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Issue 131

Carlos Motta: Beloved Martina… with Arisleyda Dilone, Pidgeon Pagonis and Del LaGrace Volcano
by Emily Doucet

In Carlos Motta’s Deseos/تابغر [Desires] (2015), the character Nour asks: “Do you know who you are?” Later her interlocutor, Martina, asks, not quite in response: “What is wrong with my body?” Forming the first half of Motta’s solo exhibition Beloved Martina … at Mercer Union, the film braids together a fictional correspondence between Martina, a women in Suesca, Colombia, and Nour, who moves between Beirut and Damascus throughout the course of the film. Their place in real time and space is left ambiguous, albeit for the camera panning hands unpacking archival material in Spanish and surveying abandoned buildings whose architecture signals their possible Middle Eastern origin. Exhibition materials tell us that Martina is modelled after the historical figure of Martina Parra, a 19th-century woman in Columbia, charged with being a hermaphrodite.1 The figure of Nour, while historically situated, is not archivally defined, opening the imaginative opportunities for transnational solidarity and friendship suggested by the film. A collaboration with Lebanese anthropologist Maya Mikdashi, the film is at turns a work of literature, poetry, performance film, historical research and anthropology.

The second half of the exhibition features a central display of figurines, 3D-printed by Motta in sand-stone. These small sculptures replicate a variety of representations of intersex figures, depicted in Greek and Roman antiquity, and later in photographs from the 19th century. Surrounding this collection of models of a diversity of human genitalia are a series of video portraits created as part of Motta’s oral history project Gender Talents (2015). These videos feature intersex activists describing both their personal experiences with gender identity and their public efforts towards the recognition of intersex identity and politics. Completing the circle around the central sculptural display is Del LaGrace Volcano’s commanding Self-Portrait: Blue Beard (1996), Arisleyda Dilone’s compelling film Mami y Yo y mi Gallito (2015) and Pidgeon Pagonis’ photo series Children Memorial Hospital Killa [CMHK] (2015). In this part of the exhibition, historical objects and personal histories are mediated by accessible technologies (such as photography, video and 3D-printed replicas), creating formal cohesion without collapsing nuance. Different unions of images, words and material forms are encountered as one moves through the gallery and catches pieces of portraits. Dilone’s film is particularly striking, centering on an interview with Dilone’s mother, interrogating their memories of a devastatingly personal experience of the medical definition of gendered bodies.

That the exhibition rambles between the historical, the archival, the present and the fictional is squarely in line with the rest of Motta’s expansive practice. Another film entitled Neferandus (2013), features the words:

I look for marks of an unknown and undocumented moment. I search for an image of desire before it was created, manipulated, altered, judged. I look for another history: one without violence or oppression. I seek to construct a lie in which I can see myself reflected. I escape from knowledge. I look for myself in a non-existing state.

Similarly, in an interview with BOMB magazine, Motta describes what he sees as the two modes of his practice: that of the more straightforwardly activist (Interface Project, We Who Feel Differently, amongst other symposia and public events), and those projects which he describes as a more poetic exploration of these same themes. He describes his poetic projects “as (secretly) more autobiographical.”2 Through both these processes, Motta weaves gendered histories as a means of creating and expanding a queer archive.

In a recent article in Artforum, Homi K. Bhabha writes, “the exercise of writing is a lesson in the art of thinking against the grain of inheritance and illusion, and the discipline of poetry is an experiment in thinking otherwise….”3 Interrogating what Bhabha describes as the power of the question “yet to be asked,” Motta posits archival and cinematic space as both a stage for imagining future radical changes, and for coming to terms with a past in which sexuality and gender expression had a wider range than what has been offered up to more recent generations. The relationship between colonial contact and sexual repression is threaded throughout Motta’s rich reconstructions, asking what it would mean for our present to have access to both real and imagined histories of sexuality.

Near the end of Deseos/تابغر [Desires], Martina describes her liberation, not only by way of geographic dislocation, but also through her political involvement with the national liberation movement in her native Columbia. She describes both the bureaucratic violations of her body and the colonial subjugation of her country as soon-to-be past, uniting both forms of violence in their historicity and their complicity in her struggle for personal freedom. Her correspondence with Nour is positioned as the way in which she is able regain control of personal narrative. She writes to Nour, who is worried about whether she will be able to see her lover Aisha again, and says: “we must believe in the future, dear Nour.” Through speculation and imagination, mediated by their correspondence, these women (and perhaps us too) are able to frame a different present. In this way, Motta crafts a time-space in which Martina and Nour are both objects and agents of history, wary of the ideologies to be projected on to their bodies by the coming centuries. The word “historiography” figures prominently in many of the titles of Motta’s work, suggesting as it does a history of histories – and that is what Motta has created: a (by necessity incomplete) cultural history of intersex experience crafted through the exhibition’s delicate composition of cinematic reconstruction, oral history and sculptural replicas.

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