"I feel like multiple people in one," Kiam Marcelo Junio said.
Windy City Times and Junio sat chatting over a cup of coffee at Argo Tea as the artist, performer and queer multi-hyphenate navigated their many identities and projects. There's no better statement to sum up Junio, who was born in the Philippines before relocating to Japan with their adoptive parents.
In many ways, Junio is a product of that cultural exchange. "I became accustomed to living in different worlds at the same time," Junio explained. "I grew up very transitory. My biological mother was a nurse in Saudi Arabia, and because my mother was never home." I got passed around a lot from relative to relative." Junio believes this instilled in them the importance of community at an early age, learning to rely on those around you for guidance and support.
In Japan, Junio lived on a naval base, which he describes as "like growing up in the suburbs." Junio said, "We lived in a small, closed community where everybody knew each other." Interacting with Japanese urban life was "like a daily culture shock" when Junio would venture off base. "Out in the world, everything was side by side," they recalled. "It was all so functionalwith a completely different aesthetic and way of life." Junio would continue to be "fascinated" by the cultures he encountered, both after moving to the United States and enlisting in the Navy, where Junio served from 2004 to 2011.
Serving in the military was another lesson in negotiating identities, as Navy culture in 2004 was resistant to queerness. "In the earliest parts of my service, getting by was about passing, putting up a part of my persona that didn't invite questions," Junio explained. "I constantly felt like someone might be spying on me. My job and my livelihood were always in danger. It was tough living in that situation."
However, while stationed in Bethesda, Maryland and Spain, Junio started to "open up" to themselves and come out to more of their crew members. "I realized I don't have to constrain myself or be afraid of who I am." Junio also credits the conversation around passing Don't Ask, Don't Tell, which changed the conversation around queer people in the military.
For Junio, this new pride about their queer identity wasn't just personally liberating. It was tied to an entire culture of shame in the Philippines. "I feel like there's this concept of Philippine shame, a colonial mindset that I'm grappling with in my work," they said. "I've always known that the Philippines has had a tough historyhow many times it had been conquered by invading forces, yet retained a central identity within itself."
Junio's journey was about finding the identities within themselves and rediscovering that feeling of belonging to a community and a family. "It wasn't until I moved to Chicago that I began to feel that again," Junio explained. "In the military, we formed close bonds, but in a way, I distanced myself from that, being a queer person, even though I didn't have those words at the time."
Kiam Marcelo Junio came to Chicago in 2011 to enroll at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago because of the institution's focus on interdisciplinary studies. While in the military, Junio embraced photography as a "default medium" because "it was easy to hide behind the lens." "I was able to explore the conceptual side of an artform, Junio said. "I began to think about art as a conceptual, representative of a version of reality." Photography helped them understand the "power of the facade," but Junio didn't want to be limited to photography. "I wanted to explore performance," Junio told me. "In the Navy, there was a disconnect between my body and mind, my body being in this space, but my mind not being a part of that. This was a chance to move forward."
Although Junio explained that they already felt like they'd been performing for different people, it was the character of Jerry Blossom that allowed Junio's interest in the medium to flourish. "It began just as a name," Junio explained, but Jerry started to grow into a manifestation of my suppressed behaviors, cultural signifiers slapped up against white privilege and color. This performance had the potential to become a vehicle to discuss these kinds of issues." For Junio, Jerry Blossom is an act of resistance. "I think a lot about the invisibility of Filipino bodies in space, performance and art," Junio said. "Filipinos are the second most populous Asian population, but we're nowhere to be seen on TV. Our experience is not represented."
From here, Kiam Marcelo Junio began to explore what it means to be a Filipino body in public space and means to "be Asian and look Asian." Jerry Blossom starts in Junio's Model Minority series, performance art that unpacks the issues of how Asian bodies are coded. Blossom exists in a world that's post-queer, where the Philippines is now a world power. "Jerry is a utopic vision of these possible alternative futures," Junio said. However, you these themes of coding reflected throughout the artist's work. Junio's series, "Camouflage as a Metaphor for Passing," is in many ways the thesis statement of the artist's work, using acrylic, silk and found material to show how we "blend in" to function. For Junio, it's not just about artit's about survival.
Junio plans to continue developing and exhibiting Model Minority and Camouflage as a Metaphor for Passingas well as other projects like Latent Confrontations and American Karaoke, which you can read about on the artist's website, iamkiam.com . Kiam Marcelo Junio will be performing on Dec. 6 at the MCA, as part of a special Chances Dances that will feature work from Gnat Brilmeyer, Mister Junior and others. "I'm performing a piece that I've done before but want to perform in a new context and a new institutional space," Junio explained. "The Performance will be short, so I'll get to see other peoples' works." He stopped and smiled. "And I then I get to go-go dance."