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JULY 15, 2016–JANUARY 15, 2017

In Carlos Motta’s video Deseos/ 2015 ) تابغر ; co-written with Maya Mikdashi), a slow pan of the camera moves up the side of a moldy and abandoned hamam in Beirut. The film is narrated through fictional letters exchanged by Nour, in Beirut, and Martina, in Colombia, and is based on nineteenth-century archives. As Nour describes to Martina her passionate love for Aisha, and her fear of Aisha being taken away from her by patriarchal demands, the camera moves from the decaying wall to a kaleidoscopic series of skylights. While Nour’s story moves from passion to fear, the camera appears to work at cross-purposes, moving from decay to beauty. Motta’s skill in moments like these is placing our positions and values in turmoil. The mold on the wall (distinctly vaginal in shape) is not only decay here, but also representative of the space where we are left alone to grow and develop our own logic. The skylight not only depicts beauty, but also the way in which claims to beauty and harmony can deny what Edouard Glissant called “the right to opacity.”

The scene also enacts a larger, self-reflexive question present in Motta’s work: how is it that narration and video, acts that capture and fix subjects, can be agents on the side of freedom, which requires flexibility and change? Part of the answer, in this scene, is to question the objectivity of the camera. The light sensor is simply not fast enough to catch up to the changing conditions, and so it appears as if the wall of the hamam is itself transforming. Wall, camera, identity—all these fictions of stability begin to crumble. Motta here draws our attention to the fact that what the camera or the archive presents us with is as much a fiction as any work of art. As Motta narrates in another video in the show, “I seek a lie in which I can construct myself.” Deseos/ تابغر and other works on view present this grappling with the fictions that suture the fragments of reality.

Motta is certainly not denying that there are real things in the world, including real archives of difference that were erased in the colonial encounter. He suggests that it is not merely a matter of uncovering this reality, but that how we narrate, film, and discuss life—by which fictional methods we come to understand the world—is equally important. This is evident in how Motta explores colonial accounts of sexuality in the Americas in his Nefandus trilogy (2013) and the figurines that make up Towards a Homoerotic Historiography (2014). The former offers a series of stories about the violence enacted by European conquerors on the diverse sexualities of the inhabitants of what are now the Americas. In the latter, Motta imagines and recreates homoerotic sculptures from precolonial times. These are based on fragments, drawings, and colonial descriptions, and shown in tiny vitrines in a darkened room, mimicking the display standards of many “Pre-Columbian” sections of art and history museums.

Throughout history, human communities have established protocols for how to relate the ineffable and the practical, and perhaps there is no more contested arena for this than sexuality. It is increasingly understood by scholars that recent “progress” in liberal democracies to open to the fluidity of sex and gender in fact echoes global histories of sexuality in which a greater diversity of erotic practices flourished. No doubt there were aggressions and repressions and hierarchies as problematic as any we experience today, but understanding the diversity of the histories of human sexuality can help us better understand our past and create more complex and affirming futures.

One of the key claims of this ongoing scholarship is that there was not only a diversity of sexual practices, but also a diversity of what was considered to be sex. Pete Sigal, one of several scholars Motta organized to speak at a symposium at the museum in September, has argued with respect to the Nahua people of Mexico that they “envisioned sexual relations as elements of a larger set of ritual practices designed to promote fertility: of gods, humans, animals, and the earth.” 1 Thus included in this category would be the burning of crops as much as the groping of genitals. Some of what Motta’s work suggests is that we, too, envision our sexual relations beyond the autonomy of the sexual sphere—it is in our politics, our labor, our cooking, our fashion, our art.

Motta confronts us less with an exotic past and more with an ongoing present that many refuse to recognize. Like the gaze of the camera struggling to keep up with changing light, our perceptual and conceptual apparatuses can barely keep up with the passionate flow of reality. The truths (the lies) we create in order to do so have the power to enable both our freedom and the power to enable our greatest cruelties against one another. There is no solution here, no perfected harmony of desire just around the corner. But works like Motta’s are part of a sexual awakening— both at the level of our desire and in our ability to comprehend it.

1 Pete Sigal, The Flower and the Scorpion: Sexuality and Ritual in Early Nahua Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 12.