Artists Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo and Andrew Mroczek have taken on an endeavor that stretches into an entire demographic; they have been photographing in Peru for nearly four years now, developing projects that address LGBTQ life in a society that outwardly rejects the very community they seek to monumentalize. Their work celebrates their beauty, mourns their tragedies, and idolizes their bravery through allusions and archetypes paramount to Peruvian culture. The series Fatherland depicts locations where queer men and women were brutally attacked and murdered, and are haunting in their disparity as well as the mundanity of the places themselves. On December 6th the Wagner Gallery at NYU opens an exhibition of images from their Fatherland, which will run through March 7th, 2017. On the evening of their opening the artists will participate in a panel discussion with experts in the fields of international human rights, social justice, Latin American studies, and gender and queer studies. These panelists include Claudia Sofía Garriga-López from NYU's Department of Social & Cultural Analysis; Fabrice Houdart, Human Rights Officer at the United Nations; Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, Associate Professor of Sociology at American University; and Nahal Zamani, Advocacy Program Manager at the Center for Constitutional Rights, in New York.
I’ve been given the opportunity to interview Barboza-Gubo & Mroczek in order to gain a better understanding of their work and how it addresses the need for equal human and civil rights within Peru, a country ruled by patriarchal systems and often considered to be the hub of Catholicism in South America.
TB: Did you run into any issues in discovering any of the locations in Fatherland? How did you go about seeking information about these murders?
AM: We ran into every issue imaginable. Gathering factual information for nearly all of the cases was very much a grassroots effort. Of course some had been reported in newspapers and television, but those were the cases with more sensationalized stories, and even still, the actual location was never disclosed. Many of the crimes we’ve focused on come from information gathered from those close to the victim or witnesses. We learned that many hate crimes are never reported to police, and others aren’t fully investigated. In two instances we did receive assistance from local authorities, but most often had to rely on our research by either canvassing neighborhoods where we knew the murder occurred, or utilizing Google Maps to match visual references and landmarks we saw in the background of TV interviews or crime scene photos; it’s a lengthy process. What we are certain of is that we want to cover areas throughout the entire country, rural and urban spaces, as well as areas with various socioeconomic populations. Gathering information right from the source, or those closest to the victims, whenever possible, has been the most successful way in obtaining detailed information from often-dramatized or diluted stories.
The concept of a hate crime isn’t fully accepted by Peruvian authorities the way it is here in the US – they may be aware that sexual orientation or someone’s gender identity had been the reason for an act of violence, but a “hate crime” isn’t a category often used. And statistical information about how the LGBTQ community is impacted by violence is just starting to be gathered. This makes obtaining information incredibly difficult, and we found that what is available is often not entirely accurate. Fortunately, LGBTQ-focused organizations like Peru’s No Tengo Miedo and the NGO Promsex have begun to compile this type of data.
JJBG: One of the last images we took on our most recent trip was in Trujillo, a city 8 hours north of Lima. A young transgender girl was killed just three weeks before we arrived. She was 14 years old. The police investigation was still open, and because the victim was so young and the crime so recent, we didn’t have any other choice but to go to the police for information. They are under no obligation to help us. It took some convincing, but the lead detective in the case, who knew we would try to find the site on our own, was concerned for our safety. I remember he said, “If I don’t escort you there tonight, then I will most likely be collecting your bodies from there tomorrow.” And with that, two armed officers brought us to the site of her murder. The area was one of the most dangerous we had photographed in, a new and underdeveloped neighborhood. The locals watched us very closely. It was about 8pm and very dark. Even with the police there we didn’t feel fully secure because the area was removed from the city and was inside a maze of unmarked dirt roads. Peruvians are known for creating their own neighborhoods, building small houses on vacant land around cities and up the mountains. It would have been impossible to find the site on our own.
TB: How did the communities surrounding the areas of the incident react to these murders, and do you believe it sparked dialogue about the repetition of murders of this specific kind?
AM: Of course neighbors are shocked, but we’ve found that more often than not, locals generally seemed dismissive of these crimes, finding ways to legitimize them as a punishment for the victim’s “chosen lifestyle” or a life against God. There is always a certain level of apathy in Peru’s society when violence against LGBTQ people occurs.
JJBG: Classism is huge in my country and that adds to the problem. LGBTQ people are not readily accepted into society and transgender women are considered the lowest form of life, both because they are trans and because society views them as rejecting their masculinity. It’s that same reason why gay men are targets as well. In a patriarchal country that is one of the worst things you can do, to reject the constructs of masculinity and machismo. When trans women are victims of hate crimes I don’t think anyone cares. It’s as if they are disposable or their life has no value.
I was amazed to see that in the case of Joel Molero, the 19-year old gay boy that was murdered in Chachapoyas, many members of the community gathered together and marched in the streets demanding justice. That was a powerful statement for Peru’s gay community, and it gave me hope that we might see a time when LGBTQ are treated equally under the law. But as of now, I don’t see that same kind of solidarity happening when transgender people are murdered.
TB: Do you know or believe if justice was served after these murders took place and how the judicial branch of Peru dealt with the crimes? If not, do you think your work pays homage to the victims or rather informs the world of its presence?
JJBG: Many of the assailants in our series were never apprehended because of a lack of a proper investigation or just limited information and evidence; for those who were apprehended, the sentences were lean compared to similar crimes against heterosexual and cisgender people. For example, Kike Muchotrigo was a 19 year old trans woman who was shot in the neck by a police officer. She had continually refused his sexual advances. On the night of her murder the officer was teasing her and flirting with her during a sporting event at a local stadium in Pisco, Peru. She was working in a concession stand there. After ignoring him for most of the evening, he followed her to where the bathrooms were and shot her. It was witnessed by dozens of people who made statements to police indicating the officer was the aggressor and the murder was unprovoked. He was given a sentence of four months.
AM: In the case of Yefri Peña, a trans woman who was beaten and stabbed by five men, two police officers (Henry Alberto Gamboa Huamán and José Marcial Ybias Altamirano) witnessed the entire attack and refused to come to her aid or to apprehend the attackers. She sustained deep lacerations on her face, hands, chest and back. She survived only because a nearby worker in a restaurant called for an ambulance. The two officers were not initially charged with any crime and none of the five men were ever apprehended. Only with of the help of NGO Promsex, were the two officers prosecuted and charged. They each received sentences of 4 years in prison. Yefri still lives with the scars and doesn’t leave her home without a bodyguard in fear of retaliation from local law enforcement.
Justice wasn’t served in either of those cases, certainly not in Kike’s case. Even though the conviction of the two officers in Yefri’s case was a landmark ruling, she is still left vulnerable and has to protect herself from the same law enforcement that had previously failed her.
TB: As tightly bound as church and state are in Peru, can you speak on what the legitimate motivation was behind the attacks and who the assailants might have been? Were these hate crimes, or something else?
AM: We have to consider the root of the problem, and that’s clearly the church and the government. Peru’s politicians, influenced by the pressures from the church, have yet to enact proper legislation making violence against LGBTQ people a criminal offense and establishing clear anti-discrimination laws. Leaders of the church denounce the LGBTQ community and block every bill that would provide them equal rights under the law. Additionally, it’s common for clergy to include homophobic and transphobic teaching in their church sermons and in classrooms - even Catholic Bishop Luis Bambaren used the slur “faggot” in television and newspaper interviews. This only perpetuates the hostile environment that LGBTQ Peruvians live in, sending a clear message to the general public that LGBTQ people are “less than.” With no laws establishing clear and punishable offenses it fosters the belief that people can get away with these crimes. And they often will.
JJBG: Kike was harassed by that police officer repeatedly. Yefri’s attackers were unknown to her, and the attack was unprovoked. Joel was befriended by a man at a karaoke bar who would later murder him later that same night. Many of the trans women represented in Fatherland were killed by their johns - so many trans people are forced to depend on sex-work in order to survive. Several gay men in the series were rumored to have been killed by married men or closeted men who feared being outed for having gay relations or gay relationships with the victims. These murders and attacks were fueled by homophobia, transphobia, and even fear of societal retaliation and rejection. Those are learned behaviors that come from the country’s conservative religious leaders and are supported by the government. It’s a systematic problem that doesn’t allow for growth, change, acceptance, or justice.
TB: The visual language used in the work speaks to the morbidity of the context behind the images- are you presenting viewers who have no previous knowledge of the culture and land of Peru an accurate depiction of this country, or are they dramatized for the sake of the work as art?
AM: It’s certainly an accurate depiction of each site at the time it was photographed; having that authenticity is paramount for the work… but yes, the images have been desaturated. We’ve muted the most intense colors in order to create a type of haze over each site – like an image-in-mourning. And although the victim isn’t physically present in the photo, we approached each shoot as though it were a portrait, a representation of the death of a place along with the loss of a life. Juan and I agree that when violence occurs it permeates the land. It’s very much like a scar, and those scars record these events.
JJBG: Peru is filled with color and so much saturation. It’s a prominent part of my culture. Removing that intensity is like removing a part of life, and that feels appropriate for this work. I want Peruvians to see places they recognize, places they have been, places that look like their neighborhoods. I want them to feel that something is missing. And even though new histories are created everyday, we, as a society, need to remember what took place here.
People’s perceptions of my country are based around its cultural history and, more recently, our cuisine. It’s all we ever talk about when we speak of Peru here in the US. I wasn’t surprised that people don’t know about the classism and discrimination LGBTQ people face. But this is a global issue – corruption in the church, in governments, and with politicians is a worldwide problem, and in Peru we can see just how toxic a society can become for minorities if they don’t allow room for change and growth.
TB: How does this body of work compare to contemporary bodies of work by artists native to Peru? Are they working in similar contexts of social change and awareness or do you feel this work is an entirely different direction from what is being produced within Peru?
JJBG: This is a difficult question for me to answer. Of course there is a large, conventional art scene in Peru that exists to please the market of collectors and buyers. Artists are recycling, recreating, and redistributing images and concepts that feel comfortable within Peru’s society. It’s like a production of safe art that keeps the market happy. It does little for the collective voice of artists and it doesn’t unify them, but that happens in many countries and many cities. This is not exclusively Peruvian.
But there’s a movement that’s been emerging for many years - a subculture defying conventions that has grown critical of the corrupt church and government. The movement feels like part protest, part performance, and part everyday life that is somehow mixed in with visual art. Many galleries and museums are scared to support work like this, especially if the artists are still alive and the topics are controversial, which they always are. Those things pose a threat and that makes gallerists uncomfortable. So the artists have reacted by showing in alternative ways. It’s very exciting. Those are the artists who are interested in social change and you can see that reflected in their work.
TB: Looking not only at Fatherland, but also Los Chicos and Virgenes de la Puerta, how did your subjects and those you worked with respond to one of you being a Caucasian American and the other a native to Peru? Do you believe the work to walk a line of cultural appropriation?
AM: I did wrestle with this in the beginning, trying to figure out exactly how I can fit into this work in a way that felt legitimate to me. Juan and I have worked together for many years, but this would be our first true artistic collaboration. It was imperative that I try to immerse myself in LGBTQ life in Peru as much as I could. Easier said than done. At well over six-feet tall and very white, I stood out as the American among Peruvians who are generally much shorter in stature. But I was embraced by them, and in some ways that was difficult for me on a personal level. I had been treated with so much respect, and there I was working on a project that was overwhelmingly critical of its society. Once they knew about the project, we received nothing but support. I had to remind myself that Peru’s anti-LGBTQ underbelly exists everywhere, even in the US, and the motivating factor of our work was one that transcends political and geographic borders. It gave me a better understanding of what a worldwide LGBTQ community truly is, and that’s what kept me going.
We met with countless people at the first pride march we were able to attend in Lima. Some would be directly involved with our project as subjects and others would help inform the work and the direction it would take. It became an immersive crash-course in understanding what daily life is like for LGBTQ people in Peru. Our first trip to work on these projects lasted over two months and we didn’t begin shooting until the final two weeks.
In the Virgenes and Chicos series we collaborated with local artisans in the design and production of many of the elements you see in the portraits; the crowns, the veils, and woodwork were created in partnership with the people of Peru who have passed these crafts through generations. Native metalsmiths, embroiderers, artists, and craftspeople had a hand in so much of what we were able to create, and because of that, a tremendous amount of research went into each image. We’ve referenced religious iconography, Spanish-Colonial painting, and folk traditions from Peru’s valley and mountain regions. The final product is a photographic image, but the process is entirely dependent on sculptural elements that are purely informed by Peru’s culture. The focus of the portraits is to immerse gay and trans Peruvians into the culture that has rejected them, and in order to do that we needed to be as specific as possible.
TB: Do you believe your body of work will have an immediate impact on the social perspective of Peru, or on countries and cultures that are similar, by exhibiting your project in affluent Northern areas of the States such as museums and galleries rather than near the locations depicted in the work? Have you run into issues presenting work of this content around Peru?
JJBG: We wanted nothing more than to debut our work in Peru. We imagined a reception when the women from the Virgenes series and the guys from Chicos would be there to share their stories and experiences with the public and the press. We want that voice for them. It just wasn’t possible. We met with more curators and gallery directors than I can count… unrolling images on café tables, in restaurants, and offices – there were so many meetings. Most were already aware of what we were doing… you have to remember that in Peru word spreads quickly. They were eager to see our images, and nearly all of them supported our work. But s always, “this” gallery is affiliated with a Catholic school – “that” museum is a part of the Catholic university – “those” galleries have clergy on their advisory boards…. this was so common. I had to keep reminding myself that just a few years ago the doors of a gallery were chained shut because the church found an artist’s work to be blasphemous. Artists don’t have the same freedom in Peru that they do in the US.
So far the US has embraced this work and provided us a platform to show it. And that’s important because news of the exhibitions make their way to Peru. Our show at the McClain Gallery is a perfect example. We exhibited our Virgenes de la Puerta series there (the portraits of trans women) and well as images from Fatherland. News of that show made it to Peru in a full-page story in El Comercio, the oldest and most conservative newspaper in the country. The work wasn’t physically in Lima, but the impact of the show was felt there. It gave credibility to the subject and forced Peruvians to see a different side of what being transgender means.
We give credit to one of the curators in Peru who wanted so much to show our work, but couldn’t. He brought it to the attention of the curatorial staff at the Center for Contemporary Art in Quito, Ecuador, where all three series of images will be shown in May through July in 2017. It will be the debut of work in South America. Our hope is that once the show in Quito closes, we will have a site in Peru set to display the work where it can reach it’s prime, intended audience. And if not… we have other ideas!
AM: For me, this question also goes back to what Juan was saying before, about artists keeping up with the art market. In most instances the division is very clear: It’s the difference between artists that support galleries versus galleries that support artists. Our work is very much a humanitarian effort. It’s intended to increase awareness and foster dialog to promote change. That type of work doesn’t always lead to huge sales in commercial galleries, and those galleries need sales to keep their doors open. We were pleasantly surprised by the support we’ve had here in the US. The Huffington Post, The Advocate, Lenscratch, and Artsy… our exhibit at the McClain Gallery in Houston and our current exhibit at Chicago’s Schneider Gallery are perfect examples of two commercial spaces that support work of this type. We are so fortunate to have their support. Those galleries provide huge audiences for the work and a great amount of press, and that shines the spotlight on what’s happening in Peru. Places of education like university galleries and museums have also provided important venues. What Frank Crescioni-Santoni has been able to do with the panel at NYU is nothing short of incredible – what an honor to have panelists Claudia Sofía Garriga-López, Fabrice Houdart, Salvador Vidal-Ortiz, and Nahal Zamani there to provide insight on human rights advocacy. This type of discourse is pivotal and it will reach Peru somehow, it always does. Whether in blogs or newspapers, the show at NYU will be discussed in Lima. I have no doubt.
We hope that our work will inform the world of this ongoing issue, but we also want to Fatherland to preserve the names of those who have fallen victim to these crimes. One of the most important things we can do, as members of our society, is to acknowledge someone’s struggle. Acknowledging the struggle of a person who has been oppressed or marginalized can become the catalyst that empowers them. It was Lelya, a trans-activist and part of our Virgenes series, who spoke about the importance of being heard - that the struggle for equal rights for trans people must be fought by the trans community itself – and what society can do to empower them is to help provide unity through solidarity. It is in this way that Juan and I view Fatherland, as an acknowledgement of the LGBTQ struggle in Peru, and the platform in which LGBTQ Peruvians are made to feel heard and empowered.
Tynan Byrne is a graduate from the College of Art and Design at Lesley University, and works within the context of experimental sound and video art. He is currently with the Office of Exhibitions at Lesley University where he works on curatorial projects and exhibition opportunities for Boston-area artists.