Religion and politics are generally not considered safe topics for polite conversation, but two new art exhibits opening this week will force viewers to confront prejudices about their faith and immigration.
“Losing My Religion,” on display beginning Sept 17 at House of Art, 815 NE 13th St. #4 in Fort Lauderdale, is a group show featuring works by five local LGBT artists.
“The show was mounted with the understanding it will be controversial,” explained gallery director Frank Polanco. “Controversy will hinder our lives for years to come in issues such as politics and economics, religion, LGBT and abortion rights, environmental issues and the list goes on. Religion may be a bit more touchy for some as it is the outlet often used in search of ‘salvation,’ peace, love, unity and a place to implore for a better world.”
José Tomas Valdivieso, a 35-year-old Chilean painter and illustrator who currently lives in Wynwood, grew up in the Roman Catholic Church. Valdivieso became alarmed with sexual abuse and arms trafficking in his native country, as well as complacency with the military dictatorship.
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“The strongest discrepancy, by far, was the alienation and discrimination of homosexuals. I cannot be a member of an organization that discriminates against me,” he said, although he admitted some LGBT people may be able to find reconciliation. “But, in my case, it’s absolutely impossible.”
Painter David Rohn also grew up in the Catholic Church and noted that western religion is a “hierarchical, rule-based belief system... a socio-political tool to keep people in line, which is, I think, why the whole construct of guilt and punishment were incorporated in these religions.”
The former New Yorker praised Eastern religions for promoting ethical behavior that enhances the individual spirit: “It’s not about societal laws, it’s about personal spiritual expansion.”
Rohn also pointed out the sexual expression and erotic symbolism frequently found in religious art, “sexual expression can’t be erased, not even from so-called religious imagery,” he said.
Byron Keith Byrd drew on the infamous protests of the Westboro Baptist Church for one of his works, “God Hates Fags.”
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“Just imagine how different it would be had Leviticus 20:13 been omitted (from the Bible),” Byrd asked. “One should be aware that scripture has been written and re-written throughout the ages.”
His paintings and multimedia works comment on organized religion in many ways. One work, “The Trap,” is a cross, constructed of spring-loaded mouse traps ready to snap closed. Other works draw attention to the role of money in the church.
“My goal is for people to walk out the door with a slightly different perception of religion,” Byrd said. “For example, most individuals practice in the very same manner as their parents. Rarely does one question whether there is an alternative for spiritual growth.”
On Sept. 22, just days before the first presidential debate, a new exhibition of 30 pen and ink portraits by Jose Alvarez (D.O..P.A.), “Krome,” will open at the Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real.
The drawings, along with recorded personal stories, were collected inside the Krome Detention Center in Miami while Alvarez was himself held along with hundreds of other hopeful immigrants from Eastern Europe, West Africa and throughout Central and South America.
Their stories, told to Alvarez as he sketched inside Krome’s minimum security holding cell, are rife with horrors and heartbreak, according to museum curators. “By pairing their faces with their stories, ‘Krome’ removes the cold anonymity of statistics from this conversation about nationality and belonging, race and rights,” described notes on the exhibit.
“I was inspired by their stories. I was very moved by the colossal effort that all of these people mustered to come to this country with dreams and hopes of a better life, of escaping persecution, poverty, political unrest, etc., and the promise of a better tomorrow,” said Alvarez. “Ironically, a lot of them suffer horrific consequences in the process…and then, after all that effort, they are rounded up, incarcerated and treated as statistics or political opportunism without acknowledgement of the human tragedy involved.”
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Alvarez, the longtime partner of famed stage magician James “The Amazing” Randi and a resident of Plantation, had lived illegally in the U.S. for many years before himself being detained.
“Krome became a very difficult passage in my life,” he recalled.
When his gallerist pointed out that many famous artists had endured incarceration at some point in their careers, Alvarez’s perspective changed and he recognized an opportunity.
“I was on a mission. I needed to tell their stories. I was going to give voice to the voiceless, in other words: art as salvation,” he said.
In a politically charged election season in which immigration is a major issue, Alvarez hopes viewers will discover compassion, “the need to mobilize ourselves outside of our comfort zone and put ourselves in their shoes, to acknowledge their presences as human beings and not just as an inconvenience.”
To learn more about “Losing My Religion,” go to HouseOfArt.com, and for “Jose Alvarez (D.O..P.A.): Krome,” go to BocaMuseum.org.