BERLIN — Peruvian artist Sergio Zevallos is a cult figure in Latin American art. He was a member of a queer collective, Grupo Chaclacayo, which included German artist Helmut Psotta and Peruvian Raúl Avellaneda. The group was founded in Lima in 1982, during the war between the Maoist Shining Path and the Peruvian Army. The collective held only one official exhibition, at the Lima Art Museum in 1984, before relocating to the outskirts of the city, and then to Germany, in 1989. Per Miguel A. López, an artist who researches the group, their emigration was highly dramatic: The artists packed what they could carry and burned the rest.
It’s a fitting narrative for a collective whose production was ritualistic and Phoenix-like. Zevallos and company staged orgiastic, pseudo-sacral performances, in which they crossdressed in tableaux of Christian martyrdom. By turns mystical and sacrilegious, the performances served a dual critical function. As a queer collective, the group’s performances and actions provided catharsis by making manifest the LGBTQ+ bodies and queer desire that the Peruvian state so violently persecuted and purged, in the broader context of torture and disappearances of activists and political opponents as tools of political warfare. They also criticized the Peruvian Church for its support of the right-wing state.
The group combined religious iconography, pornography, and a transgressive sensibility to subvert the oppressive state apparatus of both physical violence and censorship in ways parallel to other Latin American movements and artists of the time, from Andrea Tonacci and Luiz Rosemberg Filho of Brazilian Cinema Marginal to Luis Ospina and Carlos Mayolo of Caliwood, with its vampiric tales (as in Vampires of Poverty, 1977, and Pure Blood, 1982), in which vampirism was associated with both the bloodthirstiness and opportunism of the military regimes and a desire to create a new, subaltern counterculture.
Grupo Chaclacayo’s story is finally gaining a wider reception with Exercises in Transformation—Sergio Zevallos, a survey spanning the 1960s to the present, at Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Curated by Paz Guevara, a writer and scholar based between Berlin and Latin America, the exhibition includes Archivo Ambulante, a photographic archive of the group’s underground performances from the 1980s, as well as a slideshow of Zevallos’s 1989 performance in Stuttgart, Germany, and his paintings and collages.
Occupying a single room on the museum’s sub-level, the exhibition focuses on Zevallos’s avid interest in politics and popular culture — one wall is devoted to collages remixed from newspapers, magazines, and religious prints, and a glass vitrine contains issues of Sociedad y Politica, the socio-cultural magazine critical of neo-colonialism that Zevallos founded in Lima and co-edited with his father. It also suggests that much of this production leads back to performance art, as the artist saw society as a kind of theater. The photographic archive is scattered on a round table in the center, encouraging viewers to pick up and rummage through the images at will. Coming across the loose pile of small black-and-white images feels deliciously like scavenging through an artist’s drawers. Zevallos’s handwritten notes, also on view, meanwhile reinforce the sense that this small “shrine,” very much like religious ones, is charged with the intoxicating energy of a body (of work).
Several photographs, some also hung on the walls, depict Zevallos posing in gauzy lingerie and a bridal veil, in what looks like prequels to the more explicit photographs and negatives implying sexual play. Others capture Zevallos, often naked, with his face painted white, as in a circus or harlequin act, posing in nature or amid ruins. Certain images resonate as burlesque riffs on erotically charged landscape art (Ana Mendieta comes to mind). Still, others explicitly invoke religious ritual: in one, Zevallos lies seductively atop a coffin, beneath a portrait of the Virgin Mary; in another, he appears naked, white bands of cloth wound around his body, his hands “nailed” to a large wooden cross. Bondage, debasement, sacrificial blood, and allusions to torture are all part of this evocative mise-en-scène, whose reference points extend beyond the plastic arts, to encompass commedia dell’arte, grand-guignol, and religious sects. Unable to assume an openly gay identity due to Lima’s oppressive political regime, Zevallos managed to reinscribe the sacred as a realm of free expression.
Exercises in Transformation—Sergio Zevallos continues at Haus der Kulturen der Welt (John-Foster-Dulles-Allee 10, Berlin, Germany) through January 14. The exhibition was curated by Paz Guevara.