At the entrance to LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes' new exhibit “¡Mírame! Expressions of Queer Latinx Art,” visitors can pick up a glossary of the LGBT terminology they'll be confronted with in the art and its explanatory text. In both English and Spanish, it defines words like cisgender, genderqueer and intersectionality, and also words like lesbian, gay and sex. They're not talking down to anyone; they're orienting everyone.
The exhibit confronts the exclusion of queer and brown people by being radically inclusive, but without watering down the content to conform to comfort zones. Curator Erendina A. Delgadillo and other museum staff spent months researching the ways in which queer Latinx identity had previously been explored, in both art and academia, and then workshopped ideas with the Latino Equality Alliance and the L.A. LGBT Center. Delgadillo says, “It seemed like after all those discussions, especially at this moment politically, it was time to talk about how we exclude or include people, and how we draw those boundaries, who has the power to draw those boundaries and what effects they have on communities and people.”
Inclusive as the show may be — the museum is free, it seems worth noting — there's a particular focus on addressing exclusion within the Latinx community for the edification of members of the Latinx community.
“We're already, as a group of brown folks … marginalized,” Delgadillo says. “Then there are further levels of marginalization underneath that, so it really feels like it's time for us to start digging at those layers, things that may feel uncomfortable to talk about personally, within your own family, in your community group … in order to strengthen our marginalized position.”
The show features a lot instances of what Delgadillo describes as the “queering” of traditional Latinx imagery. Alma Silva's photographic pieces, printed on large canvases, mash together lesbian love and the sort of iconography you'd find in an abuela's house. In one, the Virgin of Guadalupe embraces the siren recognizable from loteria cards, cradling her breast in one hand.
The section of work by Xandra Ibarra features an image from her “Spic Ecdysis” series, basically the shed remains of her performances. For her 2004 performance La Tortillera, Ibarra dressed up as a hypersexualized version of a tortilla maker and proceeded to strip down to pasties and a strap-on. In place of the phallus was a bottle of Tapatia — or Ibarra's version of the ubiquitous hot sauce with a female icon in the place of the familiar mustachioed male one; she proceeded to mock-masturbate the hot sauce onto tortillas she made. (Note: Tortillera is also slang for lesbian.) Delgadillo says they considered including video of the performance in the show, but instead allowed the “ecdysis” — Ibarra's costume, shoes, strap-on belt and bottle of hot sauce, all vacuum sealed into a Space Bag — to speak for itself.
Through the lens of our current political predicament, much of the art feels extremely immediate, in particular, HIV-positive artist Ben Cuevas' series of knitted tweets, all of which address current events, like the confirmation of Tom Price as head of the Department of Health and Human Services. As the president continuously tweets whatever enters his head, without care or a second thought, Cuevas demonstrates a more thoughtful version of communication in the language and style of social media.
“¡Mírame!” also reflects a respect for the history of queer Latinx art. Gay, L.A.-bred artist Joey Terrill included in the show two issues of his 1970s zine Homeboy Beautiful, a sort of fashion magazine for queer Chicanos. He also contributed a still-life, traditional except for the inclusion of an oversized tablet of Videx, a drug used to treat HIV. It stands as if something is actively propping it up and casts a shadow on the familiar striped tablecloth.
As Delgadillo puts it, “Xandra couldn't do the work she's doing without the work of artists like Joey.”
“¡Mírame! Expressions of Queer Latinx Art,” LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, 501 N. Main St., downtown; through Dec. 9. Free. lapca.org.