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in the grip of the panopticon

Dear Emília

I am still in the grip of the ‘panopticon’ after our visit to the exhibition at the Hospital Miguel Bombarda Museum. The area dedicated to Valentim de Barros, the dancer and artist who lived in the Secure Pavilion for more than 40 years, both disturbed and inspired me, in equal measure, in its revelation of the art and the suffering of a life regulated by the prison hospital.  The exhibition included two black and white photographs of Valentim, enacting two scenes for the camera that somehow define what his everyday life must have been like in the cell, that tiny space of just a few square metres, which we were also able to visit.

In one of these photos he is at the door of his cell, looking at us like a host offering an ambiguous invitation to cross the threshold of his domesticity, simulating the utopia of a homely day-to-day existence which is clearly made impossible by his containment by the institutional regulations of the prison. Our eyes meet in this examination of what the everyday life of an artist living under the normative vigilance of the architectural panopticon might be like. In another photo, his gaze is turned away from us, as he works with concentration on some embroidery, one of his daily artistic activities, alongside the creation of rag dolls and painting. During this moment of creativity, his gaze no longer confronts us but invites us to join him in his concentration on this task that formed the focus of his daily work.

In one of the three paintings by Barros shown in this exhibition, there is a scene which typifies his fantastic pop style: a landscape in ice cream colours, along a road punctuated by the whites and pinks of flowering trees and a castle worthy of Disneyland, where two figures in female clothing, in high-necked tops, colourful miniskirts and white knee socks are intertwined in an embrace directly in front of our gaze, while their faces, cheek to cheek, are undefined, uncanny, neither obviously girls or boys, children or adults, the smile on their lips belied by the emptiness of their black eyes, suggesting bodies in a state of becoming, of potentially queer and queerising transgression.

We called this project hetero q.b. based on the premise that sexualities are an essential component of artistic work and the power relations which are established between artists and institutions. The arts in Portugal area are a space undergoing change, negotiable and flexible… up to a point, after which it becomes more difficult, if not impossible, to infiltrate it with projects which challenge, which go beyond the rules of heteronormativity. Exceptions may at times find their way through to the art world but heteronormativity is still seen as the rule. Heterosexuality acts as the normative filter – hence the title: hetero quanto baste (q.b.) [hetero in due measure]. But also the counterproposal you suggested in your text: hetero (geneity) q.b., in the museum as in life.

Though it might seem strange to use the word hetero (q.b.) as the title of a project which brings together videos made by women, and a gay artist such as Valentim de Barros, this allusion serves to emphasise the queer perspective within the representations of genders and sexualities that we showcase in this project.

The working methodology we have adopted, characterised by interdisciplinary combinations designed to reposition the link between artistic production and the question of gender and sexuality, is similar to that proposed by Lisa L. Moore in the book Sister arts: the erotics of lesbian landscapes (2011). In the book, the author uses a poem by naturalist philosopher Erasmus Darwin to show the way that lesbian landscape art, practised by Mary Delany, artist and inventor of the botanical collage, and Margaret Bentinck, collector and patron of science and the arts, was feted by the artistic community that gathered around them in the eighteenth century.

However, their use of the language of flowers and of the garden to express intimacy and love between women was invisible within art history and it is only through a more cross-disciplinary, queer, methodology, combining gossip, rumours, secrets, intuitions, passions and friendships with archival research and the use of cultural and aesthetic objects, that it becomes possible to access an account of history that is still to be made. This was the approach that we took in our programme, using a combination of critical theory, biographical narrative, archival research with cafe conversation and the sharing of secrets to map out a territory which is still not defined. We could have followed a more orthodox approach, along more conventional feminist lines, but the queer methodology that we adopted reflects that of the artists whose works we have selected.

In addition to the use of queer methodologies in their conceptualisation, the video works in the programme have another common feature: they do not shun involvement with the heteronormative masculinity of patriarchal society, which has been questioned by feminist theories and practices. Instead, they exhibit a creative exploration of the myths and fantasies that surround masculinity, demonstrating the need for a playful, physical and at times monstrous engagement with normative masculinity and machismo in order to recognise queer female masculinities.

In her study Female masculinity (1998), Judith Halberstam sustains that ‘female masculinity’, masculinity without men represented, for example, by masculine women or boyish young girls (so-called ‘tomboys’), far from being a simple imitation of the masculine, offers us an insight into the way that normative masculinity itself is constructed: ‘female masculinities are framed as the rejected scraps of dominant masculinity in order that male masculinity may appear to be the real thing. But what we understand as heroic masculinity has been produced by and across both male and female bodies’.

What are the hetero or alternative masculinities in this programme? How are genders, feminisms and power intertwined within art? What is the impact of regarding art as heterosexual, homosexual or in any other way sexual? It is a question of outlining strategies of (de)normalisation used by artists in their work, queer experimental perspectives that defy the established categories of gender and ethnicity/race. In this spirit, the legacy of Valentim de Barros, as an extreme example of the ‘outsider artist’ condemned to the psychiatric environment (from dictatorship to democracy) more as a result of his perceived gender aberration than for an obvious mental disorder, creates a context for receiving a queer art that is invisible in Portugal, emerging from the meeting of obsolete and discriminatory institutional practices with liberating international embraces.

paula roush

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