Guma’ Gela’ Birds of Paradise Fashion Show at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in 2020 • Photo by Clay Aflleje

This piece originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald, republished here with permission.

A new exhibit is on display at the Wing Luke Museum — Guma’ Gela’: Part Land, Part Sea, All Ancestry. Guma’ Gela’, or “House of Gays” as it translates to in the native CHamoru language, is a queer art collective for people from the Mariana Islands and its diaspora.

Hailing from the Pacific Ocean, the CHamoru are the Indigenous people of the Mariana Islands, east of the Philippines, which are currently colonized by the U.S. The main island of the Marianas is Guam (Guåhan) with other islands located north in the same archipelago. Many people have migrated to the Marianas from other parts of Asia such as Taiwan and Indonesia, creating a space of many cultures on the islands.

Today, Guma’ Gela’ consists of a group of queer CHamoru people who are artists, dancers, songwriters, and more. Members of Guma’ Gela are largely based in Seattle, with some located in Guåhan as well. They have done multiple performances around the city including at IndigiQueer, Pridefest, and Seattle Public Library’s Legendary Children.

The new exhibit at Wing Luke displays 13 of Guma’ Gela’s local artists. Each artist contributed works that spoke to the meaning and metaphor of “part land, part sea, all ancestry.” There is a range of pieces from all mediums — paints, sculpture, fiber arts, jewelry, fashion, music, video, and more. This is an exhibit far from the traditional blank and open walls of museums. Every space is intentionally filled with CHamoru art and warmth.

The installation is divided into the three sections of land, sea, and ancestry. A land altar lies to the left and a sea altar to the right, with a dedication to ancestry anchoring the center of the exhibit.

“It’s a ceremony space and a place to party and reflect,” Guma’ Gela’ artist Roldy Aguero Ablao said. “We don’t see ourselves in museums, so we wanted to share as much as possible … filling it with as much memory and energy as we can.”

Guma’ Gela’ artists (left to right) Lourdez Velasco, So’le Celestial, and Roldy Aguero Ablao behind the scenes of a film featured in 2021 • Courtesy of Guma’ Gela’

Guma’ Gela’ artists (left to right) Lourdez Velasco, So’le Celestial, and Roldy Aguero Ablao behind the scenes of a film featured in 2021. (Photo: Guma’ Gela’)

There’s a CHamoru phrase — inafa’ maolek (pronounced e-na-fah mao-lek) — that means “restoring harmony” and “doing things in a good way.” And when entering the exhibit, Guma’ Gela’ would like viewers to hold this feeling close to them.

“Inafa’ maolek is one of the CHamoru values we were able to create in the whole space,” artist Lourdez Velasco said. “When you enter, it’s filled with story, spiritual energy — gifts that we’re giving.”

Velasco’s own piece, which greets visitors as soon as they step into the installation, is a series of 12 portraits of their fellow artists as their younger selves.

“It was an ode to honor our joy,” Velasco said, “what it means to reflect back on our younger selves as queer people and to give love back to them and celebrate this beautiful thing we’ve been able to create together.”

Guma’ Gela’ artists Roldy Aguero Ablao and So’le Celestial at a pop-up installation in Pioneer Square for Seattle Restored in 2021 • Courtesy of Seattle Restored

When it comes to the history of the CHamoru people — much of it surrounds acts of resistance and resilience. Guåhan’s history of colonization is the longest of all the islands in the Pacific — over 300 years. As a result, there is powerful Indigenous resistance, especially to the U.S militarization, which has become a major part of Guåhan life — CHamoru people having one of the highest recruitment rates for the U.S military.

Today, future CHamoru generations are reclaiming their history and voicing their resilience.

“Within our generation and future ones, there’s a lot of work of healing,” Velasco said. “There’s a lot of reconnecting to language, work around justice, and sacred work of healing ourselves, our lands and our waters.”

Guma’ Gela’ began in 2018 when current collective artists noticed the growing group they had started to form. In CHamoru dance community, there are different “Gumas” or “Houses.” When artist Roquin-Jon Quichocho Siongco was asked at a festival what Guma he was a part of, he jokingly said “Guma’ Gela’” for his chosen family of queer CHamoru people. Thus, Guma’ Gela’ was born.

Guma’ Gela’ artists at the opening reception at the Wing Luke Museum • Courtesy of Guma’ Gela’

“It wasn’t a real Guma at the time,” Siongco said, “but it was a family, and I think it harkens back to the tradition within ballroom culture where a house is a chosen family.”

Colonization is a part of the history of the CHamoru people, but it does not define the CHamoru story. There are always external forces trying to tell CHamoru people who they are, Ablao says. Colonization tells a story of scarcity, but the CHamoru story is abundant — filled with light, culture, and wealth. “Part Land, Part Sea, All Ancestry” delivers the true stories of the CHamoru people.

“You’ve heard our story about colonization, trauma, and war,” Ablao says, “but what we hope for this exhibit is a place for us to transform that into something beautiful — an offering to the future, to our past selves, and to the ancestors who cannot celebrate with us today.”

Visit the Guma’ Gela’ exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum from now through May 12, 2024, in the George Tsutakawa Art Gallery.

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