The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term “marginality” as the “quality or state of being of an individual or social group isolated from or not conforming to the dominant society or culture” and repressed as “restrained, checked, suppressed.” These two terms can then be combined to generate discussion on the restraint, checking, and suppression of individuals or social groups who neither conform to nor are accepted by the dominant society or culture.
In the context of Latin America, the discussion of marginality and the repressed deals with the affects on those who differ from social norms are specific to Latin American culture. A particular area this culture where there is repression due to variance from the cultural norm is sexuality, which the idea of marginality and the repressed will be focused on in this definition. Among the artists from Latin America, there are some whose works publicly refuse to accept machismo and heterosexuality as the social norm, these including Juan Davila, Nahum B. Zenil, and Julio Galan.
In the discourse of Latin American sexuality, heterosexuality is largely considered to be the normative practice. Catholicism is prevalent in Latin American countries, and has therefore influenced the cultural and social customs. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that homosexual acts “are contrary to the natural law.” Out of this belief has stemmed a culture that overtly fears homosexuality and promotes heterosexual relationships, and it is here where machismo is born as the Latin American social norm.
Machismo in Latin America is characterized by “sexual prowess, zest for action; including verbal ‘action,’ daring, and, above all, absolute self-confidence.” The display of maleness among men in Latin America is seen as an integral part of their identity. Consequently, the feminine qualities often associated with homosexuality are repressed. In Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Richard Basham says that machismo “has often been explained as a reaction to deep-seated fears of inadequacy and latent homosexuality.” A strong machismo identity is promoted in Latin America as a precautionary measure against threatening females and against homosexuality.
In this culture, homosexuals become marginalized individuals. In Donna Guy’s article, “Future Directions in Latin American Gender History”, she says of the people, “Those who did not conform to the reproductive heterosexual and monogamous family, when publicly identified, were defined as social marginals.” David Foster states, “There can be little doubt that the majority of gays live a marginalization and internal exile that is very extensive in Latin American society,” in his article “The Homoerotic Diaspora in Latin America”. For homosexuals in this culture, exile and marginalization has become the expected lot.
However, some Latin Americans, such as the artists mentioned earlier, refuse to passively accept this marginalization and repression. Many artists use their works as grounds from which to exhibit their social and political opinions, and art works become a catalyst for social activism. Irma Arestizabal’s article, “21st Century Latin America”, discusses the numerous areas of society that art penetrates in the twenty-first century: “from aesthetic enjoyment to political commitment, from social problems to personal obsessions, from sexual liberation to the erotic or the symbolic.” Davila, Zenil, and Galan each attempt to negotiate a homophobic society in their works by using images that challenge the stereotypes of machismo.
Juan Davila is a Chilean artist who moved to Australia in 1974. His works consist of emotionally charged paintings through which he “seems to want you to feel as impassioned as he does about politics and sexuality”, says Dominic Eichler in his review of Davila’s 2007 exhibition in the National Gallery of Victoria International. Davila’s paintings are often of a sexual nature, and he uses them to dispute the accepted norms of heterosexuality. He believes that “art should speak critically of those in power – whether that means governments, art canons or patriarchy in general;” a belief that was born from the Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet. Davila’s work speaks critically of the power that Latin American culture holds that constructs social norms that are explicitly patriarchal and homophobic.
Nahum B. Zenil is a Mexican artist who surfaced internationally in the 1980s. In an article by Edward J. Sullivan, Zenil is quoted as saying; “I have always felt the need for self-analysis in my work in order to accept myself and the way I live. I have always felt marginalized in my life and have experienced a great sense of solitude.” Zenil’s work is largely autobiographical, as he attempts to establish his identity as a gay man living in the midst of Mexican machismo. Using traditional Mexican images, he blends religious and secular concepts that relate to homosexuality. This sexual openness without shame combats the stereotypes of machismo in Mexico and is a voice against the repression of the marginalized people, as it stands for alternative sexuality in Latin America.
Julio Galan was a Mexican painter who came to New York in 1984, but died of a brain hemorrhage on his way back to Monterrey, Mexico in August of 2006. In his obituary in The New York Times, Roberta Smith says, “he laced references to his childhood and his sexual identity with allusions to Catholicism, the Mexican Baroque, pre-Columbian cultures, retablos, and folk art.” His address of these influences on sexuality in Latin America contrasted the normative social patterns. His 1994 show at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City included a work titled Thinking about You, which “made a strong case right off the bat for oneric beauty and homosexual acceptance” according to Brooks Adams in a review of the show. Galan used his art works to counter the repression of marginalized individuals and to embrace homosexuality.
All three of these artists were part of an exhibition titled Cartographies: 14 artists from Latin America in Winnipeg in 1993. The intent of this exhibition was to focus on the mental mapping out of the connections between artists and cultures based on practices and the production of art. Through the juxtaposition of Davila’s, Zenil’s, and Galan’s works in this exhibition, the similarities and differences in the way that they discuss marginality and the repressed are highlighted. Each of these artists promote a normative conception of homoeroticism in Latin America, while their approaches are all slightly different.
Davila bases his work on the concept of displacement, which “is known to emphasize divergent factors in order to illuminate the repressed ‘other’.” Zenil includes his own face in each of his works. This repetition develops recognition and converts his face into an “archetype”, which supports the normalization of the sexual situations that he portrays himself in. Galan’s work is comprised of paintings that are not based on subject matter, but are “more like ‘subject-paintings’: fetish-objects…that serve to touch the viewer.” He presents the viewer with images that force them to take a social position.
These three artists, both in their individual work and in the Cartographies exhibition, are the leading forces in negotiating the overtly homophobic Latin American culture. Through their work, marginality and repression is addressed and challenged as they promote the acceptance of individuals and groups who are isolated from and do not conform to the dominant society or culture.
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The Oxford English Dictionary