In the film Deseos (Desires) https://vimeo.com/127254583 Carlos Motta fictionalizes the subjective experiences of two women in the early nineteenth century, one residing in the Ottoman city of Beirut who was punished by her mother for having a same-sex relation and forced to marry her lover’s brother, and one living in what is now Colombia who was prosecuted for being a “hermaphrodite” (intersex). The Colombian woman’s case is based on legal archives kept by the Spanish colonizers. Her identity as a queer person would have been erased if it had not been for the archived legal documents. The Arab woman’s story and identity were created by a Lebanese anthropoligist, Maya Mikdashi, as Ottoman courts considered these offenses matters to be dealt with at home. The imagery from both settings is dubbed over by two women’s voices reading letters wrtten by Martina and Nour to each other about their struggles.
In this case study I will explore Motta’s research methodologies for Deseos. These methods are his attempts to combat structural systems of erasure. They include the study of archives, use of religious iconography, letter writing as a formal method of inquiry and as a way to link different geographies, shifts in time and shifts in scale—from the past to the present and from the intimate to the nationalistic.
Not only does Motta use official colonial archives to create his art, but he also creates new archives for his protagonists so they can overcome the violence perpretrated agaist them. An archive (noun) is defined as a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people, person, or community.1 Archive (verb) refers to filing or collecting in or as if in an archive. Motta studies the archive (noun) and also creates his own (verb).2 The archive purportedly came about during the age of Enlightenment. That period imposed “rational” values of accuracy and validity; when there was lack of evidence, this created erasure of differences.3 Motta uncovered the story of Martina, the Colombian woman’s story in The General Archive of the Nation in Bogota which contains historical documents from 1541 to 1991 from the area previously known as The New Kingdom of Granada. The Kingdom contained the countries later known as Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and Ecuador. The Spanish were very disciplined in keeping specific records of social and moral transgressions, sins and crimes. Martina only made it into history because she had been reduced by institutions to a case study, her body medicalized for repeated, invasive examinations. Motta also highlights “erasure” in his film by drawing Martina and her braids with a charcoal pencil and then running the footage backwards as though she were being erased.
Motta struggled with possibly repeating the same violations on Martina that she suffered in life from a contemporary queer lens. Motta states that he made a pact with Martina in a dream and she sanctioned his project to represent her.4 His projects are also about self-representation which also gives him some creative license to research, discuss, and problematize representation of LGBTQI persons. He gave Martina a fictional life where she was later freed from the humiliating encounters with power and gained considerable agency. Gaps in knowledge in historical narratives and documentary records do not represent a lack for Motta. Instead, they are sites of possibility—spaces where marginalized bodies are both recovered and reimagined.5
Motta is well-known for using religious iconography with a BDSM twist in his work (see Inverted World where two bondage artists hoisted Motta upside down, naked in an Franciscan chapel in Tuscany, as though being crucified like Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of St. Peter (1600). In Deseos he features colonial statues of the Virgin Mary. They stand in for Martina’s body. Motta is interested in how religious iconography can symbolically illustrate its characters’ perils. Furthermore, he states that religious iconography has greatly contributed to society’s ideas around the body, about the role of women in society, about patriarchy, and about the repression of sexuality.6 The Virgin Mary represents the ultimate repression of sexuality, Jesus having been conceived by parthenogenesis. As the ultimate maternal figure Mary was rebranded by the Spanish during the Reformation in Europe as an intercessor between man and God, because the God of Catholicism was thought to be too harsh and inaccessible to the populace. Women in society are supposed to act as intercessors between the children and the father. Latin American countries are overwhelmingly Catholic, and the Vigin Mary is exceedingly popular there; hence, it is logical that Motta uses her in Deseos.
Carlos Motta, Video Still from Deseos/تابغر) HD 16:9, video, color, sound, 32’37” (2015).
In a panel discussion with Maya Mikdashi following the screening of Deseos in Beirut, she and Motta discussed the practice of the fictional letter writing that they engaged in,7 Motta writing Martina and Mikdashi writing and narrating Nour. In the New York Times Catherine Field writes: “A good handwritten letter is a creative act, and not just because it is a visual and tactile pleasure. It is a deliberate act of exposure, a form of vulnerability, because handwriting opens a window on the soul in a way that cyber communication can never do.”8 My research has not uncovered whether the letters between Motta and Mikdashi were handwritten or not, but whether they were sent via the email or by snail mail, the final versions of the letters they wrote to each other as the protagonists do show enormous vulnerability. It is a beautiful way to attempt to embody the experiences of these marginalized queer women and to reinvent a new reality for them. Letter writing formally links the two geographies for Martina and Nour; however, unlike the religious iconography shown in relation to Martina the visuals for Nour explore place. Abandoned Arab hamams used for bathing with blue-green mildew stains on the walls possibly reflect the pleasures of such a place, the bruises Nour and her lover leave on each other’s bodies. The camera then pans to beautiful kaleidoscopic skylights in the abandoned hamam, highlighting how beauty and harmony can deny what Edouard Glissant called “the right to opacity.” For Glissant, the demand for the right to opacity functions as an ethical stance against imperial conquest and domination.9 In contrast with identity politics’ claim to visibility as a political platform, Zach Blas’s writings explore opacity as both a tactic and a material condition in order to address two intertwined concerns of our time: technological control and embodying materiality. Motta seems to navigate both of these extremes well, at once bringing to light the diversity of the histories of human sexuality and also making them unique and in so doing, opaque.
The spatial techniques Motta captures with his camera and via the use of narration also connect areas of historical geopolitical importance (Beirut and Damascus), Damascus being one of the largest provinces in the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years and where the pilgrimage to Mecca was organized every year.10 Motta films modern-day traffic crossing the border between Lebanon and Syria, unable to get into Damascus to film the portion where Nour, her husband and her sister-in-law lover settle, because the border is closed. The visuals of the border also highlight border crossings by migrants in the opposite direction from Syria to Lebanon because of the Syrian war and the associated xenophobia in Lebanon regarding Syrian refugees. Hence, Motta and Mikdashi take us spatially, through words, from the most intimate encounters to much larger nationalistic concerns.
Another technique Motta uses in Deseos is temporality. In Freeman’s article Time Binds, or Erotohistoriography, she quotes Geeta Patel: “the colonial state intervened early into temporality, inscribing itself into and as the bodies of “the people” directly via the calendar, skewing indigenous rhythms of sacred and profane and representing these rhythms as backward and superstitious.”11 Freeman takes the position of Cesare Casarino: “we need to understand and practice time as fully incorporated, as nowhere existing outside of bodies and their pleasures.”12 Freeman argues that queers survive through the ability to invent or seize pleasurable relations between bodies and across time. Her theory of erotohistoriography contends that queer social practices, especially enjoyable bodily sensations, produce forms of time consciousness, even historical consciousness, that can intervene upon the material damage done in the name of development.13
Motta imagines and recreates miniature pre-colonial figurines in gold in Towards a Homoerotic Historiography (2014) based on fragments, drawings, and colonial descriptions. The sexualities of the inhabitants of what are now the Americas were much more diverse than after colonization. The figurines are shown in small vitrines in a darkened room, mimicking how “Pre-Columbian” sculptures are displayed in museums. Reflecting on Freeman’s temporality model of transference of homoerotic pleasures through time, one can surmise that the act of sculpting these pre-colonial, miniature figurines transfers those historical pleasures to the sculptor as well as to viewers who are drawn in close to the vitrines in order to see them. Ari Alpert in The Miami Rail writes that “understanding the diversity of the histories of human sexuality can help us better understand our past and create more complex and affirming futures.”14
Carlos Motta, 1 of 20 figurines, Towards a Homoerotic Historiography (2013-14).
1. Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, accessed October 24, 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/archive
3. David J. Getsy, “Histories for the Future: Visionary Identification in the Work of Carlos Motta,” Exhibition Catalog: Carlos Motta Deviations, PPOW Gallery, New York, April 21-May 21, 2016. Accessed online November 1, 2019 https://carlosmotta.com/writings/Motta_Getsy_PPOW.pdf
4. Manuel Betancourt, “Carlos Motta on Excavating a Queer Historical Past and Imagining its Future,” Extra Extra Magazine No.12 (2019), 116. Accessed October 24, 2019 https://carlosmotta.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Extra-Extra-No.12-Carlos-Motta-Manuel-Betancourt-1.pdf
5. Ibid, 108.
6. Manuel Betancourt, “Carlos Motta on Excavating a Queer Historical Past and Imagining its Future,” Extra Extra Magazine No.12 (2019), 116. Accessed October 24, 2019 https://carlosmotta.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Extra-Extra-No.12-Carlos-Motta-Manuel-Betancourt-1.pdf
7. Carlos Motta and Maya Mikdashi discuss “Deseos” at Ashkal Alwan, Beirut. May 26, 2015. Accessed online October 25, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YnrVJ8nxXq8
8. Catherine Field, “The Fading Art of Letter Writing,” The New York Times, Feb. 3, 2011. Accessed online November 2, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/04/opinion/04iht-edfield04.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&
9. Zach Blas, ed., “Opacities: An Introduction + Biometrics and Opacity: A Conversation” in In Practice: Opacities, Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2 92 (2017), accessed November 3, 2019. http://www.zachblas.info/writings/opacities-introduction-biometrics-opacity-conversation/
10. “Syria: The Ottoman period. Ottoman government, 16th-17th Centuries,” The Encyclopaedia Britannica. accessed November 2, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/place/Syria/Ottoman-period
11. Geeta Patel quoted in Elizabeth Freeman, “Time Binds, or Erotohistoriography,” Social Text 84-85, Vol. 23, Nos. 3-4, Fall-Winter 2005, 57. Accessed online November 2, 2019 http://www.faculty.virginia.edu/theorygroup/docs/57.freeman.time-binds.2005.pdf
12. Ibid, 58.
13. Ibid, 59.
14. Avi Alpert, “Carlos Motta: Histories for the Future.” The Miami Rail, December 3, 2016. Acessed online November 3, 2019. https://miamirail.org/reviews/carlos-motta-histories-for-the-future/