Art and Activism in the Name of the Father: How an exhibit at the Museum of Sex is shedding light on issues of gender, religion, humanity and freedom

 All photos by Peter Koloff

All photos by Peter Koloff

The separation of Church and State is such a pivotal and fundamental tenet in this country, simply and clearly stated in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...” Without getting into the depth of legal interpretations or a complex religious and socio-political discussion on the subject, it is fair to say that since 1791 when the First Amendment was adopted, the people of the United States have had the freedom to believe what they want to believe and the government is free to make laws without regard to what religious orders may think or feel.

But not every country is as forward thinking as the United States, and one of those countries is Peru. Since the Spanish colonization in the 1500s, the Catholic Church, as it did with all other countries in Latin America, established itself as strong and inflexible, propagating some good values but also twisting and turning the word of Jesus to inflict fear and to perpetuate itself in power. Five hundred years later, the Peruvian Government is still intimately intertwined with the Catholic Church: the Peruvian Constitution recognizes the role of the Church in shaping the cultural, historical and social development of the country; all the schools have to impart Catholic education (whether they are private or public) and Catholic symbols are widespread in government buildings and public spaces.  This certainly makes for a very restrictive, classist and intransigent society.  Not to mention that the government can't pass any laws to protect or grant rights to anyone that the Church deems offensive or transgressive of their principles, which of course includes members of the LGTBQ community.  This is kind of senseless if we consider that Pope Francis has given open statements to the press where he has requested Christians and the Church itself to apologize to every gay person that has been marginalized or hurt by limited, inhuman beliefs and behaviors.

 Maricielo, the first Peruvian trans women who opened her life to be documented by Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo & Andrew Mroczek and who spearheaded the project that gave birth to Canon. She was photographed by the artists on the steps of an eighteenth century colonial church wearing the  Virgin’s Cape,  a richly embroidered cape made for her for the occasion.

Maricielo, the first Peruvian trans women who opened her life to be documented by Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo & Andrew Mroczek and who spearheaded the project that gave birth to Canon. She was photographed by the artists on the steps of an eighteenth century colonial church wearing the Virgin’s Cape, a richly embroidered cape made for her for the occasion.

Enter artists Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo and Andrew Mroczek (the former Peruvian, the latter American, both based in the United States) who since 2013 took on the task of celebrating, elevating and dignifying the humanity and the goodness of Peruvian transgendered women and gay men. Through two series of photographs, “Virgenes de La Puerta” (Virgins of the Door) and “Los Chicos” (The Boys), and two films, “Padre Patria” (Fatherland) and “Anda” (the term used to name the structure that holds large plaster figures of saints that are walked around on shoulders in public festivals and processions), Canon is a show at the Museum of Sex that is as moving as it is gut-wrenching. The name of the exhibition is a reference to the law and authority that certain Catholic rules represent and which can only be exercised and executed by top members of the hierarchy, some of which are also called “canons.”

 Crowns made by some of the best local artisans for the trans women to wear during their shoots with the artists.

Crowns made by some of the best local artisans for the trans women to wear during their shoots with the artists.

As I walked through the exhibition first with Lissa Rivera, the curator of the show, and then with both artists, I experienced a wide range of emotions: sadness, compassion, admiration, respect, shock, anger, hope.  The show’s information, captions, descriptions and all materials have been made entirely available in Spanish and English to create a truly inclusive and bilingual exhibit.  Rivera also took the space and turned into a truly immersive experience: it is dark and moody, as if inside of a church, the music on the background from one of the videos is deep and ceremonial; the scent in the air is that of “palo santo”, or sacred wood essence, commonly burned in churches throughout Peru.

Maria-Brito_Canon-10.jpg

The Virgins of the Door is the strongest body of work. It’s comprised of several full-color photographs of transgendered women from Lima shot inside once-gilded but now decaying Peruvian buildings and historical settings, replicating a colonial religious scene from the 19th century. Allowing for a creative collaboration with the artists, these women decided what to wear or if they’d go completely naked, how to pose or if they were to use special props. They look defiantly and proudly at the camera, feeling validated for the first time in a long time, perhaps ever in their lifetimes. Crowns and embroidered capes and outfits envisioned by Barboza-Gubo and Mroczec and made in collaboration with local artisans were worn throughout, and some of these rich and elaborate pieces are on display at the show. These women are humble, highly devoted, pray daily, and practice the Scripture in a more honest way than those heterosexuals in upper classes who are self-righteous and hide behind shiny gates and substantial church donations. These women have been shut off from society, abandoned by their families, hurt and attacked physically and verbally for having incurred in the “sin” of psychologically identifying and/or physically changing their gender. They don’t have fundamental rights, they don’t have access to medical care or to proper and legal identification under their new gender and names. They can’t get the job of their dreams, or any decent job for that matter. They are mostly hairdressers or sex workers because there are no other choices. So many atrocities are accepted in a country that looks the other way while distorting the word of a generous, tolerant and inclusive Christ who said that “in my table everyone is welcomed.” Apparently not so in Peruvian tables.

 Denise, Yefri & Angie. Yefri, who is in the middle, has been instrumental in passing anti-violence legislation for transgender people in Peru, after an attack that caused lacerations so deep that her implants fell out and she almost died and which was witnessed by two police officers that didn’t come in her aid. With the help of a local NGO, the two police officers were charged and sentenced to four years in prison in a landmark ruling.

Denise, Yefri & Angie. Yefri, who is in the middle, has been instrumental in passing anti-violence legislation for transgender people in Peru, after an attack that caused lacerations so deep that her implants fell out and she almost died and which was witnessed by two police officers that didn’t come in her aid. With the help of a local NGO, the two police officers were charged and sentenced to four years in prison in a landmark ruling.

The other photographic series is “Los Chicos,” showing portraits of openly gay young men who are proud of their choices and are using their voices for social activism. They don’t care and aren’t afraid to be who they are and expose it openly.  These young men’s portraits were taken inside of a hidden manse that was once the perfect embodiment of the Peruvian upper class but is now abandoned. The ruin and rubble creates tension with the symbolism: a corrupt triangle of upper society, church and government complicit of hate crimes and cruel and inhuman treatment of those not fitting in the artificial standards carried from five centuries ago, the richness of Peruvian architecture and craftmanship, the marginalized and the disenfranchised. 

 azia, a woman who left Lima for a smaller town after suffering many physical attacks and many unsuccessful attempts to get a decent job. She realized that being trans and having a dignified life in Lima were not two things that could happen simultaneously.

azia, a woman who left Lima for a smaller town after suffering many physical attacks and many unsuccessful attempts to get a decent job. She realized that being trans and having a dignified life in Lima were not two things that could happen simultaneously.

In the two video installations, Fatherland is a metaphorical name to show how patriarchy is killing the motherland.  The video exposes dark scenes of Peru, specifically of places where members of the LGBTQ community were physically assaulted or murdered.  The captions on each give the name of the victims, the exact place where the act of violence occurred, a brief description of what happened and the year it happened. 

“Anda,” a film debuting in Canon, features young gay men who are open and activists, especially people from the working class. They are naked, carrying on their shoulders the structure where the saints would go in a procession, but here there is no saint; they are only carrying wood. Wood that is empty and  weighing them down.  

When asked about a moment of humbleness, something that moved them to their core, Mroczek named an encounter with one of the subjects whose portrait is in the show: Nazia, a woman who was so broken who had to leave Lima and move to a smaller town because she couldn’t tolerate being abused and discriminated as she was, much less accepting the only job that was available to her: becoming a prostitute.  For Braboza-Gubo, it was learning things that he never understood or thought possible: a woman called Leyla who said “I’m a mix half male, half female and I’m happy like this”, it dawned on him how different and complex humans within the LGBTQ spectrum can be, and that is what makes them all the more interesting and beautiful.  To embrace all aspects of self: the masculine and the feminine, the divine and the human, the resilience and the vulnerability, this is the core of the show.  And it’s important to remember that these aren’t issues that belong to Peru exclusively, these are issues of humanity that belong to the world.

Canon

Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo & Andrew Mroczek

Museum of Sex

233 5th Ave,

New York, NY 10016

Until January 15