Goodbye to the Chilean queen

On Friday 23 January the Chilean writer, artist and activist Pedro Lemebel died of cancer. One of the most important and provocative queer voices of Latin America, Lemebel’s anti-establishment writings and performances are landmark works. Diamela Eltit, Visiting Simón Bolívar Professor at the Centre of Latin American Studies, wrote this piece on him (published originally in Spanish in the Chilean magazine “The Clinic”) and has kindly agreed to its posting on our blog. To see a list of works by and on him held at the Library, please click here.

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Pedro Lemebel (second from left) in conversation, 2011 (Image taken from Wikimedia Commons, click to enlarge).

It seems unreal writing about Pedro Lemebel, when only a few days have elapsed since his death. Perhaps it isn’t real, as in the world of the arts the notion of death remains ambiguous. This is precisely because, faced with absence, there remains the presence of an oeuvre that is very much still there – alive, available and ready to inhabit the varied presents of the future.

Las yeguas del apocalípsis (1987) signalled the founding of a collective (Pedro Lemebel and Francisco Casas) that would reveal the transvestite body as both the object and subject of critical intervention. Their performance art, staged in various ways, maintained a relationship with their predecessors, who had portrayed the homosexual body from an aesthetically challenging perspective.

Among their predecessors, one would have to think of Francisco Copello (1938-2006), the visual artist located at the threshold of Chilean performance art; his hyper-stylized representation of a body set in motion imposed appreciation of a condition removed from conventional reality. Or Ernesto Muñoz and his lucid reading of the clandestine and “transversal” homosexual body’s circulation through social spaces, and the political-cultural knowledge accumulated on this journey.

Most importantly, Carlos Leppe, and his performances marked by conceptual density, signalled a turning point in the local performance art scene. Leppe portrayed a mother figure talking to the unattainable virtual space of the media. The same Leppe that made the body an orthopaedic device, rigid, imprisoned inside a paralyzing plaster shell. The operatic Leppe, who modulated his most disturbed and disturbing aria by playing with the contrivances of voice and body. The Leppe who emerged in the late ‘70s and immediately gained an indisputable place within the smallest amount of space that time would allow.

Of course, performance art during those years was explosive and very recurrent within the (limited) confines of the scene, characterised by a radical opacity resulting from the many incessant controls that the dictatorship exerted on both public spaces and speech. Furthermore, the performance art of the period also gave rise to many names and many scenes. But today, art historians are bringing back to light a time marked by the subsistence on culture’s fringes of what we can now understand, with absolute accuracy, as a local “underground”.

However, I refer here specifically to the homosexual condition and its representation within local performance art (a marginal field, but a powerful one), preceding the work begun by Las yeguas in ’87. Unlike its predecessors, this project intervened in public spaces (in the manner of the CADA group). Pedro Lemebel and Francisco Casas focused on transience and on breaking through in the most uncomfortable areas with regards to minority sexual subjectivities. These areas were the party political spaces of the period, when pacts for the upcoming transition had been undertaken.

In these speeches, or within such partisan political debate, Las yeguas – with the help of direct public resources – used irreverence in order to designate a body that was “outside”, excluded from encroaching reality, unrecognised unless by the cruel joke or humiliating, populist appeal most favoured by local comedians. Free of guilt and with a subversive grace, there emerged in some of these interventions the politicised and lucid “queen” (“la loca”). This persona took on many bodily forms, from a provincial Gabriela Mistral, replete with educational zeal, through the transvestite prostitute of the Calle San Camilo – an open denunciation of human rights abuses – and on to the nude figure characterizing hysteria.

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Pedro Lemebel’s book La esquina es mi corazón, with a photograph of the author on the cover ( C205.c.7006).

Once the transition was underway, Francisco Casas and Pedro Lemebel followed their own separate routes, both linked to literary creation. In 1995, Lemebel published his first book of “crónicas”, La esquina es mi corazón (the writer Pía Barros had previously published some of his short stories under his birth name, Pedro Mardones). That book has come to be considered his most iconic work. Written in an appropriately prim and baroque fashion, out of its pages jumped “la loca” (to quote: “the eye of la loca is never wrong”) and “la pobla” (the slum). Thus “la loca” entered the literary vocabulary and imagination as both the dramatic and euphoric sparkle of popular culture and an unwavering “antifacha” (anti-fascist) political stance.

It never ceases to fascinate that Chile, a country where so much material of value was repressed, should have produced some of the region’s earliest homosexual literature. To wit, in 1924 Augusto d’Halmar published Pasión y muerto del cura Deusto, which is considered the first Latin American novel to deal with homosexuality. Later on, José Donoso would take an unexpected angle in proposing “la loca” as the basis for his literary adventure. El lugar sin límites (1966) is based around the alteration of family roles and consequently signposts machismo as a stereotypical way of concealing repressed homosexuality. In short, in that novel one sees the constant fluctuation of sexual identities that has been so brilliantly analysed by the theorist Judith Butler.

In that sense, I have always thought that Pedro Lemebel continued this tradition, particularly faithful to Donoso and his character Manuela. His important contribution was freeing “la loca” from Donoso’s provincial brothel and placing her in the street, making her an inhabitant of every street corner, seductively conscripting, tirelessly teaching her aesthetic.

These two roles, of chronicler and performance artist, were united, making Lemebel a public figure gaining in prestige (especially in academia) and with a considerable number of fans, who packed out his performances – lectures and stagings in which Pedro Lemebel did not shy away from kitsch, flattery, or violence.

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Page from Sergio Gómez and Ricardo Molina’s 2012 graphic novel Ella entró por la ventana del baño, based on a 1985 short story by Pedro Lemebel (S950.c.201.420).

It is this that cannot be repeated enough: his own active presence onstage in his fantasies of glory and martyrdom. To this day, the delight of his fans and the grand proclamations of his admirers have never ceased. However, now, from a distance, I cannot help but think of those who were his most crucial companions in each of those early battles, the most crucial ones of all: the writer, poet and performer Francisco Casas, the poet Carmen Berenguer – and, of course, to the very end, the poet, editor and bookseller, Sergio Parra.

 Diamela Eltit

(Translated by Christopher Greenberg)

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