Shirley La Bombón, a Peruvian trans artist based in Argentina, returns as a reminder and guide in this journey that Emmanuel Franco makes on “Chusma”, an exhibition that refers to the debt of the institutions with ‘the invisible ones’.
Once upon a time there was a woman who carried her wounds like pearls. Her name was Shirley La Bombón. She was a Peruvian transvestite who arrived in La Plata, an Argentine metropolis, to twist its diagonals and spice up the life of a city full of ghosts. Rumors say that she was born on July 20, 1957, in Peru, but there is no precise data. Her friends point out La Shirley’s secrecy about her origins, every now and then she invented new dates of her birth. She also said that in Argentina they had made an error her document and had substracted a year. “She was very inventive and we all knew that sometimes what she said was not so true,” says a friend. She always considered herself an artist and had been painting since she was a child. Between 2016 and 2017, she attended painting classes sporadically and made a living selling Peruvian food. She loved chatting on Facebook and typing great monologues in Italian, a language she mastered to perfection from her travels to Europe between the 1990s and early 2000s.
Her food, her paintings, her talks and performances were all part of the same mission: to denounce discrimination against the transvestite and transgender community and to give a voice to all dissident identities. Among her interests were erotic painting, Buddhism and friendships. One could say that her founding credo was to help others to help herself.
According to the dictionary, the word chusma refers to vulgar and despicable people. In Argentina, it was used for a long time to refer to sectors of the impoverished lower class. The word has its origin in ancient Genoese, it is a variation of ciüsma, a term used to refer to prisoners who paid their sentence by rowing boats for the Italian state.
Now, the word wants to be re-signified with public policy and that is why Chusma. Caravana arte-afectiva bonaerense, a program that proposes a dialogue between the collections of national and provincial museums with the chusma, that body that never received the invitation to be part of the culture: travas, trans, non-binary people, trolos, lesbians and racialized migrants. The proposal aims to create a link between works of heritage art and the diverse readings that can be made by a public that does not usually have the opportunity to encounter these images outside the institutions in their territory. Coordinated by Valeria Semilla, four curators were invited: Catalina Poggio, Mel Randev, Cristian Prieto and Santiago Villanueva. They selected works from the collections of the Museo Provincial de Bellas Artes Emilio Pettoruti, Palacio Nacional de las Artes-Palais de Glace and the Museo de la Historia del Traje, in order to generate an exhibition that travels through different cultural spaces in the province and engage in a conversation with its cultural agents and the diversity of countercultural collectives in each region. It is important to note that, since 2020, the Palacio Nacional de las Artes Arts – Palais de Glace, is directed by the first transvestite director in Argentina, Feda Baeza; on the other hand, Marlene Wayar, a key reference of Latin American transvestite activism, director of El Teje (first Latin American transvestite magazine), is currently coordinator of the education area of the Palais.
In addition to being an itinerant exhibition, Chusma is proposed as a mapping of artivists and sex-gender dissident artistic collectives in each region of the province of Buenos Aires. Another objective is to propose stages for the circulation of their knowledge and voices through exhibitions, workshops, educational activities and public events.
The event also included a graphic fair with more than thirty participations of transvestite-trans art collectives and an open-air exhibition of heritage paintings and sculptures. All the actions sought to represent the provocative attitude of La Shirley, including her relationship with sex work. She worked in La Moma square, a sort of “red light district” that many sex workers use as a kind of base of operations. Knowing this, the curators of the project decided to move the works of art from the Pettorutti’s collection to the square, where to this day, when night falls, sex workers appear to offer their services. The works of art are exhibited outdoors, to occupy a symbolic space, away from the museum and closer to the chusma that may inhabit the square.
Shirley was thus revived in each stand of the dissident collectives at the fair held at Diagonal 73, another place historically occupied by sex workers during the night. While people bought different objects, comments were heard about her and her legacy, the artivist legacy she left in the local youth, and perhaps her sidelong glance at the alliances between the transvestite trans community and the State in present times.
One of the most important moments of the inauguration was the surrender of files of the Dirección de Inteligencia de la Provincia de Buenos Aires (DIPBA) with declassified intelligence material between 1960 and 1998. The files, handed over by the Comisión Provincial de la Memoria, are proof of how the transvestite trans communities were victims of espionage, in order to then mark them, catalog them and marginalize their existence. It is clear that it is not just a matter of the chusma having access to the state’s cultural apparatus, but of building a memory based on what cannot be repeated.
Roce is a way of referring to consensual erotic and sexual practices, for example “friends with the right to rub”.
The Teje in the trans slang is a catch-all word that comes out of the world of prostitution. Marlen Wayar says: “It is the accomplice word between us, of what we don’t want the other to know”.