Remembering Cecilia Gentili’s Singular Artistry

My first encounter with Cecilia Gentili blew me away. The Argentinian-American artist and advocate was giving a performance lecture at an exhibition of work by one of her children, artist Joseph Liatela, at George Segal Gallery in Montclair, New Jersey in 2022. Against the backdrop of Liatela’s installation “Untitled (salvation is a collective gesture/I know that we are all here at the same time)” (2022), comprising 49 fresh Stargazer lilies in a memorial to the victims of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre, Gentili commanded the room with her unforgettable vivacity. One story she told her collegiate audience about a trick who “had a tattoo of Jesus Christ on his cock” had me jokingly clutching my pearls. A version of this appeared in her one-woman performance Red Ink. Such oft-retold tales were her way of forging a path in the world for the undocumented community, sex workers, and transgender people. In the wake of her tragic loss on February 6, the impact of that trailblazing has resonated across the art world and beyond.

Communities in New York City gathered in shock to mourn the passing of a legendary activist and beloved mother, whose palpable loss is still reverberating. Costume designer and Black Trans Liberation founder Qween Jean hosted a community space at Judson Memorial Church, home to the downtown avant-garde, the night after Gentili died. Ceyenne Doroshow, founder of the grassroots organization Glits, gave her chosen sister a glorious send-off the following week at Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Midtown; a deserving and ground-breaking farewell to a trans saint. At these and other tributes, many expressed how the impassioned activist was also an immensely creative artist, starring in two one-woman shows and on the televised FX drama Pose (2018–2021), as well as “serving as a doula to other trans artists,” Liatela told me. Those include her chosen family members such as Liatela himself and her daughters Gogo Graham, Río Sofia, Maya Margarita, and Serena Jara, who first met Gentili when they went to receive gender-affirming care at New York’s Apicha Community Health Center.

Gentili embodied stories with her whole being, and brought a generation of other artists into her singular self-fashioning. Reading her moving memoir Faltas, watching her work a room, or just sitting in the audience of one of her performances, it was clear that Gentili was every inch an artist, meaning one who creates something that previously didn’t exist and which the world must alter itself to accommodate.

“Three days before Cecilia’s 52nd birthday, I sat her down to write out some of her last words,” visual artist and Gentili’s daughter Oscar Diaz told me. “‘Travestí,’ ‘puta,’ ‘bendita,’ ‘madre’ — terms she anointed herself with on a collaborative piece.” In the resulting image, which the two artists crafted together, Gentili is posed looking upward, hand on heart, expressing true conviction and inner certainty. She seems to beckon to us, saying as she often did to many of her audience members, “Be my child.”

“She had an effortless way to her,” Diaz added. “My Virgo self expected to spend all Sunday night creating together, but she finished in less than a half hour — as if she understood how divinely her gestures would shimmer with detail and impact. With a few strokes of her own hand, she accepted and declared her sainthood: Santa Cecilia, Madre de Todas las Putas.”

Alongside other queer and trans Latinx artists such as Alma López, Felipe Baeza, and Fabián Cháirez, Cecilia Gentili’s art and performance transformed religious symbolism often used to denigrate and debase. Her disidentification with traditional Catholic religiosity placed her art in a space of possibility and hope. In Red Ink, she begins each story with the line, “I’m an atheist, but …,” flipping the script on any who would exclude her from grace. The titular anecdote of the show reclaims her life story from the hateful person who threatened her in her adolescence with the sodomitical equivalent of the scarlet letter: an ID written in red ink. Wearing this scorn as a badge of honor onstage, Gentili relishes how realizing her gender, migrating to the US, and starting her own business disproved this hateful sentencing.

A diva from head to toe, Gentili was approachable in person, on and off the stage. In creating space for herself, she cultivated an atmosphere that forced the question: Why isn’t there space for all her children, too? Constantly inviting viewers or audience members into her chosen family, she dared us to draw from her example and imagine bigger, more generous worlds.

According to Liatella, Gentili was reluctant to set her stories down on the page, lest they lose their magic. She needn’t have worried, as Faltas was successful with readers and critics alike, with author Hugh Ryan writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books that it was “at once agonizing and hilarious, angry and forgiving, beautiful and unbearable.” But Gentili was strategic in her use of the attention that she naturally drew. “She loved the spotlight,” Liatela told me, “but it never was the driving force of her work.” Instead, her relational aesthetics were shaped by the determination to expand opportunities for trans folks to live and thrive. I once saw her start a mock striptease at the Whitney Museum of Art to loosen wallets at a fundraiser for young trans and queer artists. She was also a driving force behind Transmission, New York City’s first trans music festival, in 2023. It is a fitting tribute to this consecration of a trans saint of the art world that, even though her individual plans for rest and art-making in the coming years were cut short, her chosen family will continue to create art under the utopian sign of Trans Equity Associates, which has been granted a collective summer artist residency by the arts nonprofit Boffo, according to its founder Faris Al-Shathir.

In portraits taken by Serena Jara, Gentili reveals herself as more than an arts patron and muse, but a participant in a tradition of feminist self-portraiture that includes Ana Mendieta and Nan Goldin. Originally created for her 2018 show The Knife Cuts Both Ways — with styling and makeup by Gogo Graham — these arresting images “drawing inspiration from celluloid glamour and seductiveness,” as Jara puts it, depict Gentili in a range of domestic and exterior spaces. One dramatically lit photo in which she gives the camera an off-kilter stare, halfway between a side-eye and a come hither, contains a story world all in itself.

So, too, does a later photo by Diaz of Gentili’s “re-baptism” in a creek near her upstate home taken for Red Ink. With an expression of intense serenity, she sinks partly into the darkly reflective ripples. The water both veils the body and, in rendering her wet blouse translucent, accentuates it. “She joked that she peed a little,” Diaz said, “just in case any New Yorker tasted something a little funny in their water.” We should all be so lucky as to be doused in such sacred waters.

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