Religion-based oppression of LGBT people is revealed with grim power in “Jerusalem,” a controversial photo exhibit by Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin showing this month in Sweden.
The show is on display through Dec. 1 at the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg, Sweden. Each of the 17 photos appears with a Bible or Quran verse that has been used against queers, plus Ohlson Wallin’s written commentary. Among the most powerful images are:
* “The Holy Kiss” (above) shows two women kissing at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where many Christians believe that Jesus was crucified, buried and resurrected. The site has been venerated as an important pilgrimage destination since the 4th century. The words of Romans 1:26-27, which condemns women who “exchanged natural relations for unnatural,” are projected on the stone in front of the kissing women.
“How many pious lesbians have knelt at this holy site?” Ohlson Wallin asks in her text. “But lesbian piety and lesbian love have never been valued by the church. The words of Paul in his letter to the Romans have echoed through the centuries, condemning lesbians to a life of self-denial and self-hatred. Even now.”
* “The Kiss of Death” captures the naked embrace of two men lying in front of the old city wall near the Jaffa Gate. Projected on the wall above them is Leviticus 20:13, which orders the death penalty when “a man lies with a man as with a woman.”
“The word of God says that men who lie with men must be killed,” Ohlson Wallin says in her commentary. “That has been the argument in Christian countries that have used the death penalty for same-sex sexual acts.”
* “The Tranny” is a portrait of a genuine drag queen from the heart of Jerusalem. The words projected on the wall behind her are Deuteronomy 22:5, saying that God “detests” women who wear men’s clothing and men who wear women’s clothing.
In her accompanying text, Ohlson describes transgenders as “these discomforting beings who challenge every notion of masculine and feminine. Even in the gay community, they are scorned. Yet it is among the trannies and transgender people that you will often find the greatest courage in the fight against injustice.”
Ohlson Wallin’s stated goal is to get people to talk about the responsibility of religion in supporting or opposing human rights. The photos, scriptures and accompanying texts set a somber tone, but Ohlson Walllin also points out the positive side. “The courage of the people who agreed to appear in these photographs bears witness to the fact that Israelis and Palestinians in the LGBT community help each other,” she writes in the exhibition catalog.
Ohlson Wallin takes these texts of terror personally. She is legally married to a woman and in the catalog she states that the verses pose a threat to her very existence, as well as endangering many others.
She is best known for her photo series “Ecce Homo,” which sparked death threats and vandalism, angered the Pope and won awards by showing Jesus in a contemporary LGBT context. Her story and photos from “Ecce Homo” are included in the book “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More” by Kittredge Cherry.
“Jerusalem” aroused debate over artistic and religious freedom even before it opened on Nov. 10. The Museum of World Culture helped fund Ohlson Wallin’s trip to Jerusalem, but the partnership broke down earlier this year when the museum didn’t want to display the Jerusalem photos as a solo show. The artist accused them of being afraid to upset religious conservatives. Eventually the artist and museum agreed to a three-week exhibition, shorter than usual due to the costs of extra security measures.
The Jerusalem exhibit does an excellent job of building upon and expanding the themes of another controversial work about religion’s role in injustice: “Submission,” a film written by Ayaan Hirsi Ali and directed by Theo van Gogh. The 2004 film exposed religion-based abuse of women by showing misogynist verses from the Koran painted on women’s naked bodies.
LGBT people of faith have developed new ways of understanding the Biblical texts of terror or “clobber passages” highlighted by Ohlson Wallin. The following LGBT-affirming Biblical resources are available to understand these scriptures in context:
“What the Bible says and means about homosexuality”
“Homosexuality: Not a Sin, Not a Sickness”
“Gay and Christian”