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Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano LA
"Michael Ochoa and Gerardo Velázquez of Nervous Gender", 1980Courtesy of David Arnoff

The untold stories of America’s queer Chicano art scene

The first retrospective on queer Chicano art recovers seminal works from a movement that shaped LGBTQ+ Chicano life in America from the late 60s-90s

During the early 1970s-90s, Los Angeles was home to an underground movement of queer Mexican-American artists which channelled lived experiences of Chicano Civil Rights, Gay Liberation, and Women’s Liberation movements, as well as the impact of America’s 80s HIV/Aids epidemic, across a variety of mediums.

Relentlessly, they fought to claim space amongst a largely white landscape – where their voices were often excluded and silenced. While their influence shaped the course of Chicano LGBTQ history, over 40 years later, their efforts still remain widely unknown.

Responding to the erasure of their narratives from wider US art history is Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A – America’s first ever retrospective exhibition on queer Chicano art at LA’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). The show looks into the multi-disciplinary nature of the artists’ works – especially that of late artist Mundo Meza and his many collaborations – as an axis to help charter a whole generation of work that has rarely been shown.

“While their influence shaped the course of Chicano LGBTQ history, over 40 years later, their efforts still remain widely unknown”

During the past four years, curators Ondine Chayova and David Frantz, visited global archives to bring together over 56 artists who worked across photography, painting, performance, and music during the period of 1970-1990.

While Laura Aguilar’s photography featuring Lesbian Latinas explores the heterogeneity of queer Chicana life, Patssi Valdez’s overt gender performativity challenges expectations of Chicana femininity. Documentations of artist Mundo Meza and Cyclona’s drag guerilla performances that defied Chicano machoism are also on display – including an illegal, staged gay wedding on the campus of California State in 1971. Axis Mundo additionally brings to light some never before seen works such as Anthony Friedkin’s exclusive shots of queer Chicano artists and Andy Warhol’s Factory regular and Horse star, Tosh Carillo’s, unseen documentation of queer Chicano love and sex. Below, we speak with Chayova and Frantz about why Axis Mundo matters now.

Why did you decide to launch America’s first ever queer Chicano retrospective?

David Frantz: The project grew from our mutual research into some of the artists in the show. For me, it was looking into Mundo Meza's history – this was my first introduction to him and the larger circle of participants and collaborators he was working within the 1970s-80s. So we started with Mundo as a conceptual axis and grew out to other artists in this network of queer Chicano artists working through LA or connecting to LA through their practices. The exhibition charters a whole generation of work that hasn't been shown.

Ondine Chavoya: And the show also has a wider importance: some of these artists have never shown in a museum exhibition before and those who had, might not have ever shown in museums like MOCA. It is also about recognizing the brilliance of so many artists that we lost in this community to HIV and Aids. And having those artists’ works shown alongside people that they worked with who are still with us is really moving.

“The exhibition charters a whole generation of work that hasn't been shown” – David Frantz

Speaking of context – what were the biggest social issues these artists were responding to?

David Frantz: The period charted in Axis Mundo saw the emergence of the Chicano civil rights, women’s, and gay liberation movements, and later, political activism around the Aids epidemic. The Aids crisis definitely features prominently in that many artists passed from the disease or they used their work to respond to the crisis as a form of activism. The impact of the Aids crisis is also why, in many ways, this history has been so long out of recognition – this was a history that was in need of recovery and that was a driving impetus for the show.

In your opinion, what sets Chicano art apart from other art histories?

Ondine Chavoya: I’m going to quote Debra Collin, who described Chicano and broader Latino Avant-Garde art histories as both ‘being a part of, but also a part from wider art history’ – they participate in, but there are ways in which their work is produced in distinction from or outside conventional art histories. A lot of this has to do with the challenges that Chicano and Latino artists faced in terms of gaining access to more traditional art spaces. As a result, there is this inspiring history of Chicano and Latino artists creating their own spaces and history: it has this DIY funkiness to it which is a reason that it fits well with the ethos and aesthetics of punk.

Why did you decide to use Mundo Meza as the axis for the show?

David Frantz: Mundo was so renowned among his circle of peers as this amazing artist who worked on window displays, guerilla performances and painted very large scale works in the 70s, but none of that work was visible. So when the opportunity to present his work appeared, it made sense. We also wanted to flip the script on how you do a show about a network and its connections/influences. Mundo is not the best known artist in the show, if anything he is the least known. So it was about turning that on its head to innovate the show from a curatorial perspective.

What, would you say, is Meza’s legacy on queer Chicano art?

Ondine Chavoya: In some ways, that’s to be determined. Part of what his legacy will be is his breadth in an unfortunately short career – his origins, his street theatre, guerilla practices with Gronk and Cyclona on the streets of east LA, and just how brazen they were in their everyday embodiment. For example, he did a performance once with Cyclona at Cal State uni campus in 1971 where they staged a gay wedding when something like that was legislatively and culturally unimaginable, yet they were staging to liberate the campus. It's this heterogeneity of practice that I hope will be part of his continuing legacy. 

What was the outcome of the wedding?

Ondine Chavoya: We don't know. We have some photographs of it – clearly, it was staged to garner attention. But the result is unclear and that’s one of the things I find so inspiring about this work is that they really wanted to provoke a random audience to see what the response would be, but they weren't trying to control the result.

“The impact of the Aids crisis is also why, in many ways, (queer Chicano art) history has been so long out of recognition – this was a history that was in need of recovery and that was a driving impetus for the show” – David Frantz

Were most of the works he did with Cyclona guerilla style street performances?

David Frantz: As early as teenagers, Cyclona has talked about how Mundo and Cyclona would walk down Whittier Boulevard, the main street of east LA, dressed as psychedelic glitter queens, as Cyclona describes it. It was about creating public spectacle and shock but not necessarily with an outcome. It was all about provocation, playing with the audience, gender presentation, and the possibilities of adornment to create different fantasy personas.

What did these performances challenge in wider American society?

David Frantz: This was the early 70s, so it was also very early for queer performativity and queer public spectacle and presence in LA. They were challenging Chicano investments in family and masculinity, and gender roles which were at the very heart of the Chicano civil rights and Chicano national movement at the time.

They were also challenging certain cultural and social constraints while also channeling the energies of early liberation movements. What's so dynamic about this early work is the way in which these very young people mix these different elements into their art practice and daily lives. And that’s part of what Anthony Friedkin captures in his early photographs: why he was so attracted to documenting Mundo Meza, his friends Jim Aguilar and Cyclona. Those became some of the first images of Chicanos to really circulate in a broad national and international context through their publication in the early gay liberation magazine, Gay Sunshine

Another photographer in the show is Tosh Carrillo. These photos have never been seen before, is that correct?

Ondine Chavoya: Yes. Kind of like Mundo, Tosh is only known in certain circles, especially because of his presence in Andy Warhol's Factory. There are well known photos of Tosh dancing with Edie Sedgwick at the Factory and one photograph from Warhol’s film Horse where Tosh is shirtless in white jocky shorts. That iconic photo has circulated quite a bit. So images of Tosh through Warhol and underground films and theatre in New York are well known, but no additional information was ever readily available about him. So I was thrilled in 2008 when I visited the New York public library because I found his name listed. I went through some papers and found that two men had an entire collection of Tosh's negatives that they were holding onto for him since the early 70s, and that these negatives had been preserved, yet never printed or exhibited before.

And what do they feature?

Ondine Chavoya: It’s funny because we have so little information about them: we have the photos, but no additional context. They seem to be from Tosh's travels – he has travelled extensively in bohemian circles across the US. He would take photographs of people that he knew, that he met: occasionally it looks like some male hustlers, lovers or people he hooked up with across his journeys.

“This was the early 70s, so it was also very early for queer performativity and queer public spectacle and presence in LA” – Ondine Chavoya

Laura Aguilar and her documentations of Chicana lesbians also highlights another aspect of queer Chicano experience. Why are Laura’s photographs crucial to history?

Ondine Chavoya: Laura's photography both documents and creates community. And that is seen through the representation of two series in the show: Latina Lesbians and Plush Pony. Latina Lesbians shows individual sitters in a setting of their choosing. It’s an intimate display of their lives, identities, professional and political activist pursuits.

The Plush Pony series is named after a Lesbian bar that used to be in LA. Aguilar set up a makeshift photo studio there and photographed its participants. The series is so striking because of the texture and style that’s captured in these images: the breathtakingly butch with the playful femme, the various gender queer postures and stylisations that we see in those images. They were taken in the early 90s at a time when there was still a Latino lesbian bar in LA, so culturally these images also capture the queer spaces that no longer exist particularly due to gentrification.

Why were Aguilar's photos so revolutionary for the time?

David Frantz: Because there just weren’t any images like this of Latino lesbians. There was no one specifically producing work about Chicanas and Latinas from a queer perspective, and also from a female photographer. Laura is ahead of her time in that regard.

Patssi Valdez also documents Chicana gender representation. She was pretty brazen in challenging Chicana feminitity…

Ondine Chavoya: Yes – Patssi is at the absolute centre of Chicano avant-garde as an artist who has worked in multiple media over the years. Fom her earlier days with ASCO to her collaborations with Cyclona and her explorations in photography and video, she is just such a fierce artist.

David Frantz: It’s her overt play with style and gender representation, make up and adornment that is so important for Patssi's creativity and play with presentation and gender.  

What would have been the gender expectations of Chicana women that Patssi was challenging?

Ondine Chavoya: There are lots of forms of Chicana femininity that have been regulated through the enforcement of traditional Chicano patriarchal culture. What Patssi did was play with various forms of gendered embodiments through fashion and make up in a way that challenged these stereotypes. Patssi has long talked about looking at images of popular culture and cinema in the early 70s to find a complete and total absence of Chicanas or Latinas outside of very stereotypical, narrow moulds. It was always part of her mission to create these images of glamour where there hadn't been previously.

Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A is running at MOCA till 31 December 2017. You can find out more about the exhibition here