Lately, Galería de la Raza, in San Francisco, has been one of the few places in the “art world” where I feel safest, being an alien, a person of color, who does not “pass,” but feels as a POC. Perhaps this is so because Galería de La Raza is at the same time an “art world place” but it is also one that does not “conform”: its walls may be white but they feel brown, they breathe mestizaje. It is not only the gallery space that makes me feel welcomed, but it is the streets and it is the murals, the hair salons in the surroundings, the citizens and the non-citizens passing by. I am in the barrio and there are tropical plants in pots in an art gallery. People do not know me—after all, I am not Chicana, I am Brazilian-born—but they look at me as if they could know me. Maybe it’s only my imagination, an effort to construct a Latinx solidarity, but these thoughts came to my mind as I left the gallery I had paid a visit to to see Queerly Tèhuäntin | Cuir Us.
Curated by Galería de la Raza’s director, Ani Rivera, and Ed McCaughan, Queerly Tèhuäntin brings together art and acts of resistance from as early as the 1970s to now, by both Mexican and Chicanx queer artists and activists. In the main gallery space, photographs, paintings, drawings, and collages share a common language: all around, it is the bodies that do not correspond to the societal norms of gender and sexuality that take the walls. Photographs of LGBTQ activists mingle with pierced queer bodies, Aztec rulers, and colorful sacred trans creatures surrounded by curling snakes.
In a black and white photograph, Las Alas Del Deseo (1993), by Yolanda Andrade, a queer man appears wearing an angel costume leaning on a light pole on the street, with a hanging halo, bare hairy chest, tiny thong, and a mustache. In Andrade’s El Beso (1993) a queer couple’s embrace appears as a close-up, blurry bodies and buildings surrounding them. The couple holds each other in a sweet kiss, they wear musketeer-like hats and masks. A paper stick horse frames both, as if blessing their kiss. The people celebrating on the streets around the kissers smile as if the act was enacted especially for the Andrade’s camera. The two scenes were shot by Andrade in the 1990s, during Mexico City’s LGBTQ annual Pride celebration. Renowned for capturing quotidian pictures of urban life in Mexico, Andrade also took a 1978 portrait of lesbian rights activist, Nancy Cardénas, founder of the first gay organization in Mexico, the Gay Liberation Front.
On the next wall, in the series Necesito Dinero (I need money) (1991), the collective Taller Documentación Visual, founded in the 1980s by gay rights and AIDS activist, Antonio Salazar (1956-2016), shows collages in which Mexican peso bills depicting the face of Aztec ruler Nezahualcoyotl are combined with photographs of homoerotic bodies. The Aztec ruler’s face transposed onto “contemporary” indigenous bodies seem to speak of colonial-like conditions, the intersections between being annihilated by settlers in the past and marginalized, monetarized, and encapsulated both by gender norms and capital, in the present.
Contemporary references to Aztec aesthetics also appear in Rurru Mipanochia’s Tlaltecuhtli series (2017) painted on amate paper, which is similar to those used in ancient Aztec codices. Sometimes seen as monstrous, other times understood as a motherly goddess, Tlaltecuhtli is known by historians to be an Aztec god of fertility of “unclear gender,” appearing in the codices as male or female, either of which the term in Nahuatl translates as “earth lord” or “Lord of the Earth.” As if scorching those binaries that remain “unsolved” in Western normative readings, Mipanochia gives new life to Tlaltecuhtli, depicting it as a trans, intersex, or genderqueer deity rendered in bright yellow, pink, blue, and orange neon colors made with markers and acrylic paint. Tlaltecuhtli has both a penis and a colorful vagina; their body is naked but covered by striped “body paint,” or wearing a rainbow T-shirt. Snakes slither around them, as they touch their breasts. They seem to be yelling to us from both a transgender future and past.
In Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Gloria Anzaldúa enacts through her writing the living experience of being in the borderlands, of being a Chicana lesbian of color in the U.S. Among the many transformations that Anzaldúa discusses in her book, she describes the gradual split of deities such as Coatlicue, the Serpent goddess, Tlazolteotl, and Cihuacoatl, towards the Christian variant of the dark Virgin of Guadalupe, the most popular religious and political symbol of Mexican culture. Anzaldúa uses the conversion Coatlicue into Guadalupe to explain how the dichotomy of the virgen/puta surfaced in Mexico.
In Queerly Tèhuäntin religious shifts such as those Anzaldua described in the 1980s achieve their due visibility, while shouting open eroticism. It is this queer spirituality, fashioned by Chicanx and Mexicans, that makes visiting Queerly Tèhuäntin an experience of aesthetic encounters both past and present, filled by mixed indigenous and Christian beliefs. While Mipanochia reactivates Tlaltecuhtli, in A San Sebastian (n.d.), Nahum Zenil creates a self-portrait as a Christian saint. In the painting, Zenil’s naked body is pierced by arrows and tied with a rope, referring to how the Christian martyr died. Yet, unlike the traditional religious depictions of Saint Sebastian, the penis is exposed and the figure is headless, fragmented; a part of the head appears right under the portrayed body, as if aware of its own sacrifice.
The coexistence of indigenous and Christian beliefs appears more than once throughout the show. Borrowing from the printmaking aesthetics of the Mexican revolution, artist Felix D’Eon created a series of illustrations for “La Tonalteca,” a fictional magazine printed in timeworn paper, as if in cheap prints that could have been sold on Mexican 19th century streets. But instead of macho images of revolutionary comrades, or glorified Aztec warriors, D’Eon’s pages of Amor Revolucionario (c. 2016) show different queer couples in erotic scenes; indigenous women making love having as background Aztec pyramids, and revolution-styled men in a tavern wearing “sombreros” reaching out for a kiss across the table, subverting both machismo and stereotypical uses of that imagery. Just next to D’Eon’s works, artist Gabriel García Román uses Christian-like iconography to create affective portraits of queer people. In Queer Icons - Carlos & Fernando (2016), a black and white photograph of the portrayed couple receives delicate ornaments; green and red saint halos frame their faces, their bodies are gently involved by golden poem-like phrases written over a dark green background. The wooden frames of the pictures look crafted as if the objects were altars, common items in Mexican domestic spaces.
In For Colored Boys Who Speak Softly (2009), Yosimar Reyes recites his own poem while walking near an improvised altar with images of queer boys displayed inside rubble. Reyes is an activist, artist and poet, co-founder of the performance ensemble La Maricolectiva and is an Arts Fellow at Define American. He says, “People like me were born with two spirits, just like an eclipse, sun and moon, feminine and masculine in one body… but sometimes I feel like these labels are suffocating…” Reyes speaks softly but with power about the condition of LGBTQ people of color, joining the experiences of those who are oppressed across the globe. He continues, “People don’t seem to understand that I am a walking slave, that I may have not chains around my feet, but that I’m not free.” The declaration of those words, the reverberation of his fierce dulzura, reveal the longing for a healing and for a freedom that have yet to come to both the queer and the colored.
When I visited Queerly Tèhuäntin, the gallery was hosting a crowded fundraising event for the victims of the multiple earthquakes that in the past weeks have devastated Oaxaca, Chiapas, Jujutla, Morelos, and Mexico City. Music was loud, burritos and margaritas were being served, and an auction was organized to collect money for the disaster relief across the border. As I looked at the images of those in-between bodies on the walls, I saw the crowd which mingled with them: they were inseparable, and powerful. There was no way for me to look at the images without also seeing the people who live what those works depict. Life, activism, and art were as one. It may be that the word solidarity has no fixed color and, I hope, no nationality, but that night it was lit up: it was brown, Latinx, and queer.
Queerly Tèhuäntin | Cuir Us is on view at Galería de la Raza in San Francisco, California through Saturday, October 14, 2017.