Bodily Expansion: Reflections Upon the Death of Laura Aguilar
By Emet Ezell
Chicana photographer Laura Aguilar passed away unexpectedly on April 25th. Having undergone a series of diabetic complications, she died of end-stage renal failure in a nursing home in Long Beach. Raised by working class parents in the rural San Gabriel Valley, Aguilar was no stranger to the vulnerability and precarity of her queer Chicana body. She hardly made any money from her photographic exhibitions, and survived on odd jobs and residencies. Her auditory dyslexia made reading difficult, and her mother suggested that she drop out of high school. Aguilar refused to remove her body from that space, intending instead to pursue photography.
Eventually, her body made its way to the center of her work. Bold, nude, forward, and alone, Aguilar intimately places the flesh of her figure in front of the camera. She displays what American art historian Amelia Jones has titled “radical vulnerability,” complicating the landscape of identity by shamelessly photographing the defenselessness of her body. Interrupting dominant narratives and oppressive cultural stereotypes, her fat, Chicana body neither hides nor demands to be seen. It emerges from the ground, present and still. By so prominently placing her body in the foreground of her photographs, her flesh becomes the site of political, cultural, and societal negotiation.
This negotiation can be seen directly in her series Nature Self Portraits, which were originally inspired by artist Judy Dater. Taken in both the New Mexico desert and California’s Joshua Tree National Monument, Aguilar’s body folds in and out of the landscape, entirely enmeshed with the earth. The photographs are at once stoic and playful, peaceful and disruptive.
Her back mimics the shape and shadow of rocks, or lies pressed against gritty brown dirt. In the above photograph (Nature Self-Portrait #4), she lies heavy on the ground, reflected in a small pool of water. The brightness of the light bounces off the roundness of her flesh, and illuminates Aguilar’s fat, brown body. Lying on the earth, Aguilar offers up her figure as an element of nature and, in so doing, contests the notion of the “natural.” While dominant white ideologies of “health” might consider her physical frame an affront, her peaceful expression and still solidity remain unperturbed, as if she were in an entirely different world. Her pictures expose the limitations of the colonial imaginary, her nakedness so nonchalantly revealing the largeness of her body. Refusing to comply with the demands of a colonial gaze, Aguilar uses her body to make the world bigger. Alongside the destabilization of the “natural,” she also unlocks a re-imagining of queer relationship and meaning.
Positioning her body in parallel with rocks, Aguilar raises the question of relation: what is her connection to these sedimentary forms? In Nature Self Portrait #2, Aguilar lies horizontal to the ground: her body aligned with the surface of the earth. At first look, it is difficult to ascertain if the body in the photograph is even alive. Situated between the rocks, a sense of stillness and solidity arise from the black and white picture.
Long, dark shadows pull across both Aguilar’s body and the bodies of the rocks. This mimicry of form connects her queer Chicana flesh to the solid, gritty rocks. While this connection might serve as an exploration of line and form, shadow and figure, the similarity between Aguilar’s collapsed body and the rocks suggests a deeper inquiry. Aguilar’s body creates instability around the categories of human and nonhuman; what is the difference between Aguilar and the rocks, between her figure and the earth?
When considering the relationship between the human and the nonhuman, it is useful to turn to Donna Haraway, whose concept of “making kin” maps across the work of Aguilar. “Making kin” refers to connections that mean something other/more than ancestry or genealogy. In other words, making kin is the queer practice of forging meaningful relationships beyond the limitations of bloodlines and familial legitimacy. As Aguilar’s body joins the chorus of shadow and rock, she creates a deviant sense of lineage between her body and the earth. As she joins herself to the ground, she blurs the distinction between the human and the nonhuman, stretching to “make-with, become with, and compose with the earth-bound.” At the same time, the position of her figure, lumped over and veiled in shadow, opens up a freedom for different modes of embodiment.
In Grounded #108, Aguilar’s body is cropped, removing the rest of her figure from the photograph. The brown folds of her flesh fall beside her dark nipple and join the brownness of both the curving stick and the graveled ground. The wood seems to protrude from her skin, at once separate and attached to her body. Could this be another arm? Another way of imagining the “human” form? Similar to the way in which her folded body mimics the rocks in Nature Self-Portrait #2, her arm echoes the bend of the stick, tying her human form to that of the natural. Aguilar’s loose flesh cracks open the rigidity of constraints placed upon bodily form and gestures towards something other, something queer, something transgressive.
Throughout the entirety of her Nature Self-Portrait series, Aguilar refuses to smile or pose; instead, she simply takes up space, unaffected by the observant gaze. At times, Aguilar’s back is the only aspect of her body visible; at others, she is cropped to only the folds of her breast (as in Grounded #108). The frankness of the portraits opens up a multiplicity of possibilities and imaginings; rather than contort her body into stilted positions and forced smiles, Aguilar relaxes. She refuses to make direct eye contact with the camera, and at times, turns her entire body against it. In this manner, Aguilar undermines the colonial gaze. She refuses to perform, to shift, to place her body in a position that allocates to any determined hierarchy of order. In other words, Aguilar refuses to make her body invisible. Her utter rejection of the formalized poses the question, for whom were these photographs taken? Is there an intended audience?
While Aguilar first began taking her portraits as a means for navigating her friend’s death, she found that they resonated with her community. She continued to photograph her body, finding ways to upset conventional notions of the female body, its size, race, and sexual identity. In her Nature Self-Portraits, Aguilar is able to invoke a mystery that unravels the traditional constraints of portraiture and its colonial gaze. Reflecting upon her death, Aguilar’s solemn, visible nakedness brings to mind the inherent vulnerability of bodies—and the ways in which some bodies are made more vulnerable than others. In her critical reflections on visibility and invisibility, feminist philosopher Linda Martín Alcoff writes that “the practice of othering those who are different in skin tone is historically and culturally particular.”
In other words, the racist, sexist, homophobic, and fat-hating processes of othering that are now in place are particular to our time. They are neither transcendent, nor all-encompassing. If making visible/invisible is historically and culturally particular, then othering can be unwritten. Aguilar’s photographs are part of this process; they form an alternative cultural and historical practice that projects the vulnerable Chicana form into the desert and declares it good.
Aguilar’s body has both left and remained. Her photographs offer an alternative visual landscape that, through her body and its relations, undermines traditional Eurocentric rules of image making, codes of desirability, and concepts of humans as outside “nature.” Both in the artistic world and beyond, Aguilar’s representations and display of her body serve as manifestations of bold vulnerability that expands the notion of the possible.