Queer Chicano Art Is as Timeless As It Is Vital
In a new exhibition of queer Chicano art from the 60s through the 90s, certain timeless questions about identity and protest ring true today.
Harry Gamboa Jr., Roberto Gil de Montes, 1978. Artist Roberto Gil de Montes is shown with his work Tongue Tied at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary ) © 1978, Harry Gamboa Jr. All photos courtesy Axis Mundo
In the late 70s, the artist Joey Terrill told me, a favorite hangout spot for young queer people in Los Angeles was the "Gay Funky Dance," a weekly party held by the Gay Community Services Center in Hollywood that regularly attracted over three hundred people. On Friday nights, Terrill said, queer kids who lived nearby would lie to their moms, leave their house in conservative clothes and then change into platform shoes and glittery tops en route to the party. The crowd—a mix of artists, students, runaways and sex workers—was a "real mishmash of creativity and the dysfunctional underground scene," Terrill recalled. That's where he became friends with Edmundo "Mundo" Meza and Roberto "Cyclona" Legorreta, fellow Chicano artists from East Los Angeles.
Mundo, Cyclona and Terrill would later become major figures within the Chicano Art Movement, which sought to establish an artistitc identity for Mexican-Americans in the US and reinvigorate their cultural heritage through protest art. But the three young artists shared another cultural identity that would bring them even closer: their queerness.
As significant as the Chicano Art Movement was (and the Mexican-American civil rights movement it was intrinsically connected to, El Movimiento), queer art within it has received scant attention from academia and curators alike. Reasons why are complex, partly due to the nature of queer Chicano art at the time, which dealt with gender, sexuality and outsider culture, and partly due to the devastating effects of the AIDS crisis. But a wide-ranging and impactful Los Angeles-based art exhibit launched last week is seeking to change that fact.
Organized by the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives in collaboration with Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art, Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano LA brings to light previously undiscovered work from the Los Angeles queer Chicano/a art community, produced from the late 1960s to the early 1990s. After years of extensive research, co-curators Ondine Chavoya and David Evans Frantz have brought together over 50 queer Chicanx artists for an ambitious two-gallery exhibition that seeks to unearth the hidden history of queer Chicano art in Los Angeles, its aesthetics and social importance, and to make the work available to a new public.
Chavoya, a professor of art and Latino/a studies at Williams College, said he wanted to highlight exchanges between queer Chicano/a artists at the time by showing the work and social networks surrounding one central figure: Mundo Meza. Meza, who died in 1985 from AIDS complications at the age of 30, was highly respected among his peers but virtually unknown to the public. The idea for Axis Mundo grew out of the mutual desire of the curators to recover and bring attention to Meza's body of work, much of which disappeared after his death, Chayova said. The title of the show, a play on the word mundo (Spanish for "world"), positions Meza at the center of LA's queer Chicano/a art scene.
Like Mundo, many of the artists in the exhibition hadn't shown their work in decades. Frantz, a curator at ONE, said that was partly due to homophobia, prejudice and racism many experienced from the white queer art world.
Joey Terrill—whose multidisciplinary work, featured in Axis Mundo, would inspire generations to come—agreed with Frantz. For years, he said he felt "invisible," both as a queer artist and as a Chicano artist within the queer community. "What we were doing—consciously, sometimes directly, but also subconsciously—[was] trying to expand the definition of Chicano art," he said. "A lot of Chicano art came out of needing to embrace our cultural identity. There was a lot of Mesoamerica, Aztec imagery, Viva La Raza, Brown Berets. But along with that Chicano power movement, there was an embracing of la familia. It was very apparent in political discussion that queers, gay men, lesbians were not part of the family, and our stance was: yes, we are."
Patrons will encounter work at the show as extensive in scope as it is in impact. Ray Navarro's Equipped (1990), a photo-triptych produced with Zoe Leonard, takes on HIV/AIDS with sexual humor. A collaboration between Terrill and fellow artist Teddy Sandoval, resulting in a series of t-shirts printed with the words Maricón (Spanish for "faggot") and Malflora ("dyke"), reinvested "a term of social disenfranchisement and offensiveness to empower it in a social project that allows for new ways of imagining your queer and Latino self," said Robb Hernández, a professor of Latino/a literature at UC Riverside. That spirit echoes in Los Angeles' Maricón Collective, a queer Chicano/Latino DJ and artist collective who were directly inspired by Terrill and Sandoval (but aren't part of Axis Mundo).
Much of the exhibition's other work will feel as relevant to today's queer community of color as it did to Meza's contemporaries. Gender and sexual transgressiveness plays a crucial role in much of it, as it did in the art of Robert Legorreta (Cyclona), whose work was about "liberating people's minds by accosting audiences through aggressive and unapologetic sexual display," said Hernández.
Other pieces make calls to diversity within the LGBTQ community, as in Laura Aguilar's Judy (1990), the immigration/deportation debate, as found in Teddy Sandoval's ALARMA! Fue "Illegal" y ya la Deportaron! (1978). Judith F. Baca's Documentation of Vanity Table (1976) speaks to femininity and Chicana representation; the feminist artist Jerri Allyn 's Laughing Souls/Espíritus Sonrientes (1979) tackles sexual violence, mental illness and aggression. All are themes as important to queer artists of color now as they ever were.
The queer counterculture Axis Mundo explores is made as vital as ever by our present cultural and political moment. As queer, minority and other marginalized identities find themselves uniquely imperiled in today's political climate, the questions that the queer Chicano/a artists featured in Axis Mundo contemplated at the time—questions having to do with identity, artistic protest and American culture—are made newly relevant by recent history. Experiencing the art of this many queer Chicano/a artists simultaneously will help the community fill in historical gaps and serve to spark a dialogue about queer history that should not be forgotten. It's also a renewed chance to celebrate the legacies of less known—but still brilliant—pioneer artists.
Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. runs from Sept. 9 to Dec. 31 as part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA
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