history. This has occurred in several occasions, and the losses have been truly deplorable. In Colombia, the photographic registration of the trans community previous to the 1970s have been irremediably lost. As recently as the 1980s, trans life expectancy was roughly 40 years, given the difficulties faced accessing healthcare and legal justice.
These situations, harmful to LGBTQ historical memory, are worsened by the fact that the priorities of LGBTQ activism in Colombia don’t include historical documentation or the collection of ephemera from a shared heritage. The years of war and violence have generated different priorities, headed by the struggle for civil rights—the right to life and integrity, marriage, adoption, freedom from discrimination—which are violated daily in Colombia. To think about books, documents and memorabilia may seem an unnecessary and expensive luxury. Maybe this is why local activism has not produced documentation centers, libraries, or specialized museums. In Colombia, not even the Ministry of Culture has intervened in the classification systems for LGBTQ issues in public libraries, whose very structure is laden with prejudices. No one has fought, either, so that LGBTQ history can be explicitly shown in the Memory Gallery at the National Museum. Some efforts in LGBTQ heritage have recently been started by the Museo Q, an independent curatorial initiative in Bogotá that we will have to follow closely.
Abundant historical documentation has been lost, which could have proved, perhaps, that nothing is as new as it seems, or as fashionable as some argue, and that we will need more than the fingers on one hand to count and name the characters and stories that the official history has omitted. We know that in Colombia there have been more than a few transvestites since the nineteenth century, thanks to police codes, court sentences, a sensationalist press—which promoted the image of the picturesque trans—and the photographs by Benjamin de la Calle in the 1920s. We also know some literary references to homosexuality from the books of José María Vargas Vila, Porfirio Barba Jacob, and Bernardo Arias Trujillo. We know that between the 1910s and 1930s, all of Latin America was shaken by a literary awakening that included homosexuals, some protagonistic and empowered, but most forgotten by the books that were never re-edited and for which finding first copies is almost impossible. We know about dissident sexualities because of the documents created by their oppressors, not through the very voices of the bodies implicated. Hopefully, the new waves that travel across the world also come to Colombian shores and institutions update their missions to function without unexamined neutralities and in tune with the political and social debates of our times. This is what our efforts at the Arkhé Foundation are all about.
Over the past years there has been an increasing conservative rhetoric that has created what is called “gender ideology” in order to criticize the acceptance of the government and the law of LGBTQ identities, and the civil rights they have access to. More recently, a Colombian referendum was attempted in order to restrain adoption to heterosexual and married couples, banning out not only the LGBTQ population but also single parents, grandparents, and others from holding the legal parenthood of their children. ↩
Colombia Diversa is a large organization that defends the human- and civil rights of LGBTQ people in Colombia. ↩
Bambuco is a traditional dance from the highlands of the Andes in Colombia. This particular trans beauty pageant started sometime in the 1980s, most likely towards the end of the decade, and it possibly has its roots in another festival or tradition of the trans community that hasn’t been yet determined. The Arkhé Foundation is currently conducting this research. ↩
Alejandro Obregón is one of Colombia’s most well-known modern artists, remembered as an ultra-macho character, and whose non-normative sexuality has been completely pushed aside of official historiography. ↩
The Luis Ángel Arango Library is the biggest and most complete public library in Colombia. ↩
Colombia’s constitution requires that the life and integrity of every citizen, despite their particular identity, be respected and promoted. This has been very important for the LGBTQ community, since they have been a particularly affected sector of the population during the years of civil war and violence. ↩
Colombia functions like a republic in the French style, where education, culture, defense, the law, and other important state matters are regulated and overseen by ministries. Culture, in this sense, is a very important aspect of the nation, and the Ministry gives out most grants and incentives, as opposed to more privatized countries such as the United States or England. ↩
The National Museum of Colombia, located in Bogotá, is arguably the most important cultural institution of a heavily-centralized country. In an effort to restructure the museography, the National Museum created a gallery dedicated to marginalized memories in Colombia, especially in relation to the history of war and violence. ↩