Monday, November 22, 2010

Religious threats to LGBT people exposed in Jerusalem photos

“The Holy Kiss” (from “Jerusalem”) by Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin

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.

Jerusalem is holy to three major religions -- Christianity, Judaism and Islam -- so Ohlson Wallin went there to photograph LGBT Israelis and Palestinians. Her photos draw attention to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim scriptures that threaten queer people. She photographed members of the local LGBT community, sometimes in iconic sacred settings with homophobic texts projected on or near their bodies.

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” (from “Jerusalem”) by Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin

* “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.”

“Tranny” (from “Jerusalem”) by Elisabeth Ohlson Wallin

* “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”

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Turtle Woman said...

I loved the lesbians kissing at a sacred site in Jerusalem, because the love of women is sacred.
It was very brave of the artist to actually go to those places to do this kind of photography.
Theo Van Gogh was not so lucky, he was literally stabbed to death in the streets of Amsterdam for making the movie, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali had to eventually flee Holland to live in the U.S. Ali is an amazing feminist heroine, whose newest book "Nomad" just came out.
I think of the lesbian kiss as a wonderful holiday gift to us all, and proof that lesbian nation is never destroyed in patriarchy. We will never submit to male authority, and our Amazon warrior women strive worldwide today!

Trudie said...

As always, another extremely powerful and meaningful post. These photographs are all the more potent because of the use of the scripture quotes. I believe it is important to keep refocusing on the fact that oppression is NOT conquered. With each advance for the kind of love that Jesus taught -- non-judgmental, all inclusive, creative -- the negative forces of condemnation fight back. I pray, however, that brave souls like Ohlson and her models will continue to DARE.

Kittredge Cherry said...

Yes, Elisabeth is truly an artist who DARES. Thanks, Trudie and Turtle Woman, for voicing your support.

Over on Facebook, people seem especially impressed by the “Tranny” photo. I had to request special permission from Elisabethto show it on my blog. The other two photos (the lesbian kiss and gay embrace) were made available to all news media, but “Tranny” is a Jesus in Love exclusive.

Turtle Woman said...

A "Jesus in Love exclusive"-- love that phrase Kittkatt.

Looking forward to more exclusives!

CJ Barker said...

Just tremendous stuff Kitt. Thanks so much for putting this up. Just the kind of thing that I-
a)*absolutely* want to know about and
b) would almost undoubtedly not ever even hear of or see if you weren't covering it.
Very, very powerful images. I'm wondering if any with texts from the Koran were made available to the press? Or was that considered too risky, because of possible violence from those who would consider it a blasphemy worthy of death?

Kittredge Cherry said...

Your suspicions are correct, CJ. The photos made available for general release to the media were both based on Jewish and/or Christian texts -- the ones shown here. The artist told me that she got in trouble for one of the photos related to Islam.

You’re correct that you “would almost undoubtedly not ever even hear of or see if you weren't covering it.” The Jerusalem exhibit got a lot of media coverage in Swedish, but I am one of the only ones who wrote about it in English. I’m really surprised that larger English LGBT websites didn’t cover it.

It’s great to hear from you again! Many thanks for your kind words about the value of this blog in your life.