Deviating from the norms, with Carlos Motta
24 Oct 2019, 6:12 pm
It is notorious how discussions about gender and sexuality have been taking place in the country’s political and cultural debate. In the case of visual arts, mainly in its commercial and collecting realm, there are still few art galleries, at least in the traditional circuit of São Paulo, which seek to take categorical positions alongside the artists.
Colombian Carlos Motta, now represented in Brazil by Vermelho gallery, is an artist with an important international insertion to bring these discussions to the fore in spaces little used to diversity. Based since the 1990s in New York, where he also serves as a professor, Motta participated in the 32nd Bienal de São Paulo (2016) and did solo shows at institutions such as the Stedelijk Museum, in the Netherlands (2017), and the Pérez Art Museum, in Miami, in the United States (2016).
The exhibition “WE, THE ENEMY” is his first solo exhibition here in Brazil. The sculptures, photographs and videos presented form a powerful set that defies dominant artistic and political discourses on gender identity and sexuality, demonstrating how the common places of prejudice, in life and in art, largely derive from our Christian colonial heritage. Check below the interview with the artist.
You have come to Brazil on other occasions, but what is your impression of São Paulo on this visit? How do you perceive the atmosphere of the city and what kind of research could you do this time?
Carlos Motta: I think this is my fifth time in São Paulo, I already know it a little. Unfortunately, it was a short trip and I spent most of my time working [at the exhibition], I didn’t have time to be in contact with collectives or specific people, but I had experiences with friends around the city and visited some shows: I went to Panorama da Arte Brasileira, at MAM, and today [October 8th] I enjoyed a guided tour of the Bienal Videobrasil. I visited Pivô space, the Museu Afro-Brasil, the Masp. This time I got to know Esponja, where there was a vogue competition and I had the opportunity to see a little of what Brazilian voguers are doing. I do feel that there is a very strong social and political tension, there are many conversations about current politics. Friends and close people, especially LGBTQ+’s, fear state policies in relation to their communities and their bodies, access to social services and medicine, with great uncertainty as to what may come in the future.
Could you comment on the title of the show: who are we, and who is the enemy? What is this provocation and what are the disputes at stake?
The title comes from two works, but originally from one of them, which is called “WE, THE ENEMY”, based on a manifesto I wrote in collaboration with a collective I am a member of, SPIT! (Sodomite, Inverts, Perverts Together!), formed in 2017 by me, writer John Arthur Peetz and dancer Carlos Maria Romero. I presented this work at Frieze, London. Here in this exhibition, in the form of a video performance carried out by the Greek artist Despina Zacharopoulos, the manifesto compiles several words historically used in a pejorative way to differentiate certain communities, but which are re-appropriated by those same communities to give a positive meaning. The manifesto has all kinds of expressions and ends by saying: “all these people are and will always be the enemy”, taking a stand against the dominant power, against those who have always used these words with a moral, religious emphasis, out of respect for family values. Above all, there is an idea that we [the LGBT+ community] have the agency to call us what we want and we will always respond antagonistically to the discriminatory forms used historically. We are a plural collective, in the sense that we can include all people who feel identified with any of these words.
The other work is similar, and is installed just below the video. They are hollow figures, based on sculptures and historical cultures, that represent the image of the devil, especially the devil of the Catholic Church. I was interested in how the devil was almost always represented as a deviant, feminized, with some part [of the figure] sexualized, which echoes, in some way, the words I use in the manifest, and that is why [the works] have the same title. There are about forty deviant faces, marked by some kind of discriminatory understanding of personality or physiognomy.
We suffer not only from the instability of current conservative governments, but also from the historic gender and sexual identity violence. Did you go through this specific situation for this show? How does your exhibition respond or act in relation to a particular Brazilian context?
These themes that I manage in my work, on sexuality and gender, are themes that I have read for many years and have already worked in different geographical contexts, in different countries. I never did a specific job for Brazil, there is only one piece, “Forms of freedom” [façade of the gallery and poster], which goes back to some historical moments that concern the minorities of sex and gender in Brazil. But I believe that, both for the gallery and for me, understanding the context of censorship and discrimination that exists on these minorities was the motivation to present this exhibition with very specific themes. Here [the gallery] is a private space, it would not be censored, but we thought of presenting different perspectives, such as stories about HIV/AIDS, for example, or stories of historical persecution of “sodomites”. So, we respond to the conservative climate of the moment.
It is customary to associate the idea of normality, of normativity, with something closer to neutral, to what does not act or react. How are normality and normativity oppressive?
This is a complex question, but regarding this exhibition, all the works are responding to an idea of what is normal, what was naturalized as respectable: the sane and healthy body, which does not deviate from family norms for example, used only for heterosexual reproduction; the works react to this idea of a body that is used only for reproduction if it is not also used for pleasure, or a body that was marked by an infirmity and that is why it is configured in a different way, the bodies that are marked by historical oppressions in relation to race, for example, or to religious beliefs… So they are always reactions to what, historically, is understood as the norm, the exhibition seeks to deviate from what is canonized as correct.
Your works are produced for the field of visibility, denunciation, counter-narratives, taking the stories of the past and the present. Does your research also deal with the imagination, with invention and speculation, with the future?
For me, there are three dimensions that get me involved in a project. One is the visual field of documentation. In this sense, I am interested in working with people and collectives that are fighting for rights in the present, whether they are collectives of gay men, trans women or without gender. I like to create collaboration strategies with people being documented so that it is a project of self-representation and representation of their struggles for social and political empowerment.
In a second dimension, I sometimes use my own body, through performance, to work on issues around the fight for sex and gender rights. This is the case of the video “Legacy”, which records my attempt to repeat, with a dentist’s gag, a timeline on HIV dictated to me. I seek to transform the content of the text through my body.
The last key I use in this exhibition is what is called documentary fiction, which involves all the works in the series “Corpo Fechado”. I rely on the transcription of an account by José Francisco Pereira, an 18th century African, enslaved and brought to Brazil, who was condemned to exile by the Portuguese inquisition not only for making amulets for his companions, which was considered witchcraft, but for confessing to having made pacts and copulated with “male demons”. What I do is a projection, a fiction based on this account, and it is not the first time that I use this strategy. To mix it up, it was important to use an actor who found a real connection to this story, who wasn’t just an act of representation on stage. That’s why I worked with Paulo Pascoal, whose story has a lot to do with the character’s story, and that’s why my video interviewing Paulo opens the exhibition. He had a recognized career as an actor in Angola, but after assuming his homosexuality on television, he was the victim of attacks and today he is in Portugal unable to return to his country of origin.
Thinking about current problems in art, such as appropriations, generalizations, and even pride: why is an ethical-political performance important for the contemporary artist’s practices (and plastic)?
An ethical-political performance must be understood by any citizen, not just by the artist. What I believe is that art creates a platform where you can take more forceful speeches on these [gender] themes. Now, to me, it isn’t interesting to remain only inside art institutions or the art market, there is always a connection between work and the real world, outside art. I do not intend that the work is restricted to the social field, but that it is a vehicle for visibility and can create spaces. They are strategies of representation, self-representation, presentification, so that the projects are interesting, both for the public and for those who participated [in the project]. I made many projects that operate both within the institution and outside, and that could be used freely by the subjects who were part of it.
But what about the art market, how is it possible to work with this field?
I am pragmatic, and just as work circulates in art institutions and outside them, it can also circulate in the art market. There are works that I present in specific contexts, understanding who I speak to, in what kind of conversations, which platforms. “Legacy” I would never perform at an art fair. Here [Vermelho] is a commercial gallery, but it’s public, there are people who can come here to find something. Being an artist that is circulating in these fields, I need to understand the particularities of each content so that they are not decontextualized.