Catalina de Erauso was a seventeenth-century Basque nun who escaped her convent, traveled to South America, and became a murderous, womanizing conquistador, under various male guises. The so-called Lieutenant Nun has been the subject of plays, novels, and films, but her transgressions are relayed in a more unconventional, fragmented mode by artist Mercedes Azpilicueta in her beguiling exhibition “Bondage of Passions” now at Gasworks in London. Drawing on extensive research with archival materials including maps, colonial art, and Erauso’s picaresque memoirs (whose authorship and veracity is disputed), Azpilicueta presents this contradictory figure not as a resolved entity (even the historical accounts conflict, down to her birth date) but as a figure in a state of continual becoming.
All the works in Azpilicueta’s show suggest fluid transitions—between male and female, public and private, fact and fantasy. A thirteen-foot phantasmagorical jacquard tapestry titled The Lieutenant-Nun Is Passing: An Autobiography of Katalina, Antonio, Alonso and More (all works 2021) portrays disparate episodes from Erauso’s life as a woman and as a man. Floating across a rolling landscape dominated by pinks and violets are nuns having sex with each other, disembodied heads and limbs of conquistadors, Indigenous women, and indigo and cacao plants. A second, smaller tapestry, Abya Yala (Tierra Madura), depicts historical details such as Spanish galleons and warring armies together with images of armed angels sourced from paintings of Erauso’s time. Each tapestry is attached to a curving wooden frame reminiscent of a boudoir partition designating an intimate space for dressing and undressing.
Several sculptures inspired by colonial fashions riff on the implications of dressing up and performing identities. On the Dignity of Codpieces, titled after an imagined treatise mentioned in Rabelais’s 1532 novel Gargantua and Pantagruel, comprises an assortment of playful garments assembled from fabric remnants. In Azpilicueta’s hands, codpieces, whose original purpose may have ranged from protection to projection of power, have metamorphosed to look distinctly vaginal and somewhat like BDSM bondage gear. The Delinquent Breeches plays up the ribald tone, presenting an anthropomorphic arched wooden frame with splayed legs in knickerbockers bearing a genital covering cheekily adorned with a rosy face. Another sculpture, The Trans-forming Armour, comprises a mannequin with a jacket that evokes chain mail, but here the hard metal texture has undergone a queer makeover into sparkly knitwear. In these flamboyant, gender-ambiguous sculptures, suggestive of theater costumes and props, the artist draws out the inherent campiness of conquistador fashions without trivializing or precisely naming the challenges and decisions Erauso may have faced in navigating that era’s beliefs about gender and sexuality—where “female” was considered a form of sex lesser to “male.” Through its carnivalesque tone, the work also underlines the idea of history itself as a spectacle, a construct viewed through a heteronormative lens that must be exposed and redeveloped.
Azpilicueta, who was born in Argentina and is based in Amsterdam, has taken liberties with historical narratives around complex female figures before. In her 2019 show at the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, “The Captive: Here’s a Heart for Every Fate,” she employed tapestries and costumes to retell the myth, recorded by a nineteenth-century Argentine woman writer, of a European woman captured by Indigenous people in sixteenth-century Argentina. Azpilicueta’s Gasworks exhibition builds on that show, traversing past and present to propose that Erauso’s tale adds dimension to current conversations on identity and provides a wider view of ongoing cultural phenomena such as patriarchal subjugation. We see the precariousness of Erauso’s position as a woman living in disguise to pursue a chosen identity. Still, the artist neither critiques nor glosses over the unappealing aspects of Erauso’s life—the conformity to a violent masculine trope and slaughter of Indigenous people are on view in the textiles. What she celebrates is that this powerful gender-fluid person transcended the social limitations of her born sex (even securing a military pension from King Philip IV and permission from Pope Urban VIII to continue dressing as a man). In drawing attention to a problematic figure like Erauso and the contradictory accounts of her life, Azpilicueta reveals the slipperiness of history to be a valuable quality—not only as a prompt to revisit previously misunderstood figures, but also as an opening for more inclusive readings that might alter the parameters of the future.