Ressurreição: Inês Zenha at Kunsthalle Lissabon
The exhibition Ressurreição by Inês Zenha (born in 1995), a Portuguese artist who lives and works in Paris, is at the Kunsthalle Lissabon until March 25.
Exploring formal and conceptual codes of representation of the queer body, Zenha’s artistic output has spanned several media, including painting, installation, sculpture and ceramics. Aware of the violence exerted by hetero-patriarchal normative values on those who distance themselves from them, Ressurreição presents pieces between the vegetal and the human, which seem to metaphorically point to the hybrid construction of identity. In an installation shaped by the flowing water binding the different elements, we realise that identity cannot be conceived as a stable, immutable expression, but rather as a living organism, continuously subject to new and sometimes unpredictable articulations and transformations.
The exhibition’s first impact is made even before we enter the room, when the sound vibration of running water begins to percolate through our bodies. We go downstairs and see Diante de olhos armados, trespassa (2023), an installation specially commissioned for this occasion. A curtain built by the repetition of small, breast-shaped sculptural units constructed in white ceramic. The repetition seems to sustain abstraction, avoiding pre-established codes.
We accept the challenge and move beyond the curtain. We find an installation where source-bodies release water, where ceramic plants live submerged in the aquatic space, and also sprout as a form of resistance to the confining structures, revealing other inhabitable places – Ergue-me a voz (2023). An ecosystem where hybrid beings exist, based on the association between reproductive system organs and the botanical universe, expressed in this interconnectivity, in structures associated by running water and drainage pipes. In Tão só um corpo em confissão(2023), the water flowing from the shower drenches the clay breasts, progressively leading them to disintegration. The result of this action is the shapeless clay that we see tumbling, the malleable and unconstrained body. In Pia regeneradora (2023), water flows from a tile-anus that fills the baptismal font, where a vegetable being inhabits, similar to a carnivorous plant, whose “teeth” seem capable of snagging our fingers if we were to put our hand in it. Purifica-me no teu devir-água (2023), a vulva-shaped orchid on an ogival arch, stands as a religious icon. From it flows the water that runs through the urinals into the aquatic area inhabited by exotic plants.
In an installation where the sound of water and the white of the tiles reminds us of bathrooms and shower rooms, spaces that force the public categorization of bodies, where we are constrained to opt for the male or female side, the exhibition strives to transcend gender, affirming a way of living beyond the binary. While pointing to the ability of plants to adapt and regenerate, the exhibition also mentions the field of science, botany, religion and even biopolitics, emphasizing how these areas uphold and disseminate an essentialist, normative and binary conception of gender that violates and excludes those who do not fit into it.
In Resurreição we find the subversion of the concept of single identity. Owing to the impact of ambivalence and transgender, we arrive at a place grounded on variation and displacement, undermining authoritarian and totalising conceptions. A place allowing us to understand the importance of ambivalence to unsettle and disrupt the policing of bodies and ways of living. A place that breaks any blueprint of dominant discourse, suggesting the impossibility of essentialism. The plural encounter of bodies, materials and moving elements presented by the exhibition is prolific, pointing to a future where the performative character of identity will be established. An identity in permanent flux and where the hybrid is the key figure, standing in opposition and resistance to the concrete, the totalitarian, the solid and static.
They are also sensual pieces, with an intense and creative eroticism. And, through the erotic, according to the concept of Audre Lorde, black poet, feminist, lesbian and mother (as she defined herself), we enter Inês Zenha’s work. In “Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power” (1978/1984), a manifesto written in poetic prose, Lorde defines the erotic as «a resource within each of us (…) firmly rooted in the power of our (…) feeling. (…) a source of power and information within our lives». Besides the sexual aspect, Lorde associates the erotic with pleasure, intimacy and creativity, fear, pain, rebellion, knowledge, power and spirituality. The erotic pertains to our most spontaneous and deepest feelings, a powerful guide to analyse that which is most natural in us. A vital affirmation of strength, an empowering creative energy, where deep knowledge of the Self manifests itself in «(…) in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.» . Lorde elevates the erotic, in the broadest sense, to an integrated form of knowledge and power, which we must claim and use to identify internalised oppressions and critically engage and question the world, noticing the ways in which it not only fails to serve us, but conditions us: «In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.»
The pulsating force in Ressurreição seems to be of this nature. Through their art, exploring queer and gender politics, Inês Zenha uses this power of agency and the right to self-conception of the Self, in multiple constraints imposed by external norms that benefit and nurture entrenched systems of oppression, violence, marginalisation and exploitation. The expression of this affirmative force, originating in the exploration of the erotic, in Zenha’s emotional depth and delivery, impacts us in the struggle not only for the right to transformation, but for the need for liberating, purifying transformation of a society that lives and imprisons through its artificial, pre-established codes.
While directing the imagination towards the current conception of liberating futures, in the empowering sharing of the exhibition, Inês Zenha seems to convey to us what Audre Lorde once said: «(…) there are so many ways in which I am vulnerable and I cannot help being so, I will not become even more vulnerable by placing silencing weapons in the hands of my enemies”».
An ode to free transformation and the shattering of castrating silences. To the exploration of gender beyond the binary and the shaping of a more inclusive expression of identity, which flows like water between the hybrid bodies in Ressurreição.
 Lorde, Audre (1984). “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. New York: The Crossing Press Feminist Series. p. 53.
 Lorde, Audre (1984). Ibidem. p. 55.
 Lorde, Audre (1984). Ibidem. p. 58.