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How Queer and Disabled Identity Influences Art: A Conversation with Christian Villanueva

Art is often seen as an avenue for self-expression, and many artists draw from their own experiences to create meaningful pieces. For queer and disabled artists, their identity can play an even more significant role in their work. We sat down with a Cebuano artist to talk about their experiences as a queer and disabled artist, and how their identities intersect with their art.

How does your queer and disabled identity influence your art, and how do these identities intersect in your work?

When I was starting out in 2018 with my career, I thought representation was so uncool. I was 19 at the time. I felt as an artist, I shouldn’t be gendered, have a sexual identity or talk about my disability at all. I was committed to the idea that art wasn’t attached to any of those things. Skip to 5 years later, I believe my art is attached to my identity more than ever and it can never be separated. I love this one critic that said this about Georgia O’Keefe who said her art wasn’t in the category of “female art” but the person making it is a woman. I love what my friend and artist Victoria Tanquerido said, who said in an interview that she was happy to be called a woman artist. I’m at a point in my life where I have less conflicts with accepting who I am, but it took me more than a decade to get there. I’m proud to say I’m a queer artist, a disabled artist, a non-binary artist. But it’s also unfair that men don’t have the same standards - I mean, we would never call Picasso a “man artist”. My queerness and disability flows naturally in my art - as the feminist statement goes, the personal is political and the political is personal. What I’m trying to say is, my creativity takes roots in autobiography. If people look deep inside themselves they will find themselves more interesting than who they think they are. If you’re an artist who works with similar subject matter like me, this flows out into the world organically.

Painting Special No. 1, watercolor

Can you talk about a specific piece of artwork that was inspired by your experiences?

All my work is about my experiences - I’m fascinated with the idea of exploring them in many mediums. My advantage as a queer, disabled artist is that I really have nothing to be ashamed at this point. I use the shame and fear people have constantly imposed on me and use it to my advantage. I’ve seen a lot of artists in the queer category who do the same, but often times I can’t relate, with their art being so macho. When I see art like that, I’m happy - but there must be more to art than abled bodies having hot sex.

I’d like to talk about my work for your magazine, a collection of works called “INCEST”. I chose these works because I’m currently in intense psychotherapy and we use analysis as our method for most of our sessions. The word incest is so heavy, and it is a feeling. It is a codependency, a mirror, an understanding of abuse. I grew up without a father, and I was thrown into a pack of wolves at an early age because of his death. When I was 12 to 15 years old, as I was experiencing cancer, two men sexually abused me from my family. This caused a lot of turmoil in my life as I grew up - a lot of humiliation and shame towards myself. I was constantly abused until I was 19 and people who were supposed to protect me swept this under the rug. There are many layers to this word, it can be about love too. I became sexually promiscuous as a young boy growing up, and it led me to many interesting experiences with men. Not all of them were painful, some of them were extremely pleasurable. But I still had shame, always this shame about my disability in regards to sex. Like my queerness, I had to hide it ever so often back then. Living in Cadiz, my hometown in Negros, felt like a glass bell from which you could never escape. You can stumble upon love and pain in the most extreme places. I’m currently very happy with the love of my life of 6 years and he loves all of me. I want passion, I want fire, I just want to be loved. Meanwhile, I can carry the rape, abuse, and incest with me everyday like little glass balls in a bag and make sure that they don’t break. I need my memories, they make me feel human - and they become material, prefaces in my life.

The Destruction of The Father, acrylic

You Are Always There, mono print

What challenges have you faced as a queer and disabled artist in Cebu, and how have you overcome them?

When I ran away from home and moved to Cebu 4 years ago, it was like another world. I couldn’t speak Bisaya, and could only understand bits and pieces of it. My mother tongue is Hiligaynon, which is more soft spoken and slow. Cebu was a strange land, where I had to constantly ask people to translate their words in English. Until now, I have a hard time speaking Bisaya - no matter how hard I try. I’ve also faced constant humiliation from artist communities not just in Cebu, but also in Negros. With some saying that my work was “pinataka” / *hiligaynon equivalent of “pinalagpat” (it means random) - a word that I actually find endearing. My professor, Raymund Fernandez has always found this word to be positive. I remember one of the best advices he gave me, he said “You must put yourself into a position when you paint where you actually don’t know what you’re doing.” I studied art for 5 years on my own with books, workshops and art school. Of course it hurts when I’m critiqued unfairly, especially when it comes to a point where my disability gets made fun of. I personally have been humiliated by a group of people in the art community publicly, as they shared photos of my work. They called me dumb and stupid, with their friends also joining in the fun, pointing out my disability. I asked myself, do I really deserve this? I overcame this by telling myself, “Christian, you’ve been through worse.. you’ve been through chemotherapy, amputation, rape and so much grief..” but the feeling of humiliation still rises up inside of me. I fought this through courage. The courage to move forward and do my work.

How do you hope your art can contribute to greater understanding and acceptance?

I think good art comes from pain. But you could also say nothing good ever comes out of pain. I think the fact that my work is out there and I’m given a platform raises awareness to so many things. I love Princess Diana, I could relate to her life in so many ways. When I was 5 years old, my mother had a couple documentaries on her laptop, one was about the Pyramids of Giza and the solar system. The other one was about the Princess of Wales. I admire her for her courage in helping the most marginalized people in society, and raising awareness to issues that were never addressed, like the AIDS epidemic and mental health issues. Here I am severely depressed in my room at times, but watching Diana’s interview about how she coped through self harm and how she conquered bulimia impacted me in a positive way. I wasn’t alone with my struggles. I think a public figure speaking out and being open with themselves can be a catalyst in society. But, it’s up to the artist, the poet, the politician, the writer or the influencer on how to exercise this power and to be careful with it.

The Martyr, gouache

My Man In Cadiz, glass work

How do you approach representation and diversity in your art?

I don’t approach representation. I just am who I am. My work flows with everything that I am. I just do, I do my work - and I want it to be good. I sometimes feel as if representation is not enough, and has become a trend, a fad. It’s like that scene from Mockingjay, where Katniss becomes a symbol for the rebellion. I love how she refused to do the regular propaganda, with all it’s glitz and glamour, but instead went out there to assist the wounded in District 5. I don’t believe art can change the world, but it can change how we think about things. It really is up to us all, when it comes down to it.

Who are some artists, either in Cebu or more broadly, who have influenced your work or inspire you?

In Cebu, Raymund Fernandez. My professor. I came here specifically for him. I was lucky enough to get all his last classes before he retired. But I think the teachers knew how much I adored his work and his teachings, that they had no choice but to place me in his classes. I’m inspired by artists such as Tracey Emin and Louise Bourgeois from a visual level. Egon Schiele and Edvard Munch, J.M.W Turner for my paintings and how I express my emotions. Haruki Murakami’s books, although controversial, became my friends during lockdown and his words have always spoken to me deeply. Anaïs Nin, for her surreal writing, diaries and letters. Arthur Rimbaud, the famous 17th century French surrealist poet, who also had cancer and had his right leg cut off, I could relate to him on a very personal level. Marina Abramovic, Amy Winehouse, Lady Gaga, David Bowie. Patti Smith, I’m so fascinated with her life, writing and art. I started reading again vigorously because of her and have emulated her sense of style, way of life as a journalist and a writer. Robert Mapplethorpe, Yukio Mishima, Maya Angelou, Joni Mitchell.. I could go on and on and on.

The Musician, pen and ink

Crucifixion, gouache

Can you talk about any upcoming projects or works that you're excited about?

I’m gonna talk about Drawing Class Foundation, our little art community here in Cebu. We hold classes and events monthly and try to make it fun, uplifting marginalized people through the metaphor of art. We talk about anything, no limits, and form friendships with each other. I’ve always said that Drawing Class was less about art and more about friendship. I’m talking about real friendship, not the “making connections” or climbing your way to the top of the dog-eat-dog art industry that we have here. Art should be enjoyed by everyone, not only by the upperclass, not only by those who buy paintings to make their walls pretty, not only by those who can afford a proper art education. Drawing Class aims to democratize art and I want to make it accessible, especially for queer artists and disabled artists. I’m excited for the future of Drawing Class and how it can change the way we look at art and experience it. We plan to have talks, exhibitions, collaborations and more and more classes and gatherings. I’m so grateful for our team and residency for believing in the spirit of togetherness and authenticity. I’m always working on my art. Day to day, and writing in my diary. I’ve had my slice of cake in the art world and found it to be not so interesting. What excites me the most right now is the work that I’m doing now, with BLNC magazine, Rappler, with Drawing Class, with psychotherapy. I’m part of commercial shows as well, but my goals are less about making it as an artist and more about how to be a more compassionate human being with myself and with others.

How do you see the role of art in creating social change, particularly in terms of advancing the rights and visibility of marginalized communities like queer and disabled people?

Art has always been a catalyst for great change in society. But I believe that good art really creates great change. Not all artists are out there to make impactful work, and would rather be happy painting by the sea like Turner. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s just not the artist that I am. You see, art doesn’t need to be political because it already is political enough. For example, my self portraits were just little drawings of me, but through the power of art they became meaningful to others, they became pregnant with meaning. I’m more concerned about the role of the artist in today’s world. I think artists should speak up about climate change more than ever because it affects us all. I made a piece for the Joya Awards speaking out about how disabled people and the elderly are the most vulnerable when it comes to climate disasters. I think this should be our main goal, especially in this country where typhoons, landslides and other extreme weather conditions continually face us. It only gets worse and worse every year. I also love this word.. “visible”. My psychologist told me, “You know Christian, there is a difference between being ‘seen’ and being ‘visible’..” being ‘seen’ implied that I was uncomfortable with people’s stares at my missing leg. I felt like a freak. But art made me ‘visible’. People had more compassion and understanding about who I am as a person, that I had many multitudes apart from my disability and queerness. Like Walt Whitman says, “we contain multitudes.” I have many..

How do you balance creating art that is personal to you and also resonates with a broader audience?

I'm a musician, as well as a poet, as well as a writer, as well as a painter. I make little films, I take photographs with my polaroid camera. For me, being an artist isn't just about doing one thing. Like Louise Bourgeois, like Picasso, they expressed themselves in many, many ways. I think this is the advantage of the outsider artist. I don't think I'm ever gonna be part of the establishment, even though people think I am. They have it all wrong. When a gallery or the academe wants me to do one thing, I always do the opposite. It's just my nature. I don't have a style and I'm not interested in mastery. I think it's important to stand your ground as an artist and not be so enamored by the green disease of money and fame. The illusion of acceptance. I always found this to be tricky. I've always been displaced. I've always felt like a waif. I'm not like other artists who kneel before businessmen and lick their boots. My art has come all this way, my leg has been chopped off - do you think I'd still be interested in impressing people? If I died from my cancer before, if I didn't survive - would little Christian be happy in his coffin if I made art that made rich people's houses even more beautiful? Sometimes I get baffled by the nepotism in the art community, how some artists can get away with making fodder art while the good artists are set aside. I don't see much disabled artists or queer artists, where I come from and we're always in the corner. When establishments need us, it's always in the context of making them look good. Drawing Class would never treat people like that. We celebrate our identity every month, every class, and in everything that we do. I'm tired of conforming to a public that doesn't fully embrace me.

What advice do you have for other young artists who may feel marginalized or overlooked in the art world?

I love this quote by Marina Abramovic, "When people say 'no' to me, it's just the beginning." I think it's very difficult to be a human being these days, not only as an artist. You could get sick, run out of money, amongst other things. The best advice I could give to young, marginalized artists is so cliche, but you have to believe in what you're doing and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. Don't let life stop you in it's tracks. You have to keep going. I'm very lucky. I'm very privileged to still get to do what I love, which is art. But I'm also a hard worker and have a lot of discipline. But luck goes a long way, I believe. It's not just about hard work. Sometimes awful things in life really happen, and it can really give you no choice. Life can be cruel like that, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't be grateful to be alive. I'm grateful, I'm so thankful that after all this time, I'm still here. I still get to enjoy what the world has to offer, a new book, new songs by my favorite artists, new films.. take care of your health. Take care of your work. Surround yourself with people who support you. Be a friend. Have some compassion, with yourself and with others. Always remember as an artist, you have the privilege and freedom to fail. Don't fall for the illusion of success. Have some discipline, I think this is understated.. you have to prioritise your work more than anything else. Because no matter how hard it was for me, my art has always, always been there to save me.


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