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Issue 006 Fall/Winter 2023 Profiles

Jesús Hilario-Reyes, Divine Destierro

Also known as Morenxxx, the antidisciplinary maven is exploring the subversive textures of queer Black life.

By Isabelia Herrera

October 10, 2023

Jesús Hilario-Reyes, AKA Morenxxx, photo by David Mesa.

When Jesús Hilario-Reyes performs, it is spiritual.

Last December, seated in e-flux’s performance space in Brooklyn, I witnessed their capacity to transfer divine energy from DJ to spectator for the first time. The room glowed, a neon violet light hovering around them like the rings of an aura photograph. In front of them was a pair of CDJs, which they used to stitch machinelike hums and throbbing four-on-the-floor rhythms into a nebulous cloud of Black techno. Under the beat, they sampled a sound bite of an interview with their mother. She spoke fondly about traveling across the Mona Passage (the strait that separates Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic), the infinite ocean waters stretching before her. At one point, Hilario-Reyes paused the music and read from a copy of The Collected Poems of Édouard Glissant. Their voice was soft but unwavering, the room’s quiet static filling the gaps between their words. 

“In the infinity of sand its rout, in the valley of night its rout and yet
upon the salt,
there are only calyxes
Encompassing the stem posts of these seas
where delight is infinite to me.

And what to say of the Ocean, except that it waits?”

I felt the reverent flows of Glissant’s verse and the pulses of techno coalesce in my body, emanating back out into the room. At that moment, the spiritual potency of electronic music came to life.  

When the Puerto Rican–born artist of Dominican descent releases these beatific sounds into the world, they perform as Morenxxx. The stage name is a nonbinary adaptation of moreno/a, a term loaded with disparate perceptions of Blackness across Latin America. Depending on your geographical location, it could refer to someone who is light brown, a dark-skinned Indigenous person, or even an Black American. The moniker captures so much of the porosity and untranslatability of Hilario-Reyes’s art—its engagement with Caribbean displacement and belonging, as well as its allegiance to queer club culture. “By adding the additional Xs at the end, there’s something very techno about it,” they explain. “It was cumulative of my background, upbringing, or Americanization in relation to how I’m viewed in certain spaces. . . . This is a term that is affirming Blackness, rather than a lot of the language that is more derogatory towards Blackness in Latin America.” 

Jesús Hilario-Reyes, Crossing (Iteration 05) (2022), Land Installation, Fishers Island, New York

Hilario-Reyes is an antidisciplinary maven of sculpture, digital imaging, and performance whose work explores the subversive textures of queer Black life. Their art captures the soothing capacity of a long, sweaty night of clubbing, as well as the power of refusal that this kind of queer Black fugitivity can provide. “Queer Black and Brown nightlife scenes—there is this sort of stickiness there,” they say on a Zoom call from Berlin. “This is the balm that returns us to these devotional spaces that offer healing and transformation in profound ways.”

The artist culls from beloved Black and Caribbean writers and poets (such as Glissant and Fred Moten) to render their own meticulous conceptual vocabulary, one that draws on motifs like hurricane detritus and digital glitch. Whether it is through sublime techno mixes, warped 3-D scans, spectral sound performances, or land installation, they often use the rave as a point of departure. “It’s such a glorious exchange of energy, one that has secretions,” they say of the dance floor. No matter the form, the work is always theoretically rigorous and giddily cerebral.

 Hilario-Reyes discovered DJing while studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. During that time, they immersed themselves in the city’s underground rave scene and learned about the metropolis’s deep history of Black electronic music. “Chicago DJs would have long blends and would often take two minimal tracks and stack them on top of each other,” they say. “I didn’t know that this specific style originated in Chicago. It feels as though Black techno and house came to me rather than I came to it.” 

Jesús Hilario-Reyes, AKA Morenxxx, photo by David Mesa.

The concept of destierro, an untranslatable term for exile in Spanish akin to being uprooted from your homeland, is also at the center of their work. For their ongoing land installation project Crossings, they created a series of checkered or weaved dance floors out of the sand on beaches in New York, Ecuador, and Florida. They were partially inspired by the scholar Yomaira Figueroa-Vásquez, who argues that awakening memories and practices embedded in our lands is a tool of resistance against exile. 

For Hilario-Reyes, destierro and Blackness are inextricable; they understand both concepts as a kind of displacement, but one that isn’t necessarily disempowered. Rather, the artist sees that displacement as an aperture; it demands constant fluctuation and adaptation. “That is how I’ve understood Blackness to be,” they note. “Something that is perpetually fluid and not fixed or understood in a stagnant way.”

These days, Hilario-Reyes has been drawn to sculpture. When we spoke, they were preparing a solo show at Frieze’s No. 9 Cork Street gallery in London, called Waywardly in Low Tide, which debuted at the end of July. For the project, they transformed hog bladder balloons into meditations on queer communal becoming in rave spaces. The surreal sculpture underwent an extensive treatment process. First, Hilario-Reyes embossed the bladders with fetish wear or fishnets, an allusion to the material culture and fashion of queer nightlife. After that, they grounded the balloons in a metal structure adorned with amorphous clay and cement. The cement and clay were then placed in a salt solution; salt lines and crystals appeared on the cement after the liquid evaporated. “This residue resembles the salt lines that adorn clothing after ‘sweating it out’ on the dance floor,” they explain. “It becomes a sort of proof or evidence of giving one’s body (devotion) to the space, to the music.” 

Waywardly in Low Tide also continues Hilario-Reyes’s longstanding fascination with Carnival aesthetics. Historically, the hog bladder is used by Carnival characters like diablos cojuelos or vejigantes to strike participants in a playful, harmless way. For Hilario-Reyes, that sense of mischief feels generative, consonant with the transgression and refusal that drives queer embodiment.

Jesús Hilario-Reyes, Waywardly in Low Tide (2022), Cement, Metal, and Hog Bladders Variable Dimensions, 2022, Courtesy of the artist.

The piece also draws on several other influences, including the resilience of mangroves in the aftermath of hurricanes and Glissant’s writings about saline residue. The shape of the sculpture was inspired by rib cages and mangroves. Both protect life in some capacity; as Hilario-Reyes says, the rib cage “is capacious in holding life and your lungs and breath,” while the mangrove is “the first form of defense that an island has, or a population has, before a hurricane hits. They’re essential in creating that barrier from the oncoming waves.”

But it is Hilario-Reyes’s philosophy on queer club culture that buttresses all of their projects. By invoking rapturous dance floor encounters, they reveal how certain rave spaces offer modes of disappearance that are powerful for queer Black and Brown people. “The fogged-out dance floor is a moment where we’re allowed to blur and disappear,” Hilario-Reyes explains. “That sort of [disappearance] is so deeply personal and spiritual, and moving towards something else instead of just nonexistence. I think you are moving towards a communal embodiment.”

They explore these questions in an untitled digital quilt series, in which they make 3-D scans of nightclub floors after a transportive night of dancing. Some of those scans aren’t able to capture the movement of bodies and limbs on a dance floor, resulting in blurred images. Others are completely fabricated. The piece invites us to interrogate the way we mythologize the queer rave as a static, emancipatory utopia—one that is perhaps not as rosy or flawless as we’d like to admit. Yes, these spaces have historically functioned as refuges from the brutality of a heteronormative world, but they can’t always transcend privilege and prejudice, offer material political freedom, or protect us from physical violence. “It’s more truthful to identify Black techno and queer rave culture as gestural or incomplete,” they said in an interview last year. “This is much more capacious, and is arguably its saving power.”

The gift of Hilario-Reyes’s art is that it gestures at the devotion experienced in queer nightlife spaces, but never oversells their political promise or falls into romantic binaries. In their work, I am constantly reminded of Cuban scholar José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, when he writes that queers do not “become one nation under a groove once we hit the dance floor.” Instead, “a certain queer communal logic overwhelms practices of individual identity.” When we get lost in the haze at a rave, we are not indulging in excess or escape. We are celebrating what queer nightlife can deliver: the defiant power of communion and conviviality.