Content warning for military violence, death, religious defamation, Holocaust
And the belly of the queers—veiled in true roses.
— Sergio Zevallos
By Arielle Burgdorf (She/They)
On a slab on cracked earth, we see a hooded figure in black and white, lying on its side. The figure is haunting and androgynous, a fleeting vision at the edge of reality. Bare skin is visible in slices through the thin cloth that wraps the body like gauze. Is the figure living, dead, or somewhere in between? What is the story behind this poetic image, and where did it come from? The photo reveals little upon closer inspection, retaining a mysterious aura, but one thing is for sure: we want to know more.
Grupo Chaclacayo was a queer art collective from Lima, Peru active from 1982-1994. Through their subversive happenings, processions, photography, drawings, artifacts, and sculptures, they used their bodies as a site to critique issues within Catholicism, military violence, the mistreatment of indigenous communities, and homophobia. Grupo Chaclacayo was comprised of three central members: Helmut Psotta, Sergio Zevallos, and Raul Avellaneda, although they occasionally collaborated with others including Jorge Angeles, Sixto Paniora, Frido Martin, Klaus Wittkamp, Cesar Guerra, and Piero Pereira.
For years, it was difficult to find any information about Grupo Chaclacayo and much of the group’s operations remain obscured, due to persecution and difficulty exhibiting their work in Peru. Grupo Chaclacayo had only one art show in Peru at the Lima Art Museum in 1984. Shortly thereafter, they decided to relocate to Germany, where their work found a wider audience. At the time, Peru was continually engaged in an armed conflict between the Maoist organization Shining Path and the Peruvian State Army. Over 70,000 people would lose their lives before the conflict ended in 2000. Within the context of such a violent regime, it is remarkable that the group even survived, let alone managed to create so many incendiary works of art. Grupo Chaclacayo directly referenced this omnipresent culture of violence in their work, often depicting corpses or mass graves, and performing in cemeteries as a visceral way to engage with the brutality the military state enacted on queer and insurrectionist bodies.
Helmut Psotta, the founder of Grupo Chaclacayo, was born in Ruhrgebiet, Germany in 1937. His father converted to Christianity and became a Nazi, and his Jewish mother was forced to place him with another family to save him from the Holocaust. He survived, but never saw his mother again. Psotta trained as an artist and at the age of 23, won an international competition and professorship in Santiago, Chile. He was then invited by Adolfo Winternitz to teach at the Pontifical Catholic University in Lima, Peru. There, he met students Sergio Zevallos and Raúl Avellaneda, who had already been collaborating on art projects together.
The three men developed a sexual and artistic relationship. Psotta was unpopular at the Catholic University both for his sexual preferences and because he led seminars on torture—a clear provocation of the military state—and in 1982 it was decided it would be best for everyone to leave the university. The three moved to a warehouse in the suburbs of Lima in an area known as Chaclacayo, and Grupo Chaclacayo was born. The name was given to them by writer Hugo Salazar de Alcázar, who wrote about the group for a local newspaper. The self-imposed exile from the city was crucial to the identity of the emerging group and allowed Grupo Chaclacayo to make art without fear of retribution, while also being able to experiment with ideas, liberated from expectations of the mainstream art world.
From their new location, Grupo Chaclacayo began to create a transgressive body of work that took on many forms. The group became greater than the three of them: it was a now known to others as a unified collective with a cohesive vision of rebellion, or as Psotta defined it, “Our work is based on the conscious and deliberate transgression of social norms and taboos, and on the conscious disregard of any existing ideological dogma.”
Each of the three had a different medium they specialized in; Avellaneda produced dozens of intricately decorated wooden death boxes, while Psotta took most of the photos that Zevallos starred in. One of their main projects combined several mediums: the group would conduct ritual performances in public and photograph them as they occurred. These ritual performances might take the form of burial or funeral rites, often involving candles, incense, and ribbons or long threads. For these rituals, they preferred environmental sparseness: common backdrops included abandoned spaces, empty fields, the coast, and deserts.
Zevallos was often photographed in religious drag, hair adorned with roses, his face dramatically made up to look like a bride on her wedding day or their muse, Rosa de Lima, a Peruvian saint known for her ability to handle physical pain. Most often he is shown lying on the ground, immobile, likely imitating a corpse, or mummified in layers of fabric. Even when not posing as a corpse, Zevallos’ body is frequently portrayed in vulnerable situations, nude or partially nude in moments of extreme suffering, often tied up, bleeding from a crown of thorns, or bent over with his ass in the air to receive sexual pleasure or abuse, the viewer is not sure which. His expression often troubles the line between agony and ecstasy, conflating pain and pleasure for the viewer. Blasphemy and religious defamation were among the most popular themes in Grupo Chaclacayo’s work, an open critique of the masculinist, Catholic society they lived in that taught fetishized suffering and forbade homosexuality. Using whatever they could easily find, the group mixed the sacred and profane: shrines made of found garbage, religious frescoes redone to include penises in place of saints, and severed baby doll heads posed next to religious iconography. At this time, this was extremely dangerous work to be making but they were always incredibly lucky—when the group was arrested by military guards and accused of collaborating with the Shining Path, they traded the general a self-portrait in exchange for their freedom.
In 1984, Grupo Chaclacayo gained some legitimacy when they got the opportunity to showcase their artwork to the public in a show titled “Peru...un sueno” (Peru...a dream). Psotta managed to get them the show by talking up their art to the critic Wieland Schmied, who the Lima Art Museum hoped would help fund renovations on their museum. The show was not well received, and the group was panned by a homophobic press. They were accused of trivializing violence and, most ludicrously, of being Shining Path apologists. The group would move back into seclusion for safety reasons and when in 1989 were invited by the IFA to visit Germany, they would decide to relocate together to Berlin. This was both a political and financial choice; the group relied solely on Psotta for money and he was constantly returning to Germany to procure more funds. At the same time, they were realizing that the odds of their art gaining any widespread acknowledgment in Peru were low and that their lives might be threatened if they continued to stay as known dissidents. They brought all of the art they had made with them to Germany, and anything they couldn’t take was burned. Grupo Chaclacayo went on to tour Germany with their exhibit “Todesbilder (Images of Death),” an ambitious collection that sought to connect human rights abuses in Latin America to those in Europe. In Germany, their work was better received by art critics than it had been in Peru, but not without, they suspected, a hint of exotification. The group would go on to produce a few more performances and exhibits before permanently disbanding in 1994.
Although Grupo Chaclacayo led a relatively short existence, they made a huge impact on art in Peru and worldwide. Many young Peruvians, including members of the artist collective Los Bestias, reported being inspired by Grupo Chaclacayo’s exhibit at the Lima Art Museum. At the same time that Grupo Chaclacayo was making their art, punk bands like Delirios Krónicos, Leuzemia, and Narcosis were forming an underground anti-government youth scene known as “subte,” writing poetry, distributing anarchist fanzines and creating their own cut-and-paste artwork. In Chile, Pedro Mardones Lemebel and Francisco Casas Silva, an artistic duo known as “Yeguas del Apocalipsis” (Mares of the Apocalypse) formed in 1987, producing work in the same vein as Grupo Chaclacayo; openly criticizing the dictator Augusto Pinochet, conducting public happenings in protest, and utilizing bodies as a site of protest. Like Grupo Chaclacayo, they were comprised of queer men, and like Grupo Chaclacayo their work involved performance art, crossdressing, and photography. In 1987, the coalition ACT-UP would form in New York as a reaction to government indifference to HIV/AIDs and utilize direct action tactics, conducting “die-ins,” where people would pretend to be dead in the middle of the street, bringing violence against queer bodies directly in the public eye. In more recent years, academia has given the group their due and we have seen a larger body of scholarship analyzing the work of Grupo Chaclacayo, along with retrospectives at various museums. Grupo Chaclacayo’s courageous dedication to art and to illuminating the horrors experienced by queer bodies under a military state deserves the largest audience possible.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
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López, Miguel A. “Queer Corpses: Grupo Chaclacayo and the Image of Death” e-flux #44. April 2013. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/44/60146/queer-corpses-grupo-chaclacayo-and-the-imae-of-death/
Marino, Nicholas. “Sergio Zevallos and Grupo Chaclacayo.” Medium. 28 Feb 2017. https://medium.com/queer-theory/sergio-zevallos-and-grupo-chaclacayo-559041713c0
Tarazona Emilio. “Cenizas del Grupo Chaclacayo.” Carta. Primavera-Verano, 2012.
Tarazona, Emilio. “El Grupo Chaclacayo: Marcas de la violencia por debajo de la piel.” Arte
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Zevallos, Sergio and López, Miguel A. Un Cuerpo Ambulante: Sergio Zevallos en el Grupo Chaclacayo. Museo Arte de Lima, 2014.