Tuesday, July 22, 2014

David Wojnarowicz: Controversial artist mixed gay and Christian imagery

David Wojnarowicz in a detail from “Painting David” by Douglas Blanchard

David Wojnarowicz is a gay artist, writer and activist whose use of Christian imagery still causes controversy more than two decades after his death. He died of AIDS at age 37 on July 22, 1992 -- 22 years ago today.

Wojnarowicz rose from a homeless gay teenage hustler in New York’s Times Square to become a celebrated (and reviled) artist who was featured at the prestigious Whitney Biennial exhibit. A vocal critic of the church’s silence during the AIDS crisis, Wojnarowicz mixed gay imagery with religious symbols from his Roman Catholic childhood to express the intensity and value of gay experience. He was a frequent target of the religious right during the culture wars of 1980s.

Nowadays Wojnarowicz is best known for the 2010 national uproar that was sparked by his video “Fire in the Belly.” It uses a crucifix covered with ants to symbolize the suffering and holiness of AIDS patients. The Smithsonian Institution removed it from exhibition in 2010 after pressure from religious and political conservatives. Protests and charges of censorship followed.

Today interest in Wojnarowicz is surging among LGBTQ scholars and artists. In 2012 he was the subject of two papers at the American Academy of Religion, where he was called an “outsider theologian.” New York artist Douglas Blanchard is in the midst of painting his second series based on Wojnarowicz’ tumultuous life. The 2013 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir/Biography went to the book “Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz” by Cynthia Carr, who describes him as “so ugly he was beautiful.” His comic-book autobiography, “Seven Miles a Second” was reissued in February 2013. His diaries were issued in e-book format in 2014 under the title “In the Shadow of the American Dream.”

“By examining Wojnarowicz’s work through theological eyes, we can identify him as an overlooked source of theological reflection that is defiantly and proudly gay,” says the description for “David Wojnarowicz: Outsider Theologian,” a paper presented by Justin Tanis at the 2012 meeting of the American Academy of Religion. He teaches at Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, California.

Tanis discussed spiritual themes in Wojnarowicz pieces such as “Untitled (Genet).” The collage angered the religious right by showing gay French writer Jean Genet as a patron saint for male prostitutes, with Christ as a heroin addict in the background. The image (plus a wide selection of his other artwork) can be seen at visualaids.org.

An hour-long video is available online with Tanis discussing “See the Holy: Spirituality in the Art of David Wojnarowicz” at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley in 2012.


See the Holy: Spirituality in the Art of David Wojnarowicz from CLGS on Vimeo.

Artist Doug Blanchard completed his first series on Wojnarowicz more than a decade ago. The paintings in his 2001 “Shadows” series portray Wojnarowicz as an AIDS martyr and Christ figure -- a modern-day man of sorrows traveling a metaphorical gay road to Calvary. “I organized them using the Hebrew Alphabet like the reading from Lamentations in the Tenebrae service for Holy Week,” Blanchard says in “The Passion of David Wojnarowicz,” a summary of the series at his blog, Counterlight’s Peculiars.

“Gimmel” from the "Shadows" series by Douglas Blanchard is inspired by a famous Wojnarowicz quote: “When I put my hands on your body, on your flesh, I feel the history of that body, not just the beginning of its forming in that distant lake, but all the way beyond its ending.”

Blanchard went on to paint Jesus as a contemporary gay man in “The Passion of Christ: A Gay Vision.” Now he has he turned his attention back to Wojnarowicz. “I'm doing a new series now that I hope will not diminish his role in AIDS activism, but fills out the picture of his life with more about his being an artist, writer, and adventurer,” Blanchard says.

Much of the raw material for the series comes from Wojnarowicz’ own journals, published in such books as “The Waterfront Journals” and “Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration.” Blanchard agreed to share some of his Wojnarowicz art here at the Jesus in Love Blog.

The newest painting in the series is “The Lazzaretto,” which Blanchard finished in June 2014.

Wojnarowicz is one of the patients in the background of the AIDS ward shown in “The Lazzaretto” by Douglas Blanchard. A lazzaretto is a quarantine hospital in a port city.

The young Wojnarowicz is shown as a child hiding from his abusive father in “David’s Dad” by Douglas Blanchard.

Wojnarowicz travels in the Western desert, a landscape that reminded him of his favorite Krazy Kat cartoons, in “Krazy Kat Landscape” by Douglas Blanchard.

“Zayin” by Douglas Blanchard evokes the suffering of Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992. “If I die it is because a handful of people in power, in organized religions and political institutions, believe that I am expendable,” he wrote.

For more of Blanchard’s current Wojnarowicz series, see his posts What I’m working on, Projects, More Work In My Studio and The Lazzaretto, a New Painting from the David Wojnarowicz Series at the Counterlight’s Peculiars blog.

Wojnarowicz, who created a queer fusion of saintly and sexy iconography in his own art, has now passed into the realm of where LGBT martyrs and saints dwell. A quote from his book “Close to the Knives” helps put his death into perspective:

“Transition is always a relief. Destination means death to me. If I could figure out a way to remain forever in transition, in the disconnected and unfamiliar, I could remain in a state of perpetual freedom.”
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Related links:
David Wojnarowicz: Smithsonian censors gay artist when conservatives attack (Jesus in Love)

Estate of David Wojnarowicz (PPOW Gallery)

David Wojnarowicz papers (New York University)

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This post is part of the Artists series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series profiles artists who use lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and queer spiritual and religious imagery.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
http://www.jesusinlove.blogspot.com/
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts



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Monday, July 21, 2014

Symeon of Emesa and John: Holy fool and hermit who loved each other

“Symeon and John” by Jim Ru

Sixth-century Syrian monks Symeon and John were joined in a same-sex union and lived together as desert-dwelling hermits for 29 years. After a tearful split-up, Symeon went on to become known as the Holy Fool of Emesa, the patron saint of all holy fools (and puppeteers.) Their feast day is today (July 21).

These Byzantine saints are important for LGBT people because of their loving same-sex bond and Symeon’s role as holy fool. In the tradition of “fools for Christ,” believers deliberately challenge social norms for spiritual purposes. LGBT Christians, who face insults from both sides for being queer AND Christian, may be able to relate to the motivations and experiences of the holy fools.

Symeon the Holy Fool (or Simeon Salus) of Emesa (c. 522 - c.588) and John of Edessa were close friends starting in childhood, although Symeon was six years older. Both came from wealthy families. When Symeon was 30, they made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the journey home they were both filled with an irresistible desire to leave their families and join a monastery together.

They took vows in the monastery of Abba Gerasimus in Syria. The two men were tonsured by the abbot who blessed them together in an early monastic version of the adelphopoiia ceremony -- the “brother-making” ritual that historian John Boswell calls a “same-sex union.” They were referred to as the “pure bridegrooms (nymphoi) of Christ.”

Soon the two men went together to live as hermits in the desert near the Dead Sea, where they could practice spiritual exercises in solitude. There is no suggestion that their relationship was sexual, but they shared a life together in the wilderness with all the emotional intensity of a same-sex couple for 29 years.

At that point Symeon decided to leave his longtime companion and move to the city of Emesa in modern Lebanon.  He wanted to do charity work while mocking social norms as a “fool for Christ.” John begged him not to go. John’s passionate plea is recorded in “Symeon the Holy Fool” by Derek Krueger:

“Please, for the Lord’s sake, do not leave wretched me. For I have not yet reached this level, so that I can mock the world. Rather for the sake of Him who joined us, do not wish to be parted from your brother. You know that, after God, I have no one except you, my brother, but I renounced all and was bound to you, and now you wish to leave me in the desert, as in an open sea. Remember that day when we drew lots and went down to lord Nikon, that we agreed not to be separated from one another. Remember that fearful hour when we were clothed in the holy habit, and we two were as one soul, so that all were astonished at our love. Don't forget the words of the great monk….Please don’t lest I die and God demands an account of my soul from you.”

Even this heartfelt appeal did not change Symeon’s mind. Instead he invited John into a long, intimate prayer session as described by Krueger:

“After they had prayed for many hours and had kissed each other on the breast and drenched them with their tears, John let go of Symeon and traveled together with him a long distance, for his soul would not let him be separated from him, but whenever Abba Symeon said to him ‘Turn back, brother,’ he heard the word as if a knife separated him from his body, and again he asked if he could accompany him a little further. Therefore, when Abba Symeon forced him, he turned back to his cell drenching the earth with tears.”

Symeon went on to do help the poor, heal the sick and do other good works in Emesa. In order to avoid public praise, he shocked people by deliberately acting crazy, making himself a “holy fool.”

Not long before his death, Symeon had a vision in which he saw his beloved John wearing a crown with the inscription, “For endurance in the desert.” 

Symeon and John were honored together as saints on July 21 in many ancient calendars. In the 16th century Caesar Baronius separated them and moved Symeon to July 1, but some traditions still celebrate them both on July 21.

Artist Jim Ru was inspired to paint the Symeon and John as a couple, with John’s fervent words to his beloved, “Please don’t leave lest I die and God demands an account of my soul from you.” The painting was displayed in his show “Transcendent Faith: Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Saints” in Bisbee, Arizona in the 1990s.
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More resources:
Symeon the Holy Fool: Leontius’s Life and the Late Antique City” by Derek Krueger (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996).

Simeon the Holy Fool (Wikipedia)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Simeón de Emesa y Juan: un “santo loco” y un ermitaño que amaban el uno al otro
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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.





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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Saint Wilgefortis: Holy bearded woman fascinates for centuries

Saint Wilgefortis statue in the Church of Saint Nicholas in Pas-de-Calais, near Wissant, France (Wikimedia Commons)

Santa Wilgefortis” from “Queer Santas” series by Alma Lopez

Saint Wilgefortis prayed to avoid marriage to a pagan king -- and her prayers were answered when she grew a beard! This gender-bending virgin martyr has natural appeal for LGBT people. Her feast day was July 20 (today) until she was removed from the Vatican calendar in 1969.

Wilgefortis remains in standard Catholic reference works, and images of her as a bearded woman on a cross are plentiful across Europe and in Latin American folk retablos.

She probably originates more in popular imagination than in history, but Wilgefortis continues to be an object of devotion in folk religion, a favorite character in pop culture and an inspiration in queer art.

Contemporary readers have come up with many theories about Wilgefortis. She has been interpreted as the patron saint of intersex people, an asexual person, a transgender person, a person with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome or a powerful lesbian virgin.

Legend says that Wilgefortis was the teenage Christian daughter of a king in medieval Portugal. She had taken a vow of chastity, but her father ordered her to marry a pagan king. She resisted the unwelcome marriage by praying to be made repulsive to her fiancé. God answered her prayers when she grew a beard.

Unfortunately her father got so angry that he had her crucified and Wilgefortis joined the ranks of virgin martyrs. The church has promoted “virgin martyrs” as examples of chastity and faith, but lesbians and other queer people recognize them as kindred spirits who do not engage in heterosexual activity.

Saint Wilgefortis in the Museum of the Diocese Graz-Seckau in Graz, Austria, 18th century (Wikimedia Commons)

Her veneration began in 14th century Europe and grew until the 16th century, when her story was debunked as fiction. People continued to worship her despite frequent opposition by church officials. She was honored all across Europe, and in some places her popularity rivaled the Virgin Mary. Wilgefortis stayed on the official Vatican calendar until 1969. Scholars suggest that her legend arose to explain the Volto Santo of Lucca, a famous Italian sculpture of the crucified Christ in a long tunic that medieval viewers thought was a woman’s dress.

The history is explored in the book “The Female Crucifix: Images of St. Wilgefortis Since the Middle Ages” by Ilse E. Friesen., professor of art history at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada. She traces the emergences of increasingly female crucifixes over the centuries, focusing on the he German-speaking regions of Bavaria and Tyrol, where the veneration of Wilgefortis reached its peak.

The name Wilgefortis may come from the Latin “virgo fortis” (strong virgin). In Spanish she is Librada -- meaning “liberated” -- from hardship and/or husbands. She also goes by a bewildering variety of other names. Her alternate English name Uncumber means escaper. In addition, she is known as Liberata, Livrade, Kummernis, Komina, Comera, Cumerana, Ulfe, Ontcommen, Dignefortis, Europia, and Reginfledis. In Barcelona (Spain), local people honor Múnia de Barcelona, a legendary saint who is similar to Wilgefortis. Her feast day day is Feb. 28.

The saint is presented in two incarnations -- as Wilgefortis and as Liberata -- in the “Queer Santas” series by Chicana artist Alma Lopez. The series grew out of the artist’s insight that female martyrs may have protected their virginity to the death not so much out of faith, but because they were lesbians. Lopez paints Wilgefortis/Liberata as masculine women in crucifixion poses. They look like butch lesbians, liberating themselves by rejecting feminine appearance and traditional gender roles.

Saint Liberata” from “Queer Santas” series by Alma Lopez

Wilgefortis also makes various appearances in modern literature. The critically acclaimed 1970 novel “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies concerns a scholar researching Wilgefortis. Castle Waiting, a graphic novel by Linda Medley, features a nun from the order of St. Wilgefortis, an entire convent full of bearded women!

St. Wilgefortis in the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows at the Loreta Sanctuary in Prague, Czech Republic. Photo by Curious Expeditions.

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Related links:

Saint Wilgefortis (Qualia Encyclopedia of Queer Folklife)

Uncumber or Wilgefortis (Queering the Church)

Various images of Wilgefortis (brauchtum.de)

To read this post in Spanish / en español, go to Santos Queer:
Santa Librada (Wilgefortis): Una santa Barbuda
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This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, prophets, witnesses, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
http://www.jesusinlove.blogspot.com/
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Poem: Christ, what did you feel when your beloved John lay across your lap?



A gay man prays, wondering if Jesus also felt same-sex attractions, in a poem by longtime LGBT church activist and poet Louie Clay (né Louie Crew).

Born in Alabama in 1936, Clay is professor emeritus of English at Rutgers University. He is best known for his long and successful campaign for LGBT equality in the church.

He was way ahead of his time in many ways -- in 1974, when he founded Integrity USA, the national Episcopal LGBT organization. And in 1980, when he wrote this poem imagining the possibility of a queer Christ.

Clay sometimes uses the pen name Quean Lutibelle. After almost 40 years together, he married Ernest Clay in 2013 and assumed his husband's last name. As for the title of the poem, “Werc” is “Crew” spelled backwards.

Lutibelle Prays: William Werc's Prayer

I come here to your cross, Christ,
a raging quean.
I want to walk with my head high,
a child of God,
but I am feeling too much
like the scum people take me to be.
Sometimes I get downright campy
and want to shout at them,
"Why do you think God chose twelve of his own
kind to be nearest!?"
but then I don't really believe you're
some macho male riding a chariot
and wielding a whip, or that you are really
male or female at all,
though I suspect
that when you were enfleshed as Jesus
your juices were not lactation.

What did you feel when your beloved John
lay across your lap casually?

Now you seem trapped above this altar,
as if the Romans really were successful
and rid the world of any fresh response
you might have for it or for me.

I wonder if what I what I need is a break
from being quean?
Maybe you should
take away my regnum and give me back
a Pennypress suit and a lower middleclass
seat on the vestry.
But put me somewhere else,
where the people in the next pew
don't think I'm different.

["Maybe he's just never found Miss Right.
Besides, bachelors aren't all queers.
Some of them are even good to their mamas
when they get old!"]

But here all know, Jesus,
and they'll never allow me
to teach Sunday School
or to be a lay reader,
or even to have lunch with the rector
--or if I do, I'll have to endure
the rector's notion of who I am
with every sip of my coffee
--is my pinkie showing?
Maybe if I just go to a new town
and am very quiet about it all,
lie low, as it were,
play tennis and jog a lot,
they'll spend some of this time
seeing me as the good salesman I am.
I mean, do they hate queers as much
in Chicago, New York, or San Francisco?
I wish my company had a branch
in one of those places.
Even their bishops claim to love us,
though clergy do throw love
around very glibly.
I wonder if they'd love a son or a daughter
who is one?

I wish you'd talk back, God.
I'm one weary quean
with all of these folks
kneeling around me.
Sometimes I think
they're not praying about themselves,
but just about me,
telling you all of their fears
as if I had not already told you the truth.

But I probably occupy no more space
in their prayers than does a bug
which one mindlessly avoids
so as not to waste time squashing it.

Yes, Jesus, back at self-pity,
badly this time
--as much of a venereal disease
as any quean requires!
Maybe I should just stick with the Prayer Book,
which makes me come across
as much more noble
than I really am;
and at least it keeps me from looking
only at myself.

I can't believe
you want this groveling, Jesus.
Help me to stand on my own two feet.
God save this quean!

God, save all queans.

— Louie Clay (1980)


Postscript:
In the decades since the poem was written, God has answered the last two sentences in the prayer in amazing ways: Crew’s 2013 wedding legalized a loving commitment made in 1974… and same-sex marriage is gaining recognition in many churches and states.

Ernest Clay, left, and Louie Crew were legally married on August 22, 2013.  This photo shows the happy couple, newly married. (Wikimedia Commons)

The poet himself can be heard reading the poem on YouTube at:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xb6dZjTi6CQ

Clay’s writing has been published widely, with more than 2,300 poems, articles, and essays in print. Books that he edited include “A Book of Revelations: Lesbian and Gay Episcopalians Tell Their Own Stories,” a 1991 collection of 52 biographies, and “The Gay Academic” (1978). He was elected to serve on the Episcopal Church's 38-member executive council from 2000 to 2006.

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Related links:

Louie Crew profile at LGBT Religious Archives Network

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This post is part of the Queer Christ series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others.

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Wednesday, July 09, 2014

New Rainbow Crucifix and Rainbow Madonna unveiled by Richard Stott

“Solidarity” by Richard Stott (Photo by Rebecca Litchfield)

Rainbow clothing gives a queer quality to Jesus and his mother Mary in new paintings by gay British artist and minister Richard Stott.

The two rainbow Christian images made their debut recently as part of the exhibit “Sacred Stories of the Body: Gender, Sexuality and Spirituality” in the United Kingdom. It was on display during May and June in the gallery at 35 Chapel Walk in Sheffield, England. The show featured five artists with a range of sexual identities and religious traditions.

Stott, a Methodist minister and art therapist in Sheffield, displayed a number of paintings that explore his experiences as a gay Christian. Two bold new rainbow images stand out:

* Jesus wears a rainbow loincloth as he hangs on the cross in “Solidarity.” This single powerful image expresses God’s solidarity with the suffering of LGBTQ people. Whenever anyone is abused or killed for their sexual orientation, Christ is crucified. Stott portrays the queer Christ figure in a stencil style with painterly drips, similar to the satirical street art of British graffiti artist Banksy.

* A Madonna wraps a rainbow flag around herself and the Christ child in an untitled work by Stott. The dignity and tenderness of the image suggest the holiness of LGBT families. The painting suggests the love of a mother for her queer child… or the bond between a lesbian mother and her child. When lesbians use artificial insemination to have babies without heterosexual contact, it reminds some of Mary’s miraculously queer virgin birth.

“Untitled” by Richard Stott

Stott painted the Madonna with rainbow robes in fall 2013 during a conference organized by Changing Attitude, an Anglican LGBTI group. He was invited to create art while the conference met at a Victorian church in Stockport. In a reflection about the image on his blog, Stott writes:

The church had been festooned in rainbow flags and the way the fabric curved as it hung beguiled me. They echoed the folds of cloth on a statue of the Virgin Mary with her child at the opposite side of the church to me. So I brought them together and this image emerged.

It was only at the end, when I stepped back to look at what I’d done that I began to reflect on the meaning of the picture. What started as a study of a very material and ordinary thing, the shadows in hanging fabric, became an image laden with significance…

The “Sacred Stories of the Body” show also included Stott’s “Intimacy with Christ” triptych, which grew out of his meditations on the medieval mystics. The exhibit contains more of his new work as well as his series on the Body of Christ and a fresh interpretation the angel Gabriel as an ambiguous semi-nude harbinger of sexuality / pregnancy.

Stott posted his article about the “Sacred Stories of the Body” exhibit on his blog, I Ask for Wonder. It features more images and info about the other art and artists in the show.

From left to right: Jay Gadhia, Amberlea McNaught, Ric Stott, Jade Morris, Jade Pollard-Crowe (Photo by Jeremy Godwin)

Stott sees deep connections between spirituality, creativity and LGBT identity. In a reflection titled Queer Creation, he writes:

“It seems to me that both the gay identity and the creative obsession of the artist are prophetic ways of being. Both entail a way of seeing and experiencing that fractures the world and breaks up comfortable formulations of identity, gender, relationships and theologies that some may see as blasphemous or disturbing.”

People can contact Stott to purchase stencil images and prints of his religious rainbow images.
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Related links:

Carlos Latuff: Gay Christ wears rainbow flag

Jesus wears rainbow shroud on new “Gays for God” magazine cover

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This post is part of the Queer Christ series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series gathers together visions of the queer Christ as presented by artists, writers, theologians and others. It is also part of the Artists series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. The series profiles artists who use lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) and queer spiritual and religious imagery. It also highlights great queer artists from history, with an emphasis on their spiritual lives.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
http://www.jesusinlove.blogspot.com/
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts

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