QUEERING JESUS IN SWEDEN AND SERBIA
During the fourth Feminist and Queer Solidarities Beyond Borders workshop on Friday 14th January 2022, Mariecke van den Berg from the University of Vrije, Amsterdam gave the keynote lecture ‘Queering Jesus in Sweden and Serbia’.
Ecce Homo – Elisabeth Ohlson
Mariecke’s talk focussed on the 1998 exhibition by Elisabeth Ohlson, Ecce Homo. The exhibition consisted of 12 photographs of different moments from the life of Jesus which had been adapted by Ohlson. The exhibition premiered at the 1998 Gay Pride festival in Stockholm, Sweden, and then was moved to the cathedral in Uppsala, Sweden. It was also shown at the Gay Pride parade in Belgrade, Serbia in 2012. Mariecke’s talk centred around the different responses to the exhibition in these two countries, and how public responses to the exhibition, which can be perceived as controversial or blasphemous, can help us understand how religion and homosexuality exist in these two nations.
In this photograph, Ohlson depicts Mary as a lesbian, and the moment of immaculate conception is happening through artificial insemination, and the depicted angel is holding a test tube.
This photograph depicts Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist; however Jesus is nude and there is a homoerotic undertone to the relationship between Jesus and John, and a potential reference to gay saunas.
A re-imagining of Jesus returning to Jerusalem, with Jesus being welcomed at the Gay Pride parade in Stockholm. This is an incredibly colourful and joyful photograph.
The Last Supper
Jesus with the 12 disciples, however in this image, the disciples are all transvestites and Jesus is wearing high heels and holding a make-up removal pad. The table is covered in champagne and crisps, a stark contrast to the biblical wine and bread often depicted.
In this photograph, Ohlson depicts the shadow of the cross, with a young man lying down and presumably dead or having been attacked due to homophobia. In the back of the photograph neo-Nazis are walking away. Mariecke noted that this was the only photograph that didn’t cause any controversy and questioned why depictions of queerness and suffering were not controversial, but more joyful pictures were
During her career, Mariecke had been involved with a project called ‘Contested Privates’, which aimed to understand why religion and homosexuality were such a toxic combination. The project came up with a hypothesis which tried to understand the relationship between religion and homosexuality. The hypothesis argued that religion and homosexuality had switched places in Dutch/Western societies, and up until the 1950’s, religion was present in public spheres, and homosexuality was something conducted behind closed doors. This switch happened after the 1950’s, where religion became something that was practiced in the private domain, and homosexuality was celebrated in the public domain, such as through gay pride parades and a number of celebrities coming out as LGBTQI+.
Ecce Homo in Sweden – A Success?
The exhibition received different receptions in the two countries it was exhibited, Sweden and Serbia. The Church of Sweden was the official state church of Sweden until 2000 and Sweden is seen as a homotolerant country, promoting dieas of gender equality and sexual rights. Mariecke thought that the exhibition could be seen as a success in Sweden, in that it was let into Uppsala cathedral, and was shown in Swedish Parliament. She also argued that the exhibition was nomadic, with a gospel-like script, and Ecce Homo was the apostle of LGBT emancipation. Many visitors to the exhibition claimed to have a religious experience, and many Swedes were asking each other “have you seen it?”, showing how well liked it was across Sweden. Mariecke argued that Ecce Homo led to meaningful theological debates, such as the inclusion of LGBT people by Christians and the Church of Sweden. The exhibition also helped redefine what counted as sacred within Sweden.
Ecce Homo in Serbia – A Failure?
In Serbia, the reaction was very different. The exhibition was planned to run for a week during Belgrade Gay Pride, however it was only on show for two hours, with 2000 policemen guarding it. In Serbia, the church is the guardian of national identity, and a constant feature of Serbian life. Homosexuality was legalised in 1994, however in 2001, religious education was reintroduced, but also the first Gay Pride parade was held. Mariecke argues that these contradictions lead Serbia into two fractions; the traditional, Eastern facing Serbia which is traditional, Orthodox and homophobic, and the liberal, cosmopolitan side of Serbia which is more secular and homotolerant.
As a result of these contradictions, Ecce Homo faced a lot of resistance in Serbia. The intended exhibition was announced on national T.V., and political group Dveri led a bottom-up resistance, which culminated in the Serbian Prime Minister limiting the exhibition to be on display for just two hours. The Dveri publicly stated that they were “horrified, offended, deeply disturbed, angry” about the exhibition. The exhibition, for Mariecke, was a failure, especially when you think about how Western Protestant art was accepted in the context of Eastern Orthodox iconography – in this context, you can’t have real life depictions of Jesus, only iconography is allowed. Similarly, there are only discussions around if this art is ‘allowed’ or not, rather than if it is blasphemous. In Serbia, religion is a national norm, and Ecce Homo challenged this.
Mariecke’s talk therefore highlighted how different national responses to the exhibition exposed each countries attitudes towards homosexuality and religion. In Sweden, the exhibition was celebrated and gave rise to a wider debate around LGBT acceptance within the church. However, in Serbia, the exhibition was protested by the state, and gives us the opportunity to see how the two Serbia’s exist simultaneously.
Please note: All images shown are copyright of Elisabeth Ohlson.