by Tara Miller
Angélica is a pansexual Chicana artivist, who believes she has a responsibility to make work that honors all of these parts. She paints the fierce womxn she didn’t grow up hearing about, in the hopes that they will help her/our queer siblings grow into loving themselves whole. Her work is a healing salve and self-care practice, as well as a way to keep a queer activist politics alive.
TM: What kind of artist are you? How would you describe your art to someone who is new to your work?
AB: I’m a queer Chicana feminist artist. This means my art deals with the intersections of Latinidad and queerness, and of course feminism. My work is personal and often deals with issues of identity and belonging, self-love and care.
TM: Self care is so important for everyone, and especially those engaged in social justice work and practice. And, like most challenging things, it can be difficult for many of us to prioritize and maintain. What does self love mean to you? What does it look, feel, and sound like?
AB: I think the answer to this question for me, is different depending on where I feel I am emotionally, physically and mentally. Right now, self-love to me means spending time alone. I had been in and out of long-term relationships for the entirety of my early 20s. Now that I am nearing past the halfway point: 26, I am working on restructuring so much in my life. These days, self-love smells like the coffee at my local bakery, which I walk to on the weekends to treat myself to a weekly breakfast feast. It looks like leaving the house and going to a local art opening and flowing through the room, leaving whenever I please. I am also deeply rooted in my friendships with womxn, including my mom. I nourish myself with femme energy and am blessed to have a core support system of them. They know who they are and I love them as much as I am learning to love myself. I also have a spiritual practice that consists of Nichiren Buddhism and the morning and night chanting keeps me focused and calm. All of these are what I have made room for in my daily life, this is my self-care.
TM: Can you tell me a bit about your inspiration for the Palabra Series? What motivated you to start this project?
AB: The Palabra series was born out of my activism with the Palestinian solidarity movement at UCLA. The first piece, a portrait of the badass Dr. Angela Davis, was for a talk she gave on the topic of Palestinian solidarity. The quote on the finished piece is from this very same talk. Soon after, I decided to paint Yuri Kochiyama, another activist whose work deeply influenced my own political consciousness. The inspiration behind the series is two-fold: first, it is an offering to our elders whose activism has often been forgotten or erased in our larger imaginary, it is an act of remembrance. Growing up in a Mexican household, elders were and are pillars in our community, who are honored and respected long after they have moved on. I wanted to paint womxn in particular to remind myself and others that our current work and struggles are not the first. Womxn before us have built a foundation for many of the movements we take part in today. Secondly, I wanted to create the images I myself wish I could have grown up with. I did not learn about these amazing womxn until I was in college. I painted the inspirational posters I never had, in the hopes that other queers of color would see themselves affirmed and empowered.
TM: When did you start identifying as an artist?
BA: I think others began identifying me as an artist before I felt confident enough to adopt the term. My family is very creative. My aunt Elvira, who is a painter/architect and art instructor currently, was the one responsible for teaching me how to paint. Although art was always an outlet for my family and I, it was only a hobby for me. I had trouble adjusting to the U.S. after immigrating at the age of ten. Middle school was hard due to the language barrier and intensive bullying due to my accent. So when I arrived in high school I found that art was a language I could speak without judgment.
TM: How and why did you choose watercolor as your medium? How do you see the text and images working together in these pieces?
AB: I stumbled onto watercolor after trying several mediums throughout my life. My first exposure to paint was in the form of my aunt’s favorite medium, thick oil paint. The smell of turpentine still brings me back to painting small still life paintings of fruit next to her. An orange alone required several shades of brown and vibrant yellow. However, growing up working-class in the U.S. and with little access to art supply stores (and disposable income, save my weekly allowance) I experimented with acrylics in high school because they were cheap and available. I found acrylic to be too saturated and messy-- I often refer to this time as the years when my wardrobe was ruined. The first time I painted in watercolor was my senior year of high school, when my art teacher at the time, Mr. Vasquez, let me rummage in his supply closet and I found an old metal case with watercolor tablets inside. As a medium, watercolor is a contradiction. It is at once seen as a child’s medium, yet it is extremely difficult to control. Watercolor has taught me patience and made me reflect on the nature of water as an element that can’t be control but simply guided. For my pieces, text came from a desire to have the womxn I paint speak for themselves. Often, I found myself researching the lives of the people I painted and collected their words. The images and text work together to speak truth to power; often womxn identified bodies are relegated to the margins, and silenced. I wanted their powerful words to accompany their portraits so that others would be introduced to them or if they were already familiar, that they could be reminded of the power of their words.
TM: A number of your pieces donate a percentage of profit to organizations connected with the person they feature or issues they address. How did you come up with this idea? Why is this extension of your work and profit important to you?
AB: The idea of donating a percentage of the proceeds to specific causes and organizations came from my own background as a Palestinian solidarity activist at UCLA. For example, at the time of the assault on the Gaza strip in 2012, many of my close friends were deeply affected by this. My commitment to the Palestinian cause led me to ask other activists and Palestinians about how to get emergency supplies to the ground in this very difficult time. My “Falasteen” piece was made with this in mind. This extension of my work is very significant to me and is inspired by conversations with my lovely friends and NYC-based queer poetry duo “Darkmatter” They often pointed out, whether in person or via social media, that money can be an essential part of supporting others in our community who are struggling to survive. Money can be the deciding factor in the survival of queer people of color, and I wanted to give back to the communities that have supported my growth. Organizations like the Sylvia Rivera Law Project are essential to our survival, and if we have the means to support them, we should.
TM: I love your mention of weirdness in the description of the Frida with Nopalitos piece and your reference to her famous quote, “I paint my own reality.” You say that “Many of us creative, weird little girls saw her and felt brave enough to paint our own reality.” What is your reality? How do you use your work to paint it?
BA: Thank you! “Frida with Nopalitos” is a deeply personal piece for the very reason you pointed out: I was weird, well I still am. I wish that womxn who paint weren’t still considered an anomaly, but in many circles they are, and although there were womxn in my family who painted, it wasn’t honored in the way I wish it was. I use my work to showcase womxn that have helped me embrace those parts of me that resist categorization. My reality is that I didn’t come to embrace my queerness until I graduated college; my reality is also that I am a Chicana who has been involved in coalition building across different communities. And as a result, I have been influenced by a variety of thinkers and activists, often not exclusively Chicanxs. I paint those I admire. The purpose isn’t to place those I paint on a pedestal but to show that being a queer Chicana isn’t a homogenous experience. My work is for those who are weird, like me. Whose experiences involve learning about Palestine and Sandra Cisneros, whose first exposure to queerness was Frida. I use my work to speak to that experience in the hopes that it will let other weirdos know they’re not alone.
TM: Can you talk about your new series, “Revolutionary Love Notes? ” What is your vision for this project?
AB: The Revolutionary Love Note series started when I experienced that thing we all wish we didn’t have to: heartbreak. Whereas the Palabra series dealt with those figures that influenced my political consciousness and activism, the Rev Love Notes honor those who helped me heal as I ended a long-term partnership with someone I love. In the months following this, I read almost obsessively, looking for comfort in the music of Nina Simone, the words of bell hooks and Sandra Cisneros. What I found out is that even those whose strength I admired were vulnerable to heartache. This truth set me free in a certain way, and I began to paint in order to deal with the changes that were going on in my life. The vision for this series is just that, to remind others that we all go through this pain and that it can be a time for self-reflection and affirmation. This series is still ongoing, and I am still healing. As the series has progressed, I’ve realized that it is following in the creative practice of figures like Frida Kahlo and Nina Simone – they didn’t hide their sadness, instead they were vulnerable and allowed others to see inside. To me that is incredibly radical and brave. In activist spaces you often come up against a lot of hostility for those who dare to be soft. I believe that this work is just as political as a portrait of Angela Davis for example. Healing ourselves, especially those of us who are often told we’re unloveable, is as radical as it gets for me.
TM: Who is one artist you would like to share with the AFO community?
AB: There’s so many beautiful artists I’d like to share with you! One that I love and have been fortunate enough to see their work develop over time is Chucha Marquez. You can find their work at http://chucha.bigcartel.com/
TM: When and where do you make your art? How do you make the time and space in your life to make art?
AB: I often make my art late at night after a full day of teaching and meetings at UCLA. Lately I have been painting in between my breaks outside and have found the practice extremely relaxing. My favorite place to make my art is and always will be at my desk inside of my room, where I have a designated work area that alternates as a studio space for me. I’m not sure “how” I make time, except that I do. If I go a long time without painting, I notice that it begins to affect my mood and will bother me until I commit ideas to paper. It is almost an impulse, an itch I have to scratch. I used to wait until I got home or had “free time” to paint; in the last couple of years I’ve learned that if you wait until you’re not busy you will never find the time. I chip at my creative painting ideas list one day at a time- even if it is just ten minutes of painting, my goal is to develop it into a daily practice.
TM: What is a struggle you often find yourself coming up against, and how do you move past it?
AB: There’s many! At the moment I’ve been reflecting on how art is a radical act of vulnerability and how that can make you feel exposed as an artist. I never intended for my art to be deeply personal, I simply painted what I felt most compelled to represent in the moment and later realized that it exposed a lot. I don’t regret that, but I am conscious of what it can mean. A struggle I often face is having to validate my art as political, because we are often taught or conditioned to think that political art is supposed to look a certain way or speak in loud colors. I value all kinds of political art, and believe they’re all necessary. I often say that my art is twin skin to my political consciousness, because art making as a queer womxn of color is itself a political act. I recently read a great article by Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez titled “Staying Woke Requires Rest.” It spoke to how when we talk about being committed to social justice we forget to talk about our own bodies and how to heal. I’ve experienced serious burn-out from political activism and white academia before, so I think of my work as a reminder to heal. I want to remain committed to healing myself first so that I can continue to imagine the worlds I want to create.
You can find Angélica's work here: http://angelicabecerra.bigcartel.com