April Garcia knows how to put on a show. The Austin-based artist, who enjoys making soft sculptural pieces, recently curated an ambitious 20-person group exhibition — her first ever — for the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC). “ChingonX Fire” features, as its tag line says, a bold roster of “womxn-identifying and non-gender specific artists” whose work reflects urgency, activism, and all-around badassery. (‘Chingon’ is a Spanish slang word that means “badass”.)
Originally scheduled to open this spring in the center’s Coronado Gallery, the show was set to align with MACC’s annual La Mujer Festival.
There was just one thing…
“I had this beautiful space to fill with art but then the center shut down,” Garcia sighs.
Postponing would have meant a years-long wait for another slot. And cancelling altogether would have disbanded the group of artists she had so carefully assembled. So Garcia did the next best thing: she hung the artworks on a website rather than a wall.
What better way to summon the group’s collective energy than to push forward amidst a global crisis with a show made up of underrepresented, outspoken voices?
“ChingonX Fire” went live on June 4 and will remain online until June 2021 at chingonxfire.com.
Garcia’s decision to curate a group show arose from her 2017 Young Latino Artist Residency at the MACC, a nascent program which wasn’t quite ready for her, she explains. “There wasn’t a whole lot of mentorship or guidance; no one was telling me what to do, which was perfect because I needed that space to figure things out for myself.”
The residency was initially time to develop a solo exhibition. Yet instead Garcia developed the opportunity into a group project as a way to showcase the artists whom she personally admires, and who inspire her own work. It made sense what with “ChingonX Fire” coinciding with the center’s La Mujer Festival, a celebration of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a New World forebearer of modern feminism,
Sor Juana was a nun (as well as a poet and philosopher) who lived in Mexico City during the late 1600s. In recent times, she has had something of a mass revival. The Nobel Prize-winning laureate Octavio Paz examined her writings and influence in his 1989 book Sor Juana: Or, The Traps of Faith. And today, Sor Juana festivals occur every March throughout Mexico and North America.
The feminist figure became the guiding light for Garcia’s show.
And what started off as an exhibition of LatinX artists, quickly broadened into something bigger.
“As I further researched feminism, I realized it needed to be more inclusive,” says Garcia. “I needed to open it up to other cultures and other people — my #MeToo community, my LGBTQ community, my trans community — you can’t just fight for one group of people, you have to stand for everyone.”
“ChingonX Fire” includes an impressive array of artists, poets, performers, and provocateurs. The virtual gallery kicks off with New Mexico-based Latina artist Rosemay Meza-DesPlas, who works in the medium of human hair as much as the human voice. A video of her January 2018 spoken-word performance at Santa Fe’s “Feral Howl Performance Night” delivers such memorable lines as:
We were these women eating up whole men…spitting foreskins through our teeth…we had vaginas lit up like the Holland Tunnel.
“Rosemary is an amazing artist with a very strong voice; she’s a badass feminist,” says Garcia. “That’s what I held in the forefront of my mind, and that was the direction I wanted to go.”
The exhibit contains a total of four videos. A 28-minute film by San Antonio performance artist Megan Solis and a five-minute music performance by Austin-based p1nkstar Inc. (aka “ur fav electr0nic pop superstar!!”) present two distal relationships between audience and performer.
Solis’s film focuses on the eye-averting vulnerability of Glory West — Dolly Parton’s dark side — cracked open in front of a group of veritable strangers, during her disassociated karaoke rendition of The Bangles 80s hit “Eternal Flame.”
p1inkstar Inc., on the contrary, gives a stellar strobe-lit performance with her song “Diary,” in which her hyper-processed vocals and futuristic high ponytailed perkiness draw upbeat energy from the crowd.
Other artists in the exhibition tackle environmental issues such as Suzy Gonzalez’s acrylics-on-cornhusk paintings, “Nature Nurtures” and “Warming.” San Antonio-based Miki Rodriguez creates her fiber-based pieces from discarded materials and objects thrown away after just one use. “Whether it’s over-production or over indulgence, I observe waste everyday, everywhere,” she states.
Cross-cultural issues come up in the funny but weighty work of Valérie Chausonnet. The French Austinite’s “Meeting the Parents” is a small steel sculpture depicting figures at opposite ends of a boat. Though the title pokes fun at the oldest joke in the book—the stress of in-laws — the artist was also envisioning the Amur River, which separates Siberia from China, the distance across both separating and connecting those who live on either side.
Tsz Kam’s paintings bear a similar cross-cultural complexity lightened with humor. “Cantonese Cowgirl and Her Water Buffalo” is a self portrait of the Hong Kong-born artist, who moved to Texas when she was 13; her use of girly hearts and the color pink belie her complicated identity and sense of self. Rather than fit the American Western motif of riding a horse, Kam has chosen a water buffalo, which are commonly used for farming in South Asia.
Fiber artist Jessica Gritton embroiders tradition with transgender in her stitched samplers, using needle and thread to challenge notions of purity and morality. In “Prayer: Holiness” the artist has sewn a homey decoration fit for a grandmother’s bathroom wall. Pastel colors and soft patterns camouflage the sampler’s central message, which might at first be mistaken for a biblical verse: “Trans Bodies Are Holy.”
Related read: ‘Jessica Gritton: Stitching a transition’
Garcia’s own piece in the show examines crossing cultures with an installation which reflects on the poverty she witnessed when visiting Mexico for the day from her hometown in South Texas. “Para Comer (To Eat)” fits uncomfortably into a corner, a mound of chewing gum packets and hungry hands reaching up for something, anything. A plastic milk container attached to a broom handle recalls the mother catching change for herself and her children beneath the bridge Garcia and her friends were crossing, the woman pleading, “para comer”.
Despite her installation’s colorful pile of candy, it is a somber piece — quite different from the soft sculptural shapes and happy-hued wearables Garcia typically creates.
“I’ve always sewn and did macramé when I was a kid,” she says. “I took a sculpture class at Austin Community College and naturally went back to those earlier art-making processes.”
Over the years, Garcia has designed costumes for numerous productions at the Austin Scottish Rite Theater, conducted various art workshops, and has shown in galleries all over Austin. Three of her mixed-media pieces are in Mexic-Arte Museum’s permanent collection.
Art has always been a form of therapy, Garcia explains. In 2015, April lost her younger sister to suicide, an event which made her realize she only wanted to make art which made her happy. “After losing my sister, my art became really colorful. I like using little ball shapes and exploring materials that are soft, it’s all about this process of healing.”
Rather than have a solo show of her soft “biomorphic” sculptures at the MACC, Garcia wanted to do something more reflective of the time. By putting together a group exhibit, she says, she was able to stand with many more communities. The all-consuming process of curating a 20-person exhibition really turned the tables on her.
“For years, I was the artist who dropped off her artwork at the gallery and said ‘see you guys at the opening!’” she laughs. “I know now how important it is for a curator to have a strong connection with the artists.”
When it came time to go virtual with the exhibit, Garcia did it all on her own (though the MACC gave her their blessing). She thought about giving up, but chose to keep going.
“When you lose someone in your life tragically, you start asking yourself certain questions: What’s my purpose? Why am I here? How can I do something good?”
Garcia rattles off all the things which have made 2020 so difficult: the pandemic, people dying, people out of work, police brutality, the protests. The answer, she says, is to find something beautiful amidst all the horribleness.
“I feel weird in some ways promoting an exhibit during this time, it’s tricky,” she admits. “You need to be sensitive to what everyone is going through because everyone’s going through something.”
By creating and connecting with others, Garcia realized the importance of community, a simple but powerful sentiment. “It wasn’t necessarily about making an art piece for an exhibit anymore. It was about creating this exhibit. That was my art piece.”
With “ChingonX Fire” now up and running, Garcia can turn her attention elsewhere, doing all the things which make her happy and whole. She’s been tie-dying lately, and gardening as well.
“I like planting things in the ground, getting my hands in the soil.”