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An Artist’s Intimate Portraits of Genderfunk’s Collective Energy

The collective of drag artists and performers known as Genderfunk has been creating safe spaces for local queer creatives and blowing the minds of Saigon’s denizens for nearly two years, and they are now being celebrated in an exhibition of works from painter Mariano di Guglielmo.

di Guglielmo, who was born and raised in New York City, has been a Saigon resident for the past two years. He started painting various Saigon street scenes as soon as he arrived and was introduced to drag queen and Genderfunk founder Esta Ricardo by a mutual friend, Saigon comedian Angee the Diva.

Performer Prinz Illusion says, “I struggled with my self-esteem and my gender. I want to be a dancer but no one would hire me. My teacher never thought I could be that feminine but when I become another character I don’t give a shit about anything. I can do the manly stuff but I still want to be feminine. Then I found Genderfunk.”

Ricardo described Genderfunk to Hive Life as “a gender party. It’s not a gay party. Queer includes straight people and this is an all-inclusive safe space for people to express their gender.”

“I went first to Nowhere Festival…[in Spain]. The costume camp became my playground,” Ricardo reminisces. “It was about playing with gender, not about being a woman. Genderfunk is an extension of what was given to me at these spaces. We’ve built a platform and a safe space for queer art. Genderfunk goes against the social construct of gender and uses collective power to build confidence in queer people and artists.”

The painter recounts his first time meeting Ricardo and initial encounter with the Genderfunk collective: “The first event I did with Genderfunk was an event that had drag, live music, and comedy, and I was doing live painting at the show. They really liked the paintings I did. Ricardo offered to buy them and I gave them as a gift to the performers. Then they invited me to their next event.”

di Guglielmo has been interviewing and painting the diverse, and radical drag crew ever since. He often captures deeply personal perspectives of the performers that audience members may not catch glimpses of or be privy to otherwise. 

Saigoneer met with di Guglielmo at his Phu Nhuan District art studio where he has collections of quotes from informal interviews — mostly conversations had over copious amounts of Tiger beers and menthol cigarettes — with the Genderfunk performers. When asked about the stories and what he thinks drives his subjects, di Guglielmo said: “Childhood trauma, or interpretations of their own experiences, creative adaptations of their experiences, usually as children or young adults struggling with sexuality and gender, and trying to find a place for themselves, and a way to express themselves.” 

The stories behind the larger-than-life performers, when coupled with di Gugliermo’s watercolor paintings made with strokes that seem to suggest motion, read like superhero origin stories. His acrylic paintings of the performers, on the other hand, are starker portraits that capture the intensity of the queens as they appear on stage at Genderfunk’s events.  

The exhibition has graced the walls of Thao Dien hangout Soma since January 18, and the closing event, which will include drag performances, drag storytelling, a documentary film screening, and makeup workshops will take place this Saturday, February 8.

di Guglielmo’s depiction of Esta Ricardo in Burberry.

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