Juan Davila: Queering the South

Juan Davila's recent retrospectives, held in Sydney and Melbourne, affirmed the astonishing array of historical, political, artistic, and cultural references populating his oeuvre since his move from Chile to Australia in 1974. As Davila explains: The circumstance of living in two extremes of the world, in two peripheral cultures, slowly forced me to look at the materiality of the circumstances where artworks operate. This text examines the work of Davila as being, in libidinal and critical measure, queer, and the extent to which this provides a signifying key to the artists TransPacific vision. The term queer is not merely called upon as one bound by its sexual connotations but as one used to describe a generalised sense of deviation from normalcy, within which Davilas work is here positioned. Specific works examined are: The Arse End of the World, Fable of Australian Painting, Retablo and Our Own Death amongst other key pieces.

Juan Davila The Liberator Simón Bolívar 1994  oil on canvas on metal, 125 x 98 cm, courtesy of the artist, © the artist.

In Juan Davila's world appearances are meant to deceive and provoke. Australia's Saint Mary MacKillop stands calmly, her miraculous phallus erect and glowing against her dark habit. Simón Bolívar, the Creole architect of Latin American independence from Spain, appears transsexualised on his steed, his breasts exposed, a fuck-you finger extended. Images of la Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas, decorate interiors that evoke the making-do poverty of the continent's sprawling shantytowns. A cur with John Howard's grinning face peers around the legs of Uncle Sam, gazing at a naked Aussie digger poised for an imminent anal probe. Signs of the US military industrial complex bleed into images of colonial-era contact, miscegenation and genocide, and of Mapuche Indian and Stolen Generation resilience and survival. Spanish and English phrases proliferate; no translations are provided for monolingual readers of either tongue. The Andes loom over detention centres in the South Australian desert. The cultural capital represented by Raphael, Courbet, Picasso, Léger, Matisse, Warhol, Christo and Lichtenstein is deformed with citations from Australian painters, the 19th century Peruvian artist Francisco Laso, Colombia's Fernando Botero, the Mexican muralistas, and the iconoclastic gay-porn cartoonist, Tom of Finland. Everywhere, prostheses, pumped breasts, dildos, bared arses and tumescent penises abound.

This is, I confess, an arbitrary, and condensed, set of impressions drawn from the Davila retrospective that was staged recently in Sydney and Melbourne.[1] The retrospective affirmed the astonishing array of historical, political, artistic, and cultural references populating Davila's oeuvre since his move from Chile in 1974. But as Davila acknowledged in 1979, relocation across the Pacific presented him with profound conceptual and spatial challenges: 'The circumstances of living in two extremes of the world, in two peripheral cultures, slowly forced me to look at the materiality of the circumstances where artworks operate.'[2] For the critic Roger Benjamin this acceptance of a dual peripheral location marked a 'decisive breakthrough' for the artist, undergirding 'the mechanism of citation' by which Davila has negotiated 'the labyrinth of the visual archive' for some three decades.[3]

Yet as my opening impressions suggest, the conjunction of the Chilean/Latin American and Australian peripheries has done more than present Davila with opportunities to pass judgement on the Australian visual art apparatus. Davila's work refuses to be constrained by, or in, that apparatus. Thus, over and beyond the need to trace his inevitable visual art references, audiences of Davila's work must also come to terms with the surprising resonances and unforgiving dissonances generated by the artist's idiosyncratic construction of a transPacific imaginary. But complicating matters further, Davila's imaginary of the transPacific South is, in equal libidinal and critical measure, queer.

By this I mean that queerness, understood as a personal identification and an anti-normative critical praxis, provides a signifying key to Davila's transPacific vision. Here it is worth recalling that queer had a currency before its contemporary life either as a euphemism for homosexual or as the name for a critical drive that moved beyond the civil rights and sexual-identity ambitions of Western gay and lesbian movements. Judith Butler notes that queer's non-sexual meanings reflected a generalised sense of 'deviation from normalcy'. Queer connoted 'of obscure origin, the state of feeling ill or bad, not straight, obscure, perverse, eccentric. As a verb-form, 'to queer' has a history of meaning: to quiz or ridicule, to puzzle, but also to swindle and to cheat.'[4] For Butler, critical uses of queer are shadowed by idiomatic uses of queer as an expression of rage directed against the hidden mechanisms of power. Discourses of repression, primarily related to gender and sexuality, but also to race and the heteronormative[5] nation, are exposed, shocked and, at times, detonated, by the queering urge.

Juan Davila Hysterical Tears (details) 1979, oil on canvas, each 178 X 661.5cm, courtesy of the artist, © the artist.

The Arse End of the World (1994) provides a point of entry, so to speak, into Davila's particular queering of the transPacific South. This painting offers a snide comment on the public stoush between Hawke and Keating in the early 1990s, cast here as a queer love gone wrong, and a critique of a post-colonial Australian mythos. The doomed colonial-era explorers Burke and Wills are placed naked on the banks of the Murray. Wills gives viewers a disdainful finger, Burke is anally serviced by the national icon, a kangaroo, and the whole scene is presented as a perverse variant of the popular Australiana used to promote Cooee camp tea. The painting provides a droll insight into what the artist calls, at the bottom of the work, 'The World Promised to Juanito L.'. The use of the Spanish diminutive, Little Juan, allows Davila to insert his migratory self – and establish a subtle transPacific connection – into an anti-idyll where power is held elsewhere, hence the British crown (top left) and the inverted U.S. flag (top centre) in the painting's implied north.

Davila takes a similarly disruptive stand against the visual art complex in its local and global guises. For example, in Fable of Australian Painting, a massive four-panelled painting from 1982-83, Davila disputes the autochthonous and autonomous credentials of Australian art, and thus of the nation itself. Australian independence is dismissed as a fantasy, a blank canvas called A Republic for Australia in the first panel. Just as fantastic is the androcentric and heteronormative enterprise of Australian art. Male figures dominate Davila's disparaging reading of art history in a country where the indigenous base is constrained (Uluru wrapped by Christo), and Aboriginal art is literally squashed by the unfettered gestures of canonical artists like Arthur Boyd. Moreover, Davila portrays Australian visual art canon formation as a venal institutionalised process, as implied by the 'Eureka' moment of discovery of the ANG[6] in the first panel. These challenges to orthodox art history are extended by the painting's queer citations: a naked figure with erect phallus, derived from Tom of Finland, embracing a eucalypt; a reproduction of a Mapplethorpe male nude; and intimations of cultural transvestism in the stilettos worn by Nolan's Ned Kelly and a hybrid fusion of Tucker and Adami. Such citations, which include the easel named 'Davila' in the second panel, impel disquieting conclusions. Women are absented from the nation's received art history, that history is resolutely homosocial, and national cultural debates are inward-looking, in denial of transcultural and transnational interchanges and conflicts.

With Retablo from 1989, Davila makes those interchanges messily explicit. The painting literally frames one representation of Australia – a bleached-out version of John Brack's famous The Bar (1955), now repopulated with images from the Australian art canon – inside colour-drenched imagery drawn from Latin American history and culture. The title is telling. Derived from the Latin retro-tabula (behind the altar), a retablo is a devotional image of thanks dedicated to a specific saint or the Virgin Mary, and usually painted in tempera on a wooden board or plate of tin, which is then placed in altars or recesses in churches. A dynamic folk art in much of Latin America, and Mexico in particular, the retablo tradition provides important insights into the daily lives and aspirations of featured subjects. In Davila's hands, however, the retablo eschews its Catholic origins by morphing into a perverse homage to his transPacific location. While the Brack painting occupies the retablo's centre, forming an internal altar of sorts, it is held in check by its vivid surroundings, which threaten to overwhelm the bar and its occupants. Those surroundings include: Aztec and Mayan figures; flora; images derived from the Mexican lithographer Posada and the Mexican mural tradition; references to lucha libre, the Mexican masked-wrestling form; a series of enigmatic portraits placed on their side along the painting's top; in the foreground, an indigenous fertility deity whose enormous phallus looms over a reclining nude, her left hand posed near her male genitalia. These references defy unpacking; but they also confirm the radical incommensurability of the Australian and Latin American worlds on view, and by implication, of the distinct historical settings in which art and politics collide.

Such dissonances typify Davila's work. The triptych Our Own Death (1991) shows a Tom of Finland-derived head kissing a European man in sixteenth-century dress, flanked by paintings of a kangaroo and a tortoise in cross-hatched Aboriginal style, over which are painted black silhouettes of a hatted European male building a hut (left) and urinating (right), below which are the hammer and sickle. Quite whose death is being envisaged here remains open to question, as is the work's message of perpetual cross-cultural conflict in societies produced by European colonisation. The massive Yawar Fiesta (Fiesta Sangrienta) (1988) presents an Andean version of the bullfight inherited from the Spanish conquistadors, here printed on a vinyl floor covering. The work's title conjoins Quechua and Spanish languages to remind audiences of the mestizo (mixed Indigenous and European) peoples and cultures produced since the arrival of the Spanish and Portuguese in the early sixteenth century. Dominating the scene, however, is a spearman tracking an emu, figures borrowed from the work of the nineteenth-century Aboriginal artist Tommy McRae. Scrawled on three sides of the vinyl surface are phrases, which, while hard to discern, contain the word huacho/a, Chilean-Spanish idiom for a boy or girl. Historically the word has also connoted the illegitimate, the abject, the bad, the outsider, and even the mestizo progeny abandoned or rejected by the (Euro) father and the patriarchal national order he centres. For Guy Brett Yawar Fiesta discloses 'the clash, or is it the interpenetration, of two worlds, the Andean and the European.'[7] However, the references to McRae, and the use of huacho/a, also point to the dissonant interpenetration of those worlds with the Australian world, and those worlds' divergent and parallel struggles over political power and representational presence, particularly for sectors with marginal or outsider status.

At times, Davila is direct in his political attacks. This is evident in his controversial transsexualised portraits of Simón Bolívar, the nineteenth-century Latin American 'Liberator' and virile icon of the continent's independence movements, which Davila completed in the early 1990s. Davila has little time for that iconic reputation. By ridiculing Bolívar's nationalist patriarchal aura he simultaneously mocks numerous targets: the heteronormative protocols of national projects, structures of inclusion and exclusion inherited from European imperial and colonial epochs, elite notions of culture, and the separation of art and politics. Less confrontational are Davila's more recent portraits that also raise questions about the cultural logics of the Australian national imagination. Entering Language (2004), for example, ostensibly depicts a traditional nuclear family: husband/father, wife/mother, and baby son, posing in front of a bleached-out Eureka flag. But these appearances deceive. The family in question is a composite of what the artist calls a nineteenth-century Chinese mother, an ageing Anglo patriarch, whose face is modelled on Davila's partner (the queer retort again), and a mixed-race child, the implied future of an Australia whose cultural contours, and political status, are yet to be elaborated.

Juan Davila Fable of Australian Painting 1982-1983 (first panel)  oil on canvas, 274 x 1096 cm © the artist, Museum of Contemporary Art, JW Power Bequest, purchased 1985.

Davila's transPacific imagination has, I think, always presented critics with a problem: how (queer) to read him? For example, in Nikos Papastergiadis's proposal that Australians must begin 'thinking sideways – towards other 'Southern Spaces'[8] he lauds Davila as a paradigmatic translator across Southern hemispherical cultural boundaries. For Papastergiadis, moreover, Davila's work ably represents the ordinariness of life 'in the pluralist environment of a globalised world' one characterised by the bricolaging of high and low, and of cultural references drawn from here (home, residence) and there (origin, distant locales).[9] Davila's work clearly oscillates between Latin American and Australian antipodes. He regards both locales as sharing an ambivalent historical relation to a colonising North. And yet I do not recognise Davila in Papastergiadis's generalised and de-queered description. Davila's queer transPacific vision is too uncompromising, unorthodox, anti-normative and deeply referential to be explained so neatly. Indeed, Davila's work reveals little faith in the enterprise of cross-cultural translation, which rests on the assumption that cultures are distinct, palpable and spatially restricted enough to be defined, crossed, translated, and known. As I read him, and fail to read him, Davila cannot be fixed as an emblematic agent of the banal ordinariness of cultural pluralism under globalisation.

That resistance to critical fixing appears to be an inevitable result of Davila's 'arse ends of the world' location. The artist's repository of references and signs comprises a transPacific South that only Davila himself can negotiate fully. The multiple threads of signification that he works with, and is at home in, do at times afford viewers the solace of moments of shared recognition, of glimpses into consonant histories and previously unimagined cultural resonances. But the same threads also lead to signifying dead ends, to bewilderment. Davila's cultural politics thus targets audience complacency and cultural orthodoxy alike. He encourages us to situate ourselves in relation to his transPacific imaginary, only to then exclude us, to remind us of our incapacity to decode everything we encounter, to know, to see our selves affirmed in his references, to have our cultural expectations ratified. But that, perhaps, is the key to Davila's unforgiving praxis. Obscure, perverse, eccentric, enraged: at times the epistemological, conceptual and representational lines drawn by Davila can, and do, block transcultural understanding. The message this remits for transcultural realities beyond Davila's world is clear, but not easily dealt with: there are inevitable gulfs in what we know, or assume we should know, about others, and thus about our selves and the 'South' we inhabit.



  1. ^ The retrospective was shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 9 Sept – 12 Nov 2006, and at the National Gallery of Victoria, 30 Nov 2006 – 4 Feb 2007.
  2. ^ Cited in Roger Benjamin, ‘The Mesh of Images’, in Guy Brett and Roger Benjamin, Juan Davila, Miegunyah Press/Museum of Contemporary Art, Melbourne/Sydney, 2006, p31.
  3. ^ ibid. p31, p26.
  4. ^ Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’, Routledge, New York, 1993, p176.
  5. ^ Heteronormativity (heteronormative): Those punitive rules (social, familial, and legal) that force us to conform to heterosexual standards for identity. The term is a short version of ‘normative heterosexuality’.
  6. ^ The ANG was the first name of the Australian National Gallery in Canberra which is now called the NGA, the National Gallery of Australia.
  7. ^ Guy Brett, ‘Nothing Has Been Settled’, in Guy Brett and Roger Benjamin, op.cit. p15.
  8. ^ Nikos Papastergiadis, ‘South-South-South: An Introduction’, in Complex Entanglements: Art, Globalisation and Cultural Difference, (ed.) Nikos Papastergiadis, Rivers Oram Press, London, 2003), p1.
  9. ^ ibid. p12.

Dr Paul Allatson is Senior Lecturer in Spanish Studies & (US) Latino Studies, Institute for International Studies, University of Technology Sydney, and Chair, Editorial Committee: PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies.