‘Some will say that all we have are the pleasures of this moment, but we must never settle for that minimal transport; we must dream and enact new and better pleasures, other ways of being in the world, and ultimately new worlds. Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present.’ – José Esteban Muñoz
Estoy vivo! These words (I am alive!) are embroidered at the centre of a green clover, which is stitched onto a muddy-red frazada (blanket). It may seem like a simple declaration. But, when Paraguayan artist Feliciano Centurión produced the work in 1996, he was HIV-positive, queer and living in Buenos Aires; surviving in a machista culture that derided queerness, in a world that did not tolerate HIV. Being alive was as much an act of resistance as a statement of fact.
This work is part of ‘I am Awake’ at Cecilia Brunson Projects, the artist’s first UK exhibition, which mostly features pieces made between 1992, when Centurión was diagnosed with HIV, and his death from AIDS-related illness in 1996. Despite these harrowing circumstances, the show highlights the quiet joy and optimism that underpins Centurión’s craft-based practice.
Centurión brought meticulous, time-consuming handiwork to commercially produced objects. A family of cheap, plastic dinosaurs, each wearing a hand-knitted sweater, feels cherished (‘Familia de Dinosaurios’, Dinosaur Family, c.1990); a line of paper plates is painted with animals from Centurión’s childhood, including snails and salamanders (‘Untitled’, c.1990); and two full-sized frazadas are painted and embroidered with flora and fauna (Ave del Paraiso Florecido, Bird of Paradise in Bloom, c.1995, and Eres Una Flor Única, You Are a Unique Flower, 1994).
Centurión’s work bears the influence of Paraguay’s indigenous Guaraní culture, which holds a strong lineage of sewing, as well as of his mother and grandmother, who taught him lacemaking, embroidery and crochet. The frazadas that he uses were also made in Paraguay, though for a global market. By imbuing these commodities with care and close attention, Centurión’s works pay homage to an indigenous tradition that was being coopted, as well as connecting with a country that was no longer his residence.
Centurión worked with female friends and relatives on many of his works. There is a sense that his practice was a way to build a lineage and connect with a past and future that was not contingent on the heteronormative nuclear family. In Cruising Utopia (2009), Muñoz writes: ‘Queerness is that thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing,’ proposing that creative visions for alternative futures or ‘concrete utopias’ can serve as ways of resisting the ‘broken-down present’. In both his methodology and the content of his work, then, Centurión was building his own form of a concrete utopia.
Centurión’s portrayals of animals and plants – whilst referencing the artist’s youth, which he described as saturated by the natural world – nonetheless also describe a world elsewhere, one not yet realized. In Ave del Paraiso Florecido, the depicted animal does not belong to the Paradisaea family – it is a product of the artist’s imagination. Its rich colours – characteristic of Centurión’s vibrant palette – speak of a joy that is not easy, but determined and stubborn. An optimism for a future where queerness is not othered; where those diagnosed with HIV would not face ostracization; where familial bonds were not heterosexual bloodlines; where Guaraní knowledge was honoured and not commodified.
Considering that these works were produced while Centurión was living with HIV, the choice of blankets as a surface for inscription feels particularly significant. His use of bedlinen feels less like a confrontation with intimacy and more like an invitation into intimacy and intense proximity, with an artist living with a long illness; the crip time that is invoked by disability scholars is traced across the slow, focused and dedicated attention of each work.
I am wary of using either nationality or biography as the prime modes of interpreting works by non-European artists: this act of explaining seems to reproduce a colonial myth that non-Western art requires European insiders to act as analysts rather than respecting the artist’s intentions. It is clear that Cecilia Brunson Projects have taken steps to avoid this power dynamic. If Centurión’s biography is intrinsic to the show — and my interpretation of it — it is because Centurión himself placed biography and nationality centre-stage in his own work. I know this because the artist still has a vocal presence in the show: on a monitor playing a one-hour documentary (Feliciano Centurión: Abrazo Íntimo al Natural, 2016) in which he speaks at length about his working process. Bringing Centurión’s voice to the fore, and by extension his agency, may be a small gesture, but it is a crucial one. In the eternal question of how to speak for the dead, Cecilia Brunson Projects has instead allowed the artist to speak for himself.
Main image: Feliciano Centurión, Caíman (detail), c.1995, acrylic on blanket, 20 × 10 cm. Courtesy: Cecilia Brunson Projects