On Monday, New York-based musical duo Sofi Tukker appeared on The Tonight Show in a type of jungle drag, performing their song “Best Friend.” Grooving to their funky track, the duo boogied next to a sculptural set-up of palm fronds, banana leaves, fake flowers and a series of cut-out animal silhouettes in what Billboard magazine described as taking host Jimmy Fallon “to a tropical disco.” Born in Boston and Germany respectively, neither Tucker or Halwey-Weld hail from the tropics, making the performance an odd mélange of stereotypes.
Though perhaps ill-advised and definitely (if amusingly) cheesy, Sofi Tukker’s performance certainly wasn’t an anomaly. Instead, it is just the most recent illustration of how the tropics have been appropriated, consumed and eroticized. In fact, since the colonial free-for-all of the 19th century, the tropics have been depicted as a sweltering, sweaty and smoldering pleasurable primordial paradise.
Of course, this conception of the tropics is mirrored in various cultural objects from the West–the most obvious being Gaugin’s awkward and troublesome depictions of young girls in the lush greenery of Tahiti, which are now emblazoned on the side of a trashy series of Louis Vuitton bags thanks to Jeff Koons. But despite pedo Paul’s series being the most notorious, there are many, many more examples of how the tropics–with their luxurious landscapes and even, more mysterious people–become the romanticized, fantasied and ultimately, controlled Other.
It’s this history that the current group show Queer Tropics engages with at Pelican Bomb Gallery X in New Orleans. Featuring eight artists, the exhibition takes the hackneyed and sometimes, problematic representations of the tropics as its starting point to explore how these aesthetics and histories may be complicated.
Walking through Madeline Gallucci’s printed curtain The Sweetest Heat Has No Vacancy, Queer Tropics presents a multidisciplinary and multifaceted approach to reconfiguring, redefining and reassessing tropical aesthetics. The works range from Victoria Martinez’s monumental textile banner Body over Body, collaged from a variety of materials from their primarily Mexican neighborhood in Chicago, to Ash Arder’s audio piece Experiment Station, which recontextualizes archival materials about the Ramie Machine Trials in New Orleans’s Audubon Park to forge links between violence against land and the bodies of people of color, to Carlos Motta’s films that mine histories of same-sex desire and its criminalization by Spanish and Portuguese colonization.
The exhibition–part of Pelican Bomb’s programming, which also includes an online art review and community-based art initiatives–is also a satellite project of Prospect. 4, the New Orleans-based triennial. Somehow, though, this small exhibition is more cohesive and nuanced than the larger city-spanning exhibition, curated by Trevor Schoonmaker. In fact, Queer Tropics feels as if it was organized as a direct response to some of Prospect. 4’s gaping holes, even though it was planned before.
While both exhibitions address many of the same issues, including the intersection of colonialism, race and power, Prospect. 4, with the theme The Lotus In Spite Of The Swamp, feels a bit like Colonialism 101. In particular, Prospect 4 seems to almost deliberately avoid anything having to do with sex or sexual identity. In contrast, Queer Tropics takes a firmly intersectional perspective, while still training its sights on the relation between international and local histories with New Orleans as the oft quoted “northernmost Caribbean city.”
Rather than a one-dimensional rejection of the objectifying portrayal of the tropics, Queer Tropics features a dual embrace and critique of these aesthetics, mirroring José Esteban Muñoz’s notion of disidentification. For instance, recognizable, yet altered, tropical patterns appear throughout the gallery like Joiri Minaya’s Redecode: a tropical theme is a great way to create a fresh, peaceful, relaxing atmosphere. Minaya harnesses the well-known Martinique Banana Leaf pattern and transforms it into an almost indistinguishable pixelated wallpaper. Through this conversion, Minaya takes the pattern as her own, while at the same time, refusing its identifiable and fetishistic qualities.
Similarly, Adrienne Elise Tarver’s Botanica Magica covers the back room with bright green leaves that panoramically spread across the gallery’s walls. Hidden in this foliage, various limbs and figures of women jut out, barely discernible from the pattern. By never quite allowing the viewer a clear glimpse of their bodies, Tarver’s site-specific installation preserves her female figures’ agency and power.
While Tarver uses nature as a means to protect, other artists show how the regulation of land relates to the control inflicted on bodies. They are certainly not the only ones who recognize this historical connection. In her essay “Migratory Vices” in Queer Diasporas, Cindy Patton explores how the development of “tropical” medicine in the early 19th and 20th centuries clearly distinguished the colonists from Other. She writes, “A tropical disease is always proper to a place, to there, but only operates as a disease when it afflicts people from here. Pathogens in a locale enter into the history of medicine only when consolidated as disease in the colonist’s body” (20). According to Patton, the tropics are always already there whether a foreign pathogen, land, history and body.
This relation between foreign land and body is visible in Kerry Downey’s series Territories, of which two (Territories IV and Territories I) are on view. These drawings, created by rubbing graphite over hot glue reliefs, resemble, at once, ambiguous body parts and land masses from either a smudged map or surgical drawing. In particular, the shapes in Territories I look like amorphous, disembodied breasts. With these dual references, Downey shows how hegemonic power wields control over bodies of difference just as it seeks to define territories in its image.
This interest in–and control over–marginalized bodies isn’t just for the hetero or cis-normative. From the 19th century on, gay writers have used the tropics as a means to illustrate exotic and illicit same-sex desire, from Andre Gide’s vivid portrayal of Michel’s wanton wanderings around colonial Tunisia and Algeria in The Immoralist to William S. Burroughs’s dope-strewn Mexico to more recently, Gary Indiana’s forays into Cuba in his memoir I Can Give You Anything But Love (“Down here fascination with male beauty impedes my progress”). Even people from the tropics get hypersexualized in novels such as Andrew Holleran’s Dancer From The Dance, whose characters frequently lust after Latino men in even darker New York discos.
Some artists deal with this conflation of the tropics with hypereroticism directly as in Pacifico Silano’s photo-sculpture Plant Study No. 1, which brings together images of nude men lounging (or fucking) next to tropical plants from 1970s gay porn magazines. Like the bodies of people from the tropics, the plants become a symbol of the exotic made domestic.
This use of the tropical as a symbol for sexual exuberance is also referenced in Silano’s nearby The Copa, a screenprint of an ad for the bygone gay nightclub The Copa in Ft. Lauderdale. Closed in 2005, after being wiped out by Hurricane Wilma, the ad boasts, “This Disco Goes To Paradise Nightly.” With multiple iterations of the same Xeroxed advertisement, the screenprint is notably absent of bodies, a nod to the loss of community after the closure of the club. In addition to the disco nostalgia, for which I’m obviously a sucker, Silano, through his layering process, makes the advertisement nearly illegible by cutting and fracturing the image. The image, like The Copa itself, remains unattainable.
Like Silano, a majority of the artists in the show explore how illegibility–or the refusal of visibility–can confront the overdetermination of tropical lands and the people that inhabit them. This refusal is perhaps best illustrated by Joiri Minaya’s photograph Container #1, which portrays the artist entirely wrapped in a printed fabric resembling a mummy. Like Hunter Reynolds’s mummification performances, which, in part, reference the sexual fetish of mummification, this photograph is both a tacit rejection of the viewer’s gaze and an engagement with the fetishizing of the exotic Other. With the artist both covered and laying in leaves, the photo consciously avoids participating in the hypervisibility of marginalized people.
While this refusal has been an art-making practice for decades, it becomes an even more crucial method of resistance now as marginalized identities, including those inhabiting the tropics, have been appropriated for clickbait-y forms of allyship and consumerist-driven social justice. As artist Geo Wyeth says in a conversation in the publication Trap Door: Trans Cultural Production And The Politics Of Visibility, “Refusal can be a sort of protest of all these conditions of being” (200).