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Exclusive | Artist Felipe Chavez on growing up gay in Colombia

The artist will be auctioning off one of his paintings for the Terrence Higgins Trust

By Steve Brown

Words: Steve Brown

The Terrence Higgins Trust will be placing items under the hammer tonight (March 3) at an auction that will raise money for the HIV and sexual health charity.

And one of those being auctioned off is from the award-winning contemporary Colombian artist Felipe Chavez.

At a young age, Felipe – who is gay and married – saw his potential within the arts but living in South America he was stirred into studying architecture by his family.

But when he moved to the UK, he saw his potential as an artist and concentrated on his fine art practice and he uses his drawing skills to provide a fresh take on masculinity.

And tonight (March 3), Felipe will be auctioning off one of his paintings for the Terrence Higgins Trust.

Ahead of the auction, Felipe spoke to Attitude about growing up gay in Colombia, his inspiration behind his art and his relationship with his mother and uncles.

What is your inspiration behind your art?

I would say my art has always been a revolving exploration of the figure and the male man as a tangible form.

But the word ‘tangible’ has recently evolved, meaning over these last couple years it’s felt more literal, to a point where I want the public to have an instinctive response to the painting, I want the subject to feel very exposed and pure, so there’s that element of relatability.

By exploring my own body as the main subject and feeling that exhibitionistic trait, I get inspired by those masculine elements that I find and consider part of myself, so naturally, my artistic curiosity attempts to deconstruct those elements of masculinity through narratives and  hollow anthropomorphic figures.

Which artist is your favourite? And why?

There is always an artist that I mention when I get asked about artists I look up to and that person is Emil Alzamora, he is a sculptor based near New York.

Though sculpture is a different world to me, the way he manipulates the figurative form is genius to me, from the materials he uses to how they are displayed, they feel so sincere.

I had the pleasure to meet him after many years of ‘stalking his work’ in a solo show he had in London and what amazed me the most, was his genuine love for exploring materials and challenging himself.

One other artist that I have become even more familiar with and found myself researching his work up close, has been Francis Bacon.

I think I relate to his obsession with skin and depicting the body as a piece of flesh with no narrative, it is so beautiful how he is able to evoke so much rawness with his models.  

You’re auctioning off one of your paintings, why is the Terrence Higgins Trust an important organisation for you?

I’ve been wanting to get involved in making a difference to the world and it’s difficult do so by simply painting in my studio, so The Terrence Higgins Trust allows me to get involved in such an interesting way so this year I will be taking part in their annual Auction, which since it started has raised more than £4.7m!

Incredible art and experiences have been generously donated by some amazing artists that will go under the hammer to support the trust.

They really see the art world as a vital source of support towards the fight against HIV, acknowledging that far too many fellow creatives have been lost to HIV.

I feel compelled to be a part of it.

As a gay man, does your sexuality influence your work?

I would say it does, I feel inspired by how I observe my body. The way I see my body as a gay man is very different to how a straight man would see his.

There is almost a lustful animalistic feeling that heightens you and makes you challenge things, such as the perception of masculinity, the partnership between voyeurism and exhibitionism, subjects that feel almost natural to discuss when being part of the LGBTQ community.

Have you always wanted to be an artist?

As child I knew I was good at drawing and I’ve always been so creative but being raised in Colombia, you don’t consider doing art full time as a career, so my family stirred me towards architecture as the best way to utilise my artistic skills, but when I moved to the UK, I realised that I was meant to do something bigger than architecture, bigger than anything that could be narrowed down to a diploma.

Has the art world always been more liberal and open-minded towards people’s sexuality compared to others such as music or film?

This is honestly a great question and there’s only so much I can say about the other creative fields that I am not a part of, but from a distance, art seems to not have any boundaries, art can’t necessarily be defined and without those definitions you become extremely liberal in your interpretations, and that’s just beautiful.

I’m still learning a lot about the art world and there are sides to it that are quite selective, but for the most part, it’s a space where if you are truly authentic, you have the opportunity to express yourself in endless ways.

You’re Colombian. How was it growing up gay there?

I was really living a double life as a young teenager, I was forcing myself to get emotionally attached to girls, not to prove to other people I was straight, but it was to fool myself.

I would be begging a girl to not leave me and then secretly meet an older guy minutes after, but I numbed myself from making a conscious decision and did those things out of instinct.

Looking back at those moments, I was just a lost kid feeling like I could get away with the anything and not be judged and somehow convincing myself that my actions were justified.

I remember being happy but looking at old videos, I don’t think I was, there is a disconnect between who I believed myself to be and who I actually was, and this more than anything inspires me to observe myself even more.

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Did you ever face prejudice? If so, has this ever influenced your work?

Things got very tough when I came out and there was a point where I felt so disgusted with myself, yet I was so confused as to why.

I was 17 years old at the time, doing great in college and working hard on my part time job, but I was receiving horrible messages from my mother and uncles.

So, I matured quickly and realised that I had to accept myself to then defend who I was.

Some may say my work has a melancholic feeling and I often describe the subjects as feeling numb, I don’t know why but there is probably still a part of me where I am still understanding myself and not knowing who or where you are, is numbing, because you feel like your nothing.

Colombia was the fourth South American country to legalise same-sex marriage. That must have been a good feeling when you saw it.

I haven’t been back to Colombia since arriving to the UK and based on my experience growing up there, this came as big surprise to me.

I’m extremely happy the country is moving forward with the times and by taking these steps it’s made an impact in even small towns like the one I am from, where my family now don’t question seeing a same sex couple on the streets.

My husband and I are travelling over there for the first time and I must admit, I am worried about holding his hand in certain parts of trip or that’ll be focusing too much on my mannerism and if I am acting ‘manly’ enough for my very dominant uncles.

But in these situations, you just have to be brave, because someone has to break the stigmas and not be afraid of fighting for what you believe in.

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You have a partner. Does he ever help with your art or does he inspire you to paint?

My partner helps me in ways that I am so grateful for, he is part of a very different world to me, both in careers and family, so I appreciate every time he tries to understand what I do and why I do it.

He keeps me focused, as an artist I get distracted and over think everything I do, so having someone outside my art tinted glass to help me see clearer is extremely useful, not just to stay productive but to stay confident in my work.

He often reminds me of how great I am and encourages me to stay authentic.