December 29, 2017
Queer Culture in Romania (I)
Queer is an umbrella term associated with identities that do not conform to heteronormative norms. It was reclaimed by the western LGBT community from the homophobic vocabulary and integrated in new affirmative theories on gender and sexuality. The exhibition Queer British Art 1861-1967 puts forward a fluid definition for these directions, starting with director Derek Jarman’s statement: “for me, using the word queer is liberating; it once terrified me.”[i]
The entire process of transforming the word queer from an insult to an inclusive concept took place far away from the Romanian scene, where, more than anywhere else is Eastern and Center Europe, homosexuality was criminalized – until 2001. If during the communist period the interdiction abolished any possibility for debate, the first years of “transition” marked the birth of homophobic mythology, based on demonizing homosexuality. It rarely makes an appearance in public discourse or is associated with negative news: “the insult, the gross personal attack, the waves of slander addressed to an entire community would always be associated with this subject, after the assassination of the well known singer and cultural figure Ioan Luchian Mihalea in a November evening in 1993. His homosexuality, otherwise well known in the artistic scenes as well as the Bucharest police who inherited the archives from the ex-manners-militia, suddenly becomes a mediated subject along with this dramatic moment and is generally incriminated as a danger to the public. Homosexuals were entering the post-communist scene as dangerous creatures, creatures of the night, with a lifestyle that turns them into either victims or aggressors.”[ii].
While the stigma of homosexuality quickly spread into public discourse, the LGBT reality remained invisible many years after the establishment of democracy. After it became legal, the first ever initiatives for building a queer identity through artistic means started to emerge. This is the context in which the term queer is appropriated along with its positive meanings added through the assimilation of the word in the activist discourse. Meanwhile Queer has partially entered the cultural scene’s vocabulary, it has become a self-referential-identity term for some members of the LGBT+ community; and in recent years, some feminists working in the academic field have extended their preoccupations in this direction as well. After the party label Queer Night (2010) came to be, the word itself became more used within the urban vocabulary and has quickly entered in the activist subcultures.
Artistic productions at the crossing of gender identity and sexuality were very rare in the early 2000s. The first art projects that bring to the table LGBT+ identity were signed in the mid 2000s by Răzvan Ion, Raluca Ilaria Demetrescu and Sorin Oncu.
Up to the end of his life, Sorin Oncu followed the artistic research leads from his debut years, being one of the few artists with a consistent queer cultural production. He appropriated some queer solutions established by more renowned artists like Felix Gonzales Torres or Gilbert & George in intimate works which politically articulate their identity. Using personal experience as a reference point for formulating political statements, the critical journal staged by Sorin Oncu remains a novel document for the period’s history.
Queer identity has become the central theme for Sorin Oncu’s research since his first exhibited works in Timişoara. During 2004-2007 he worked on multiple series inspired by the LGBT life dynamics and the problems faced by homosexuals in post-communist Romania, most of them being presented in group shows in Timişoara. During those years, he joined the LGBTeam association, getting involved in various activist and educational action for promoting diversity. This was a time when the artist worked especially with flat surfaces, using painting, sketching and collage as his main techniques. Over time, his interest steered towards the bidimensional, opting for the arte povera language in installations of found objects that acquired new meaning via recontextualization. He explored multiple experimental territories: video, animation, found or built assemblages using the most unusual materials. Sorin Oncu approached art through the filter of his personal experiences: he would either make art with an identity role or he would criticize the mechanisms for exclusion and oppression that function in the current society. He permanently acted according to the principles of critique, protest art with which he identified: “the protester artist has a critical vocation and exercises this vocation freely associated with the minorities’ side in a democratic and pluralist society.” [iii]
During that same time, in Bucharest, Raluca Ilaria Demetrescu opened the first queer art show in the city, at HT0003, one phase of a more ample research project. Her preoccupation for queer subjects dates before this exhibition and started with a closed circuit performance that took place in Raluca’s studio: “The first articulated gesture on this subject was a performance at my studio where I also invited an audience and it consisted of making a plaster cast of a young man’s body in which a woman was captive, but fortunately for her she became transgender and eventually a woman. The cast is still around, I haven’t put it on display yet”[iv]. Raluca headed towards an experimental territory, working with photography, video, performance, sketches, text and queer textiles. In a recent email interview, Raluca said: “I am an activist due to my own innate sense of justice. I am a bit frightened by the recent emergence on the hysterical Coalition for the Family on the public scene, a massive gathering of hypocrites who know best what’s good for this world even though nothing and no one wants to change their way of life or attack their families”.
In the collective memory, the most well-known queer project remains the TRANS exhibition opened by Raluca Ilaria Demetrescu in 2006. The show contains the portraits of transvestites whose performative image serves as a cultural and aesthetic interest for the artist, in a visual correspondence with the queer language established by female photographers Nan Goldin and Diane Arbus, true references for contemporary photography. Today, the title can cause confusion when distinguishing transgender from transvestite , but this is due to the recurrent usage in queer environments of the term trans as an abbreviation for transgender, a reality with which the local cultural environment was not familiarized in 2006. In the case of the HT0003 exhibition, the title’s intention was to provoke a transgression of prejudice against transvestites: “Here is a subject for an artistic concept. Contemporary art has the availability to circulate human and social issues, to ask questions. From entertainment to reflecting: Who are the ones portrayed here? Is it a social group or are we just dealing with marginalized individuals? How are they seen by the others, the majority? Can they fit into society or maybe it’s up to us to try to understand them and cross the (TRANS) barrier to the other side?” wrote Theodor Graur in the opening text. Raluca Ilaria Demetrescu remained focused on observing the art performed by transvestites, captivated by the performative spectacular of their appearance. One critique on the majority’s position when faced with the invisible minority and “the other’s” gaze is put forward by Susan Sontag in the 1973 essay On Photography. I will not go over Sontag’s arguments despite some of them being potentially useful in understanding Raluca’s critical approach, because the position of those who ally with oppressed communities is itself vulnerable. The TRANS art show remains a brave act of solidarity that opened the way for queer culture in Romania. Oana Tănase wrote in her 24FUN column[v]: “The HT003 art show talks about self and other (be them Parisians or Bucharest folk), about ambiguity and queer sensibility, about policies of identity and perception.”
[i] Derek Jarman & Clare Barlow, Introduction în Queer British Art 1861 – 1967, Tate Publishing 2017, p. 12
[ii] Florin Buhuceanu Homoistorii. Ieșirea din invizibilitate. 2nd edition rev. Bucharest Maiko, 2016, p. 110
[iii] Sorin Oncu, Contemporary Art and Protest, PhD thesis (unpublished), West University of Timișoara, p. 124
[iv] Raluca Demetrescu during an email interview, 28.11.2012
[v] Oana Tănase, TRANS. Magic and tolerance, 24 FUN, București, 15-21 of December 2006
Valentina Iancu is an art historian and researcher. She works at the National Art Museum of Romania. Her research focuses on aspects of Romanian modernity related to the political realm, East European...