Queer art has recently formed a distinct category (from the perspective of political relevance) within the contemporary Romanian scene. The narratives proposed by artists are powerful, fresh and revolutionary voices that (hardly) counterbalance the homophobic discourse prevailing in the local mentality. The Romanian context, largely similar to the Eastern European in general, is deeply marked by active homophobia. Artists became the main allies of a community without a voice, absent from history and now marginalized both by the state and by society. Romania emerged out of communism with a homophobic legislation that sentenced to prison people engaging in same-sex relationships, which remained in effect until 2001. The abolition of the anti-gay legislation marked the beginning of the struggle to make the LGBTQ community visible and the fight against homophobia in society. In the early 2000s, the first queer projects on the local stage took place as individual, isolated and marginal initiatives compared to the visual arts scene. The number and size of queer projects grew organically without the support of public institutions, except for the National Dance Center in Bucharest (CNDB).
Established in 2005, CNDB was from the very beginning an exclusive space for the contemporary productions that encouraged radical narratives and facilitated performative experiments that tested the present, ethically, aesthetically and politically transgressive. In this new context, in 2008 the first queer project that managed to break free from the closed circles of the artistic scene and be debated by the mainstream press was produced. Manuel Pelmuş and Brynjar Bandlien, two of today’s avant-garde choreographers, performed a gay kiss in front of a New York audience that included some homophobes from the Romanian diaspora. The moment is part of The Gate of Kiss performance, signed by Manuel Pelmuş and Bynjar Bandlen in collaboration with Stefan Tiron and Andy Sinboy at the National Dance Center in Bucharest, during the Zilele strâmbe festival and then presented at Chez Bushwick in New York. The performance consisted of an academic conference about Constantin Brâncuşi and the choreographic enacting of Poarta Sarutului (The Gate of Kiss), part of the monumental ensemble made in Târgu Jiu (becoming a national symbol).
The two choreographers embrace in a natural and very sincere kiss, shocking perhaps due to the lack of any artificiality that could have mediated the impact through theatricality. The embraced bodies translate into choreographic language the sculptural shape of the kiss simplified by Brâncuşi, a kiss that, by reducing it to the essence of the form, had been degendered. The queer appropriation of “national values” through gay enacting produces a transgression in front of a homophobic audience. Performance has become revolutionary through the radicalness with which a simple gesture has succeeded in shattering the comfort of the viewers, revolting them and making them retaliate in the press. Manuel Pelmuş’s transgression reaffirmed the limit of the presence of non-heterosexual sexuality in the public space, which is still very strongly bound to the norms of Romanian society. Foucault considers transgression to be about the limit, which it affirms precisely through the gesture of breaking it. Part of the audience left the room. Then the Romanian diaspora press, followed by the national press, immediately attacked the simple kiss between the two choreographers and called it the “kiss of death.” “To attempt to think starting from existence, which is so pure and yet so entangled, inside the space which it draws, we must cleanse it of its suspicious allegiance with ethics,” wrote Foucault in the Preface to Transgression. Manuel Pelmuş and Brynjar Bandlien continued their queer activities in Bucharest through a series of projects at CNDB (the Zilele Strâmbe / Crooked Days Festival) and through the reflection and initiative group formed with Farid Fairuz and Radu Leşevschi (Căminul Cultural / The Cultural Home). Their projects have permanently included an educational component, providing the first queer space for reflection on the local scene and seeking to open the limits of the dominant Orthodox ethics.
The CNDB support and then the gradual development of the independent scene allowed a consistent partnership between some artists and queer issues. Over the last decade, shows or performances that address LGBTQ issues have been produced. Both independent theater and contemporary dance constantly propose new discourses about sexuality, make non-conforming gender identities visible and question specific homophobic taboos. The heart of the queer community in Bucharest is the choreographer Paul Dunca, the initiator of the Queer Night party label (alongside Manuel Pelmuş, Cosima von Bulove and Ion Dumitrescu). Paul Dunca is a total queer artist, a local icon that often performs from Butler’s premise that gender is fluid (therefore performative), therefore he constantly (de/re)constructs it. Paul Dunca is an omnipresent, ubiquitous, queer diva at alternative parties, often in drag and with such verve that he is often the soul of the party. His recent choreographies are inspired by the reality of his group of friends within the queer nightlife and manage to bring to light many of the essential issues of the (quasi-invisible) environment they live in.
Visual art was slow to create spaces for queer discourse, given the non-existence of the alternative scene (until the second half of the 2000s) and the monopolization of state institutions or exhibitions by conservative groups. The visual art scene was dominated by power centers formed by artists oriented towards a latent nationalism manifested in the praise of Orthodoxy in art, which periodically charged any artistic naughtiness, using their alliance with right-wing intellectuals. The countless scandals of this period, in which any taboo violation was vehemently challenged by long moralizing texts, are notorious. Gradually, these groups were marginalized and they weren’t of interest to the new independent scene, which was more flexible and open to testing contemporaneity and integrating “others” who were deprived of the heteronormative majority’s audience.
Queer contemporaneity was introduced to the art scene by Sorin Oncu, the first gay-out artist active in Romania. Sorin Oncu debuted in Timișoara in 2004 and continued to produce a politically engaged art on behalf of the minority to which he belonged until the premature end of his life in 2016. Oncu remained marginal because of his perseverance with which he brought never before debated subjects in art shows that were generally inspired by his personal experience as a gay immigrant in a homophobic country that prevents him from acquiring citizenship (despite him being a Romanian born in Serbia, living for ten years Timișoara). His interventions did not go unnoticed in Timișoara as Sorin was assaulted on the street and hospitalized after the beating he received from a group of homophobes. There have also been other artists who were physically assaulted or verbally threatened over time.
Nowadays, things are completely different from the early 2000s period when Sorin Oncu’s approach was a singular one, far from the interests of the scene. The general context has remained unfriendly and the mainstream scene is still conservative. However, now there are several groups of community action and queer political initiative that include visual artists who are active within the Romanian alternative scene. These groups represent a safe meeting environment where culture and local queer theory can occur. In Bucharest, the Macaz Cooperative has been operating since 2014 as a queer bar and theater run by artists engaged in ant capitalist politics. In Cluj-Napoca, the Les Sisterhood feminist community has been activating since 2015. In addition to these, two independent contemporary cultural spaces who are very active within the scene, ODD and Tranzit (Bucharest, Cluj, Iași) have joined the LGBT cause, providing constant support and production for queer projects. The initiatives are small and affected by precariousness, yet solidarity between artists and activists have created a bubble of normality for the LGBT community. Queer culture continues to rise in the underground of the local scene and becomes more and more visible thanks to research, production etc. by the various allied independent initiatives. The cultural scene is the only resistance to the homophobic insurrection that spread in Romania around 2015. Defenders of the Christian-Orthodox tradition came together in a civil initiative emblematically called the Coalition for the Family. Under the pretense of a “clear” definition for the family in the constitution, a handful of fanatics succeeded in bringing together 3 million people to cause a referendum to restrict some non-existent de facto rights for those living in families outside of marriage. In this surreal situation, only a small part of the cultural scene and the press is fighting alongside the LGBT community against this homophobic insurrection. In such a context, queer art remains one of the most powerful weapons of the LGBT cultural revolution.
An important dimension of local queer art is brought on by feminist artists who are concerned with the principles of intersectionality (anti-capitalist, antiracist, queer). After a long artistic, curatorial, political and pedagogical activity, in 2014 Simona Dumitriu started working with her partner, Ramona. Simona & Ramona (aka Claude & Derch) put forward art projects that are anchored in the immediate reality of their non-conforming family life. Their work is multidisciplinary and their practice combines poetry, performance, photography, video art and text experiments. Simona and Ramona are active inside of underground groups that have become spaces for queer-feminist reflection, artistic production and political action. In Romania, their activity is known in the alternative circles, the radicality of feminist discourse not yet being accepted (or acknowledged) by the mainstream culture.
The queer discourse, however, has reached the cultural mainstream in one of Bucharest’s glamorous galleries, Suprainfinit, through a substantially radical and transgressive project signed by queer photographer Virginia Lupu in 2016. tossing and turning, crushing and teasing, breaking and shaping, which brought together a selection of photographs documenting the life of a group of transgender workers, commissioned by curator Adriana Tranca in a show following “western standards” at Suprainfinit was surprising. The exhibition could be summed up in an aestheticizing of a queer approach that becomes vulnerable to the point of fetishizing. In reality, however, the project took place in a queer context that surpasses the photographic image and materializes in a profound personal relationship of friendship and solitude between Virginia Lupu and the transgender women represented in the photos. There women are now integrated into political action groups comprised of artists and activists. Alexandra Gold, Letisia Shine, Anna Trasex, Amber Queen and Virginia Lupu lived together for one summer in an apartment in downtown Bucharest. Virginia Lupu never lets go of her camera and manages to captures random aspects of the group’s life. She’s playful, spontaneous and natural in the environment that has adopted and integrated her.
The group’s ordinary every day, memorized through the camera lens, becomes a dive into the often-blasphemed world of excluded, transgender sex workers. The queer femininity revealed in front of the camera respect its own aesthetic logic which is easily recognizable within the community. The transgender girls are preoccupied with maintaining and permanent beautifying of their own bodies; they love their femininity, conquered through struggle and efforts. Hair weaves, wigs, fake nails, silicone, lace, heels, lipstick, glitter are all identifying marks that encircle such flamboyant, but fragile femininities which give the photos a pop vibe. In fact, what is revealed to us behind the abundant makeup is a political femininity, pursued by the censorship of a heteronormative society, a femininity built through struggles at the edge of society and legality. Although the exhibition completely obscured the friendship between the girls, an honest and visibly non-hierarchical one, it still managed to bring to the public’s attention an unfamiliar, unintelligible world that faces discrimination at every step of its existence (the transition is very poorly regulated in Romania, the current conditions violate human dignity). I emphasize, however, that the process of this project is at least as relevant as the photographs themselves, which were taken consensually within a fair relationship, with the attention needed to work with a vulnerable group.
The recent history of queer art brings together a number of significant projects, which have also opened up the artistic scene towards accepting the LGBT diversity and created the premises for solidarity between artists, activists and the public in the necessary fight to diminish homophobia in Romania. The lack of commercial concern for the queer subject leaves this culture to grow within the underground where it develops in a fresh, authentic and revolutionary way. The partnership between male and female artists, alternative spaces, activists and NGOs managed to disturb the conservative self-sufficiency of the Romanian scene and to dismantle some of the local fundamentalist taboos.
Cover photo: Paul Dunca photographed by Alex Coman, 2017