LGBTQ+ Liberation in the Andes through Q’iwa and Popular Celebrations

The photography exhibition documents how gender-diverse performers embodied the historical character La China Morena in order to partake in the LGBTQ+ movement in Bolivia as a celebratory and non-violent form of protest, allowing them to personify the Q’iwa, in Quechua, a person who embodies both the feminine and the masculine.

The photographs on display chronicle the socio-political and cultural impact of La China Morena, a character portrayed in Morenada dance performances, which are part of traditional patron-saint street carnivals in Bolivia. These performances date back to colonial times and were inspired by the slave trade in South America. In Bolivia, La China Morena was a flirtatious feminine character who performed sensual dances for the enslaved workers, enticing them to work harder. Historically, La China Morena was played by men, but since the 1960s, the ambiguity and gender-fluid nature of the character has been viewed by travestis as an opportunity to give visibility to the queer struggle in the Andean region through radical performance. It is also seen as a way to allow them to personify the Q’iwa, which in Quechua means a person who equally embodies the feminine and the masculine, also known as Two Spirit. From then on, the performance has become the exclusive domain of travestis, and La China Morena has become a symbol of liberation for homosexual and gender-diverse people, foregrounding the role of LGBTQ+ communities in the popular street carnivals.

The title of the exhibition alludes to the kiss dancer Barbarella gave Hugo Banzer Suárez, military dictator of Bolivia from 1971 to 1978, who was enjoying the festivities of el Gran Poder in La Paz in 1974. The seemingly minor event was perceived as a gesture intended to bring bad luck on the dictatorship’s head of state. In response, Las Chinas Morenas were persecuted and banished from urban centers. Many fled to rural areas where they continued dancing. Moving to rural areas put an emphasis on the overlapping syncretic nature of the character, bringing together religion, popular culture, and indigenous knowledge.

The photographs in the exhibition cover two decades of radical transformation of La China Morena, highlighting wider changes for gender-diverse people in the region. In this reinvented character, the Two Spirit community found shelter to be themselves, while retreating to rural areas also meant reconnecting with local indigenous cosmologies where Q’iwa people are welcomed and venerated as symbols of good luck.

The 41 original photographs presented in Barbarella’s Kiss, reflect the passing of time, showing signs of age and deterioration. With both black and white and colour images, the memorabilia is organized loosely chronologically, carefully laid flat in four vitrines placed around the gallery space. They document the performers Ofelia, Liz, Danny, Barbarella, Veronica, Juan Carrasco, Candy Vizcarra, Lucha, Rommy Astro, and Juana Carrasco at work or accompanied by representatives of the local government. They look glamourous in their high-heeled, knee-high leather boots and colorful mini-polleras, coinciding with the mini-skirt revolution of the feminist liberation movements of the 1960s. The performers donned heavy makeup and voluminous wigs, at times crowned with a borsalino hat, the traditional bowler hat worn by Cholas.

Aruquipa Pérez, a travesti performer themself, learned about La China Morena when, on a quest to find their own identity, they joined la Familia Galán, a movement of gay men, cross-dressers, drag queens and androgynous people from Bolivia, established in 2000. Members of La Familia told Aruquipa Pérez about the Q’iwa people who came before them, and the artist embarked on a journey to unearth, collate, systematize, and disseminate LGBTQ+ history in Bolivia.

Barbarella’s Kiss tells a story of gender diversity in the Andean region. Following the advent of worldwide LGBTQ+ liberation movements in the 1960s, the exhibition demonstrates how gender-diverse performers embodied La China Morena as a way to partake in this movement locally through a celebratory and non-violent form of protest. The photographs offer a unique view into the expression of nonconforming gender identities in the region and are an example of queer memory politics in Latin America.

Barbarella’s Kiss at Auto Italia, London, UK, 14 April 2023 — 11 June 2023

Raquel Villar-Pérez is an academic, art curator, and writer, interested in post and decolonial discourses within contemporary art and literature from the socio-political Global South. Her research focuses on the work of women artists addressing notions of transnational feminisms, social and environmental justice, and experimental formulas of presenting these in contemporary art.