Diana Matilda Crișan’s exhibition Cheerleader for a Funeral opened at Mobius gallery on 17 April 2022 and was curated by Valentina Iancu. On a conceptual level, the exhibition is to be understood in a queer-feminist perspective. The politics of the queer body, sexuality, and identity are themes that have only relatively recently gained visibility in Romania in the public discourse, largely thanks to non-governmental organizations that have raised the issue of LGBT rights on a legislative level. As for visual arts practice, the exhibition is first and foremost evidence of the need for a conversation around these topics and of a need to find a language to demystify certain taboos that are still very much present. The pathologization of queer identity is brought up in the curatorial text: “Queer sexuality is explored in absence, navigating through shame, taboos, and homophobic prejudice with a lack of knowledge. To experience a different kind of desire in an eminently hostile territory means the identification with a sinful, sick, criminal body.”
A significant number of people showed up on the opening night, exceeding both the organizers’ and the artist’s expectations. The number of people could be a symptom of this curiosity in the air, but also of an incipient need to find ways to discuss intimacy in the public space. So, what is Cheerleader for a funeral about?
A subjective exploration of queer identity.
Upon entering the exhibition room, you see a work suggestively titled Du-te-n pizda mătii [literally “go into your mom’s pussy,” meaning “fuck you”]: the female genital organ is shown in its totality, the open legs reveal a faceless body, and the clitoris is engulfed in flames. Further on, a series of small works set next to each other like a mosaic show characters in various sex positions. The depicted bodies vary: one can see characters of different sexes, as well as same-sex couples, in positions illustrative of BDSM-related fantasies and fetishes. Besides these, another work shows a masturbation scene in a surrealist tone, where the showerhead shoots forth a stream of water (fig. 1). In the work next to it, the female figure holds a knife like a nail file while a wave of menstrual blood flows out of her vagina (fig. 2).
On a different wall, a series of works depicts female characters in dominant positions, with mythological suggestions: mermaid-women, devil-women, women playing with fire, women with dragons on leashes, women whose menstrual blood turns to flames, wild women and felines.
Beyond the images showcasing, directly and clearly, physiological and sexual functions, you can notice at a second glance the connections and dialogue happening between the works. Seen together, they transport you into a story about the stages of the development and acceptance of a fluid sexual identity, through a subjective feminist lens. Each work is an account of personal imagery regarding the exploration of one’s own body, but also of the other’s body, of pleasure, proposing, in the end, the possibility of becoming free of prejudice. From this point of view, the exhibition has a psychoanalytic character (fig. 3). Though explicit, the works do not appeal to the iconographies of pornographic representations. But in societies with a deep history of conservative values, representations of genitals or intercourse tend to scandalize or receive critiques deeming them as such. A telling example is how in a different exhibition, organized at MNAC, Diana’s works triggered a wave of criticism on social media after Oana Lovin, an influencer in the antivax and anti-abortion sphere, called the exhibition “porno-grotesque.” The exhibition was seen as all the more scandalous as it took place during Easter. There is a lack of conversation and information around topics of intimacy, topics considered “taboo” when they are brough into the public space. The narratives in Diana’s works go beyond the feminine as an object of the male gaze, which visually “consumes” the image of the body for its own pleasure.
The controversial nature of the topic of sexuality has a long history behind it. Its height came with the introduction of sexual education as a mandatory school subject. For instance, in the ’70s, in Germany, debates around the need to teach sexual education in schools racked the public sphere more than ever. After it was constitutionally integrated into the teaching curriculum, the rift between the religious-conservative camps and the liberal ones became increasingly impassable. Now, just like back then, there is a similar situation in Romania; and discussions about sexuality rarely go beyond the private space in post-socialist countries. What remains is a vacuum that is both legislative and ideological, as well as a fertile ground for a lack of understanding for serious issues such as sexual violence and reproductive rights. In this political climate, visual art that explicitly dealt with feminist themes was, for a long time, a niche field, and the female body was a topic that was rarely tackled. In the context of the countries with a socialist past, the lack of education is also a legacy of the repressions faced in the communist period, where any reference to nudity or sexuality was repressed in the public space through censorship, and contraception and abortion were banned in the private space. Therefore, in the Romanian context, the issue of sexuality bears a complex and ramified “baggage.”
“I am interested in the educational side of art, not just the aesthetic one. I wish to rewrite society’s representations of the erotic through a feminist lens,” says Diana in an interview for Propagarta Magazine.
The work that encompasses, and, in a sense, summarizes, the exhibition’s whole exploratory process is the embroidered Book of Love, a book-object whose every page is woven by the artist and which creates a confessional, diary-like story, where the themes and motives found in her other works are placed within a narrative framework. The first page is dedicated to embroidery as a means of exorcising emotions, repressed memories and experiences, with the goal of giving them new meanings:
“The act of sewing helps me regulate my emotions. (…) I haven’t got time worrying about the future, when I’m busy embroidering my past.” (Fig. 4)
The text fragments that accompany the images reflect the artist’s preoccupation with sexuality, together with dilemmas and reflections on the various aspects of romantic love. The book’s title can be misleading: it is not a book about love with a happy ending and the joy of being in love. Each page takes the viewer through various stages of love, its rejection, the burning desire for the other, and the need for complete solitude. The freedom from the responsibility to love and to be loved (fig. 5, fig. 6).
As mentioned before, the female characters in Diana’s works have a mythological aspect. The Snake-Woman, the Devil-Woman, the Mermaid-Woman, and the Witch-Woman appear multiple times, in different contexts. These symbols associated in the collective imaginary with destructive and threatening aspects of femininity are celebrated and humanized in Diana’s works. The negative archetypes of femininity become images of female power and autonomy. An important aspect of the exhibition is therefore the rewriting of the narratives that paint female power as an evil and seductive force. The characters are depicted as multifaceted, both vulnerable and strong. A devil-woman in stilettos crushes the head of a snake in a burning room (fig. 7). Another is crouching at night before a barbed-wire fence. In the work L’amant Imprudent, two mermaids are having oral sex (fig. 8).
References to established art movements, such as the Renaissance and Romanticism, are subtly inserted into her works. Crushing the serpent’s head is a motive often found in works depicting Eve or the Virgin Mary (fig. 9).
Following the path of art history, the message behind religious representations is often a moralizing one, focused on good’s triumph over the snake, the temptation corrupting humanity. Diana humorously picks up certain religious allegories and transposes them into the universe of her characters, who embrace pleasure, the taboo, and fantasy (fig. 10, fig. 11).
The tendency to invert values traditionally associated with female motives, such as mermaids and witches, depicted as evil forces, began in feminist discourses in the ’70s, which sought to reclaim female strength, which had long been denigrated by patriarchal values. The demonization of women as agents of fascination, demonic allegories, and incarnations of deceit, destruction, and depravity can been found since antiquity, in mythology and literature. As an example, I will discuss the myth of Medusa, to better illustrate this phenomenon.
The story and image of Medusa have established themselves in the collective imaginary as a symbol of monstrous femininity, turning to stone anyone daring to look her in the eye. The image of her severed head squirting blood has been reproduced and reinterpreted throughout the centuries. But only recently has there been an emphasis on Medusa’s origins, which reveal a different facet to her story. The first to explore her tale in detail was Roman poet Ovid, who wrote it in his Metamorphoses. According to him, Medusa had been a beautiful virgin, the only mortal of the three Gorgon sisters. Her beauty caught Poseidon’s attention, and he raped her in Athena’s sacred temple. The enraged Athena transformed Medusa into a monster with the deadly power of turning anything she looked at into stone.
However, popular representations of the myth focus on what happens after, with Perseus as the central hero of the tale. He is sent on a mission to bring back Medusa’s head, and he uses an armor to protect his eyes from her gaze. Perseus decapitates Medusa and uses the power of her gaze to slay his enemies in battle. In this narrative, focused on the male hero’s story, Medusa becomes an icon of monstrosity. For centuries, in paintings and sculptures, she has been represented at the moment of her glorified death at the hands of Perseus.
The dominant version of Medusa’s story has remained the one told from the perspective of her murderer (fig. 12). In this context, in the ’70s, feminist theorists such as Hélène Cixous used the image of Medusa to illustrate how female narratives, as well as victims of sexual violence, have been silenced to the benefit of masculine hegemony.
What emerges from Medusa’s multifaceted tale is that there is no universal truth when it comes to myth. She may be seen, alternatively, as a victim, a monstrous foe, or a powerful entity. In her 1975 manifesto The Laugh of the Medusa, feminist theorist Hélène Cixous argues that man constructed Medusa’s monstrous legacy out of fear of the female power of seduction.
“You can’t talk about a female sexuality, uniform, homogeneous, classifiable into codes – any more than you can talk about one unconscious resembling another. Women’s imaginary is inexhaustible, like music, painting, writing: their stream of phantasms is incredible.”
Seen one by one, in the context of the exhibition, Diana’s works all lead to the same direction, using mythological allegories to rewrite stories of female identity through a subjective, autobiographical lens. It is therefore no surprise that a sketch portrait of Medusa is present on one of the embroidered pages of the Book of Love, with a short bit of text on the side (fig. 13).
“with time, the desired body will soon disappear.”
Diana’s works can therefore be traversed through multiple layers, which, when you remove them one by one, reveal the multiple facets of a double queer/feminine identity in connection to the mental and physiological manifestations taking place between the self and the outside world. But what this reflects is a direct display of various kinds of fears connected to loss: the fear of losing one’s autonomy over one’s own body, the loss of one’s own voice, drowned out by the majority (heteronormative) voice, the loss of individuality to the benefit of dominant masculine perspectives. The exhibition discovers a language to speak about sexuality (directly and indirectly), as well as about self-love. Vivid themes given their universality and yet so rarely seen in Bucharest’s exhibition spaces (fig. 14, fig. 15).
 Edmund H. Kellogg, Jan Stepan, “Legal aspects of sex education,” in The American Journal of Comparative Law, Vol. 26, No. 4, 1978.
 Sibylle Baumbach, Literature and Fascination, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, p. 116.
 Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” in Signs, Vol. 1, No. 4, p. 876.
Translated by Rareș Grozea
Ioana Gabriela Cherciu ( n.1995) a absolvit Facultatea de Filosofie, urmând apoi un master în studii culturale la Centrul de Excelență în Studiul Imaginii. Practica ei se concentrează pe documen...