As his early photographic work finally comes into the light, Colombian artist Miguel Ángel Rojas discusses his 50-year career and his country’s history of queer subcultures.
Miguel Ángel Rojas received his first camera at the age of seven, for his first communion. But it wasn't until the 60s, when he rediscovered his dad's vintage Kodak 1A, that he started to experiment with self-portraiture. "I felt such a moment of intense creation, it was very emotional," recalls the artist, from the top floor of his three-story working space in Chapinero, northeast of Bogotá. "I haven't been able to make anything like it again," he says.
A few years later, Rojas's friends introduced him to Bogotá's gay cruising spots. They were mostly decaying movie theatres with large, dark spaces and cheap entries. "It was a subculture of shame, there was no sense of pride," explains the 70-year-old artist, of that time, "They were the only places where, in secret, you could have those relationships, including having sex. It was a real melting pot, you could tell some of these guys were just popping in on a break from work."
Teatro Faenza, an Art Nouveau cinema in downtown Bogotá, was the most popular cruising spot. Inspired by its architecture and complex social function, Rojas started to secretly document his visits to the theatre in 1973. For over two years, the Colombian artist produced hundreds of ghostly lo-fi images combining a sense of urban anthropology with poetic voyeurism. "I did a first series taking pictures of some guy's penis through a glory hole — he didn't know I had a camera!" Miguel Ángel tells me, amused. "The pictures are very dark and unfocused, but the sense of mystery makes them beautiful."
Hanging out in queer spaces in conservative Colombia in the early 70s was a risky game, though — photographing them even more so. "They were dangerous places," recalls Miguel Ángel, "People were more afraid of the police than anything else — blackmailing was frequent." He used to adjust the focus inside a briefcase by estimating the distance of his subjects, then carefully place the camera — wrapped in dark fabric — on the armrest of a seat before taking a shot. "It was very random, because of the light and the distance. But eventually, figures and bodies started to appear on the pictures, it was beautiful."
Soon after the Faenza series, Miguel Ángel took interest in the building opposite his former studio, in a working-class neighbourhood of downtown Bogotá. "It was an abandoned house, home to sex workers and a trans community, with a shop on the ground floor," remembers the artist.
Using an approach similar to that of his theatre images — though this time in colour and with zoom — Miguel Ángel photographed the house over one year, portraying a poetic narrative of its various protagonists and their encounters. "There was a very pretty boy who would cross dress at night. In one picture, you see him flirting with another guy, while the female prostitutes at the back are giving them a knowing glance," explains the artist, flicking through pictures on his phone. "In an other one, you can see these two kids, of darker skin, who look like they would be from the countryside. They're looking at the white man in a suit, you can feel the social tension towards the 'otherness.'"
The series, titled La Esquina Rosada ("the pink corner"), was exhibited for the first time in a curated display earlier this month at ARTBO, Colombia's leading contemporary art fair. It was a central feature of the Referentes section, curated by Pablo Léon de la Barra and Erika Florez, which focused on historical and overlooked practices. Miguel Ángel's photographs didn't always receive the attention of galleries: "I used to give them away to friends for their birthdays, because I couldn't afford to buy gifts!" laughs the artist, who now has a herd of assistants working with him. "It was only a few years ago that a collector of vintage photography got excited about these works and bought some for a price I couldn't believe!" Since then, they've been shown at major art events like the São Paolo Art Biennial, where they were exhibited alongside Nan Goldin and Miguel Rio Branco.
Miguel Ángel — who also works with sculpture, video, and installations — had earlier successes with other works. His now acclaimed image David, shot in 2007, portrays a young man posing naked, like the Renaissance masterpiece of the same name. "When I asked him to pose like the David, he asked me 'which David?'" remembers the artist, "He had no idea what I was talking about!" The viewer's gaze is directly drawn to the handsome model's mutilated leg — partially blown off by a mine — creating a complex commentary on war and Colombia's culture of inequality.
After he came across a badly designed, almost caricature, Grecian-style monument north of Bogotá, the artist had started thinking about the lack of education in his country, and how it impacts our conception of cultural heritage. That's when he decided to recruit a former soldier — who he'd met at a military hospital — to work on a photography project exploring the relationship between the transmission of knowledge and the country's political climate. "The problem of Colombia is education," asserts Miguel Ángel. "He became a soldier because he had no education, even though he is white, of European heritage — whereas I'm of indigenous origins. Differences here are cultural, that's why lower classes can't move up, because of the lack of education."
As the heavy rain outside suddenly stops and bright sunshine comes through the studio's windows, the artist cheerfully asks one of his assistants to bring him a hat. "We have to hold the negotiations," he tells me with a smile, referring to Colombia's recent failed peace deal with the FARC. "We must provide a democratic space for the leftist parties, and allow tolerance towards one another. But things won't change in this country until we change our drug policies," continues the artist, whose work frequently addresses the illegal drug trade. "It is a global issue, in which Colombia is trapped as a victim, from the position of consuming countries. The United States needs to legalise drugs, then others will follow. Only with legalisation can we control, prevent, and educate."
Miguel Ángel Rojas will be part of the group show HOME—So Different, So Appealing at LACMA, from June 11 until October 15, 2017.
Text Benoit Loiseau
Photography courtesy Miguel Ángel Rojas