r e v i e w s

Kay Zevallos Villegas

by Guillaume Lasserre

Desiring “the undesirable”

… if I speak of the honestý of morals, of the team towards inferiors, so little practised in France, and the determination to despise and show contempt for the vicious, I notice from their embarrassment that they suspect me of speaking the Peruvian language, and that mere politeness makes them pretend to hear me.
(Letter 34) 
Françoise de Graffigny, Letters from a Peruvian Woman 

This portrait stems from current events, about Kay Zevallos Villegas, a Peruvian artist living and working in Paris, currently in residence at the Cité internationale des arts, through her solo exhibition “Undesirables. Cartography of Desire“, at the Alliance Française in Lima. A few months ago, on 21st July, the first version was censored just a few hours after it opened in Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon where she grew up. The press release from the artist, which invited people to support the banned project by signing a petition, ended with these words: “We are free to express ourselves and love freely, if government institutions start censoring freedom and do not recognise people’s rights, let there be no doubt that actions like these motivate discrimination, violence and hate crimes”. After the failed coup attempt on 7th December and the announcement by the Alliance Française, in full agreement with the artist, of the temporary postponement of the opening of the exhibition out of respect for and solidarity with the Peruvians, fate seemed to be playing its part. But there is no such thing as fate and the opening finally took place on 14th December despite concerns raised by current events. On the same day, the government declared a state of emergency. The artist admits that the situation is deteriorating day by day. The exhibition is curated by the Iquitos-born artist Christian Bendayán, who also promotes Amazonian artists.

Dancer, choreographer, performer, actress, director and visual artist Kay Zevallos Villegas, Kay by her artist’s name, directs the Peruvian theatre and dance company based in Paris, Création Siento, which she founded in 2016 as a laboratory for contemporary creation. Her artistic training took place in Peru, Argentina and France. She graduated in 2012 from the University of the Arts of Buenos Aires (UNA) as a dance and theatre performer and continued her studies as a director and playwright at the University of Nanterre from which she graduated in 2020. She created her first choreography, “Entre dos mundos” (2010), before even graduating and her first theatre production, “Immigrants“, in 2012. Six years later, at Ariane Mnouchkine’s Théâtre du Soleil, at the Cartoucherie de Vincennes, she presented “Peruvian Letters“, freely adapted from the epistolary account by Françoise de Graffigny published in 1747 which recounts the experience of Zilia, a young woman captured by Spanish conquistadors in Peru before being forced to travel to France during the reign of Louis XV which she recounts in letters to her estranged lover, telling the story of her adaptation to French language and culture. The artist creates a contemporary adaptation between story and dance, the real and the virtual.

The traditions and myths of the Peruvian Amazon, the land of her childhood, permeate all her work. Kay endeavours to express her anthropological enquiries through her artistic creations. Her work interlaces individual and collective memories at the interface of tradition and modernity, to reflect on the postcolonial relations between Europe and South America. Cartography, understood as a network of existing or future links, occupies a central place in her work. The spatial dimension connects the body to the world and the bodies to each other. In her visual works, she brings together the organic and the synthetic, the natural and the artificial, the living and the inanimate. She combines bodies to bring them closer together and thereby obtain an in-between body that she likes to transform through disguise and duplication, as the critic and independent curator Claire Luna explained. On Amazonian soil, nothing is fixed, everything is transformed.

The series of thirty-five photographs that comprise “The Undesirables. Cartography of Desire” (2020) is the record of a documentary and personal journey undertaken by the artist. Peru’s recent history has been marked by violent clashes between the army and the Shining Path and the Túpac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). The LGBTQ+ population has been particularly targeted by the “social cleansing” policy carried out by the two guerrilla groups. “Many of them used the rivers to escape, to create new territories, to take refuge there“, explains the artist. To understand the discourse and the representation of the drag community, one must follow the path of these invisible bodies, deprived of their own existence. In 2020, the journey to Iquitos was for an initiation ritual. Kay did it to spend time in the drag community where she is named Estrella. During her initiation, she used the clothes of her “sisters”, transformed herself at their pace and to their liking, and took part in performances. As Claire Luna points out, Kay modernises the practice of the Brazilian anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, favouring a view from the inside to understand a culture, in this case a community. Last summer’s journey was just as initiatory. The artist was the first cisgender woman to enter the drag community in Iquitos. She completed her initiation ritual by taking the name of Estrella Ice, thus bearing the name of the mother of the house to which she belongs and can now take to the stage to defend its colours during dance battles. Made up and adorned in the same way as any member of the drag community, Kay aka Estrella Ice was part of the family, so much so that underneath the thick layers of make-up, few would suspect that she was assigned female at birth: “The first time I danced on an LGBTQ+ stage, the person who introduced me to the audience said that I was a biological female. I was mistaken for a man,” she confides, before saying, “Anyone can do drag.”

Wherever she is, everything seems to lead Kay back to the Peruvian Amazon, to the gateway to the immense equatorial forest that no boundary can contain, and which occupies sixty per cent of Peru’s national territory. This is a far cry from the clichés of the immensity of a luxuriant jungle traditionally conveyed in the Western press. The artist’s Amazon is urban and neglected, abandoned by the state in a highly centralised country. In this constant return to Iquitos, the artist seems fascinated, a fascination that goes back to childhood, a contradictory feeling that runs through the region, defining it as both gentle and violent, hospitable and murderous. In 2019, she performed in the city’s market square, using the gazebo that occupies its centre both as a stage and body of performative action. The monument was donated to the city by the Chinese community and is known as ‘La Glorieta’, which gives its title to the performance (2019) as well as to the video (2020) and photographic series (2020) that emerged from it. She sets up a reconstructed banquet with fruit and other market products from the painting ‘El banquete’ (2013) by Christian Bendayán to further investigate the role of the viewer and that of the woman who serves as the model for the painting. For the public who come to consume the offerings, it is a product like any other. Each sampling from this orgiastic mountain of food generates physical and symbolic self-violence on the part of the artist. The performance ends when there is almost nothing left, only waste and a few leftovers. She then becomes waste herself. “Another cycle has begun; I have become a waste product that serves as food for others. The chain continues, up the ladder of power,” she writes about the work. From the film of the same name, made from the footage of the performance, to which she adds shots of the surrounding rivers and forests, she brings in a new protagonist, a person who was in the audience at the time of the performance. Here, the memory of the city merges with the mythical or the sacred to form a single reality.

In February 2019, Kay was at the Grand Palais in Paris where she participated in the Art Capital fair. The hushed, sheltered atmosphere of the contemporary art fair contrasted sharply with the Gilets Jaunes revolt then raging in the streets of Paris. The performance “Preparation for Sacrifice” (2019), which she created under the glass roof of the Grand Palais during the fair, is her response. “If we do not consider art as a means of examining the human condition, it will not achieve its objective. It will remain a mimicry instead of becoming a creation. During my intervention, two tears occurred at the same time: I tore a heart full of sand inside the Grand Palais at the exact moment when the “Gilets Jaunes” broke the silence of the Parisian streets. Two distant cries, which, when brought together, reflect the malaise of an era. Without all those people who demonstrate life, and therefore art, both are emptied of their substance. Art, if it is humanistic, must lead to a visceral understanding of human beings at the moment of their contradictions.” Political involvement among contemporary visual artists is rare. Attempting to bring in the sounds of the street kept at a good distance from a glass palace where, for a moment that they believe to be glorious, the supporters of an academicism that is already past and whose conservatism transpires from the very name of the show: “Art Capital”, is to resolutely choose the camp of the living.

The Peruvian Amazon is a land to be devoured. Everything is taken away, extracted, ripped out, but the products of these extractions never return to the city. Iquitos and its inhabitants are the victims of a centralised system that has allowed the very large-scale industrial development of the region. Yet it reveals itself to be plural through the people who live there, through its stories, its beliefs, its traces, multiplying the cosmovision, how the universe is perceived. Because of its lack of light, its shadows are numerous. They permit Kay to conjure up a hidden part of her history. At the National Gallery in Prague, the artist will soon present “Shadow of the Amazon“. Part spectacle, part installation and part performance, the proposal, “a project of mutant staging and living exhibition“, is an opportunity for the artist to summon up the legend of the Bufeo Colorado, a pink dolphin living in the rivers of the Amazon basin that every night transforms itself into a man to break into the bedrooms of young girls. The legend is said to have been interpreted in the Peruvian Amazon, particularly in the Iquitos region, during the second phase of the “rubber fever” (1942-45) to justify pregnancies out of wedlock and the rape of underage girls, the fish man having become a white man. Through this fable, the artist reveals the mystery of a region that the world continues to look upon as a space to be protected or exploited. Behind this “green hell”, are we not unconsciously striving to find a lost paradise? “Humanity sees what it wants. It wants to save what it imagines,” writes Kay in her statement of intent for “Shadow of the Amazon”. Certainly, on this Amazonian land, nothing stands still.

1 Ante la censura de la exposición “Los indeseables. Cartografías del deseo” by Kay Zevallos, petition, change.org, https://www.change.org/p/ante-la-censura-de-la-exposición-fotográfica-sobre-la-comunidad-drag-en-la-amazon%C3%ADa-peruana?recruiter=41066882&recruited_by_id=ae4b1d00-550c-0130-11e5-00221968d0e0 Referred to 15th December 2022.

2 A great literary success in its day, the novel then fell into oblivion for almost two centuries before being rediscovered in the second half of the twentieth century through Anglo-Saxon gender studies. The author is considered to be the figure of feminism in the classical era, and has been published extensively in the United States. Françoise de Graffigny, Letters from a Peruvian Woman, France, Duchesne 1780 (1747),

3 The Communist Party of Peru – Shining Path, in Spanish: Partido Comunista del Perú – Sendero Luminoso (PCP-SL), founded in the 1970s by Abimael Guzman who, in 1980, took the lead of the armed insurgency resulting from dissidence within the Peruvian Communist Party. A major player in the armed conflict that dominated the 1980s and 1990s in Peru and claimed nearly 70,000 victims, Shining Path is officially listed as a terrorist organisation by the United States, Canada and the European Union.

4The Movimiento Revolucionario Tupac Amaru (MRTA) is a revolutionary movement that emerged in Peru in 1984. It takes its name, Túpac Amaru, from the mestizo leader who rose up against the Spanish colonists in the 16th century.

5 Any practice or intention to eradicate undesirable members of society such as the homeless, street children, sex workers, etc.

6 Captured on 12th February 2012, former Shining Path leader Florindo Eleuterio Flores Hala justified the killings of homosexuals and trans people as “acts of war”. Jordi De Lima, ‘Perú: cabecilla terrorista recién capturado reconoce haber asesinado a “delincuentes comunes y homosexuales”, DM Dozmanzanas, 27th February 2012, https://www.dosmanzanas.com/2012/02/peru-cabecilla-terrorista-recien-capturado-reconoce-haber-asesinado-a-delincuentes-comunes-y-homosexuales.html Viewed on 10th December 2022.

7 Unless otherwise stated, the statements reported were made during discussions with the artist.

8 Art Capital was formed from the union of several older fairs: Comparaisons, the Salon des Artistes Français, Dessin et Peinture à l’eau, and the Salon des Artistes Indépendants.

 Kay Zevallos Villegas in her statement of intent for the project.

9 Ibid.