Wettlaufer makes connections between the anti-gay hate crimes, other human-rights struggles and his own art in the following interview with Kittredge Cherry, founder of JesusInLove.org and author of “Art That Dares.”
Born and raised in America, Wettlaufer lived in El Salvador and South Africa before returning recently to California. He has a doctorate of philosophy from South Africa’s Kassel University and moved to Capetown to teach philosophy at the University of Stellenbosch. He paints a variety of subjects, but his large political landscapes focus on issues of homophobia and political violence.
It is especially appropriate to reflect on gay martyrdom now during the season of Lent, when the suffering and death of Christ are remembered. In the following interview, Wettlaufer is especially eloquent at discussing the meaning of his art because he is a philosopher as well as an artist.
KC: You have a doctorate in philosophy and taught philosophy at the university level. That's unusual for an artist. So I am going to ask you some about the philosophy behind your art. Why did you decide to paint the difficult subject of the gay-bashing murders of Allen Schindler and Matthew Shepard?
MW: I was strongly affected by their murders, it was one of the reasons why I found myself leaving the United States, because of the entrenched homophobia in society which served as a foundation for these acts of brutality. In 2006 I saw the film Brokeback Mountain and it reawoke all these feelings of anguish and pain that I had managed to put aside after moving to South Africa. I walked around in a daze for a week. Then I painted the Matthew Shepard painting, which was my first political narrative. I was actually embarrassed about showing it to anyone, it was too personal and too private, but over time I grew out of that reticence as I started to get feedback from people about it.
I m not sure if this is related but I was at the March on Washington in 1993 and I saw Allen Schindler's mother address the crowds on the Washington Mall. I knew his story already because of an article I had read that described the events leading up to his murder and the murder itself, which the Navy initially tried to cover up. Hearing his mother speak brought me to tears.
All my life I have sought ways of recording the memory of people martyred under conditions of oppression, by working in El Salvador during the 1990s in health care, by teaching philosophy (critical theory) in El Salvador at the University in San Salvador, by activism in the gay community. Painting these people made sense to me as a way of creating an archive of what their deaths meant, so that they never be forgotten. It was in some ways easier to paint Salvadoran subjects as I am not Salvadoran, it was much harder to bring myself to paint gay subjects, especially the subjects of Shepard and Schindler, as this was so close to home and so personal...
(Image credit: The Murder of Matthew Shepard by Matthew Wettlaufer, email@example.com)