Other Bodies Behind

  • Rufino Tamayo Museum (Mexico City)
  • August 24, 2019 — November 10, 2019
  • Funding: Secretary of Culture, National Institute of Fine Arts, Museo Tamayo, Olga & Rufino Tamayo Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Embassy of Brazil in Mexico, Grupo Habita
adriana varejao cena de interior I

In Adriana Varejão’s painting Cena de Interior I (1993), part of her solo exhibition “Other Bodies Behind” at the Museo Rufino Tamayo, a black-as-night Sambo wearing a skullcap drools at the viewer, mouth open, as he buries his cock into a docile-looking Asiatic woman, eyes closed like the content-faced emoji, her flowing garment pulled up to her waist. They are suspended on a hammock, itself suspended between an upside-down attic room where one woman pinches her nipple as she fondles her companion’s huge black strap-on, and a main room where four white men rape a dog and a black man. Both women are nude and as expressionless as the woman on the hammock, apparently completely unperturbed by all the fondling and fucking, carrying the faces of submissive Asian women in traditional Japanese paintings. Below the hammock, in the main room, there are four white dudes in ill-fitting clothes, looking all the world like King of the Hill characters, a white dog, and another black man, this time without the Sambo-lips and skullcap, wearing instead green gym shorts. Two of the white guys are on an elaborately-patterned carpet. The blond one, shirtless, is fucking the dog. His face is turned down towards his cock with a look of satisfaction. The other guy, brown-haired, wearing a maroon tshirt and khaki shorts, holds the dog in place. In front of them, another brown-haired white guy wearing a polo shirt, jeans, and a watch, watches as his white friend shoves his dick into the black guy. The white guy is wearing a blue tshirt, with his pants, or more likely cargo shorts, around his ankles, revealing his shapeless, pale ass. The black man is bent over, expressionless. His cock is soft. Surrounding the characters is an Orientalist inventory, complete with various clay urns, a teapot, elaborately geometric window frames, a tapestry, an incense-holder, what appear to be wooden pillars, and so on.

The wall text next to the painting is titled “Landscapes, Portraits, and Cultural Exchange.” It breaks completely from the torment of the painting, presenting a rather dry, clinical account of the role of imagery in producing and reinforcing European cultural imaginaries of Other places as European marauders set upon an unsuspecting world from the fifteenth century on. It goes on to describe Oswald de Andrade’s concept of anthropophagy, a concept that has inspired various Brazilian artists over the last near-century, including Varejão, who cannibalizes figurative imagery to create not only this wildly pornographic traditional Japanese interior, but also other appropriations of use of image and color to reinforce racist stereotypes, from makeup palettes to Renaissance portraiture. But the disconnect between the dry, clinical wall texts, and the obscene force of the paintings felt stark. Why so serious?

As a white guy from the suburbs, not so unlike the bro watching his friend rape the black man—the watch is a dead giveaway—there is precious little authority I can claim, or want to claim, over the history of Brazilian painting or over the experience of colonized peoples in de-colonizing their cultural imaginaries. What I can speak to, maybe, as a queer person, is the necessity of obscenity in forcefully-sterilized public spaces, like white cubes, museums, or airports. I remember reading Kathy Acker in an airport somewhere, at the bar—I’m a nervous flyer and I love airport bars as weird little potential gaps in the otherwise overbearing sterility of the airport experience—and turning the pages Blood and Guts in High School (1978), flashing everyone around me with gorgeous line drawings of cocks and cunts, feeling vaguely embarrassed but also vaguely empowered.