I’M CONSTANTLY LOOKING FOR BEAUTY
In Conversation With Gabriel Garcia Roman
by Francesca Ekwuyasi
In Autumn of 2016 I came across Gabriel Garcia Roman’s incredible Queer Icons portrait series, and was truly stunned by the of tender grace, striking sharpness, and a sort of necessary irreverent resistance that the collection embodies. Gabriel was generous enough to dive into conversation about the spirit behind his Queer Icons collection as well as his other work; it’s been a gift to hear his thoughts on beauty, belonging, and identity.
Gabriel, I love the way that you merge catholic iconography with queer identity in your Queer Icons series. The juxtaposition between the modern attire of your subjects and their hand gestures as well the halos is truly striking; can you please share the story of this project?
I started this project in 2011, during a time when Queer identity was in the forefront of the news and entertainment media. Queer characters were being portrayed in TV, marriage equality was a big news item. With all of the visibility I noticed a full representation of the Queer community was lacking. I wasn’t seeing the queer community of color represented in any of these stories. I decided I wanted to change that, I wanted to create a body of work that would highlight our QTPOC community. I started by first taking portraits of my community of friends and then from outside of my circle. It was in 2014 when I decided that I would focus specifically on poets, artists, community organizers and activists. They are the true saints of our community. They are going above and beyond in order to bring social justice to the QTPOC community through their work. Over time I’ve started having them handwrite their words around their portrait. I wanted to amplify their voice by having them write their narrative around their portrait.
The hand gestures of some of your subjects are reminiscent of Fra Angelico Annunciation paintings; was that an intentional reference? Can you please talk about which artists influence your aesthetic?
I borrowed aesthetics from northern renaissance painters like Jan Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and Hans Memling. They were masters at capturing delicate hand gestures and stoic facial expressions. Their portraits of bishops, monks and the affluent were remarkable. But I can’t talk about my own aesthetics without mentioning that I grew up Catholic and religious art was my introduction to art. I’ve always been fascinated by the portraits that lined the walls of the church. They were powerful portraits of saints and no matter what peril the saint was going through he was always portrayed as brave, noble and proud. The halo was a constant motif and one that I’ve borrowed for my series. The halo always represented a badge of honor. You earn your halo by doing good deeds for your community.
Do you have any sort of faith practice that colors your art?
I stopped going to church as a teenager and haven’t looked to any form of religion since then. So I would have to say that I don’t have any faith practice that colors my art or life. I can’t say that meditation is a faith based practice but that is definitely part of my art practice. The printmaking process by which I create my Queer Icons is very heavy process based exercise and I treat it as meditation. I find it quite meditative to sit and cut out all of the paper for each print, I meditate when I’m inking the plate, when I’m running the plate through the press.
My perception of Queer Icons is undeniably political — from the fact that most, if not all, of the subjects are people of color, some are visibly queer, and you frame them in a position of holiness. It would be a gift to hear your intentions behind that.
Yes, so all of my subjects in the series are people of color within the queer spectrum. I chose to focus on this disenfranchised community because of our lack of representation. I also wanted to put out visual affirmations for our community. I wanted to create a body of work that would represent members of the community in the highest position as possible. As I mentioned, I grew up catholic and so one of the highest positions is sainthood. I not only wanted members of our community to see themselves in that light but also people outside of the community. We are worthy and have every right to be portrayed in this light.
Will you please invite us to your imagination and your perception of yourself by sharing a story of who you are, in whatever language, imagery, or fantasy that best conveys it?
I grew up in a big family but I always felt lonely. I was always an observer rather than a participant. My childhood was spent in my room laying in bed staring up at the popcorn ceiling and playing visual games. The patterns would change depending on the amount of sunlight. I’d stare at the ceiling for hours making out shapes and figures from the patterns. Each day I would find a new one, sometimes dinosaurs, faces or cars would appear. It was these times of solitude that informed much of my adulthood. I was always the quiet one, the observer; taking every detail in and storing it into my visual catalog. It’s not until recently that I can say I am finally putting all of those years into practice. The filtered light comes into play on the furniture I make, the jewelry I create, and the patterns and textures exist in every print I make. I am recreating those visual memories every time I make something.
Your clothes, jewelry, and embroideries are stunning! Can you talk about how you balance these various aspects of your creative personality?
My mind is always active and thoughts and ideas are always swimming in my head. This used to overwhelm me to the point of immobility. I couldn’t sort through the ideas fast enough so I would just not follow through any of them. Then I discovered yoga and yoga has taught me how to slow down, how to pay attention to the details. I can say that through that I’ve learned to sort things and manage my time more efficiently. Many don’t know but I have a full-time job in a field completely unrelated to art. I think that’s also helped me appreciate any down time I do have and I use that down time efficiently for my art practice. For example, I do my embroidery and digital artwork during my subway commute to work every day. Once I’m home from work then I’ll work on multiple projects at once. While the glue sets on one project, I move on to staining another, and while those two other are setting then I’ll do some sewing or work on my prints. I’ve been able to transfer the meditative aspect of yoga into my art practice. If I’m embroidering, running the fabric through the machine, running the slab of wood through the tablesaw or using my x-acto knife, I’m focusing on my breathing and slowing down my thoughts. Also, I use marijuana as a form of medication. I smoke nightly to be able to slow my mind and be able to sleep! Sleep is important!
Similar to Queer Icons, Defining You also plays with portraiture, texture, and striking colors. Can you please talk about the vision you have for this particular series?
This particular series came to me when I had just started therapy and the constant backtracking of my childhood. It made me think about our childhood experiences help define and shape who you become as an adult. So I started thinking about iconic memories were usually captured in photos and how all these memories are constantly filtering through our brains, taking shape in our current existence. I’d already been weaving photographs and thought what a better way to convey my idea than to weave childhood photos (memories) around the portrait of the person. I also started thinking of each of our unique experiences and decided that every one that I work on will have a unique weave pattern, not one is the same, like our DNA.
Can you please talk about how your Mexican heritage speaks not only to your work, but the way you navigate the world, particularly as someone who lives and works in the United States? Is Mexico a country that you visit, or have access to by way of family that live there?
So we came to the states when I was 2 years old, and have been speaking English since as far as I can remember. My Mexican identity was always present. My parents never learned English and Spanish was the only language spoken at home. We lived a very Mexican life at home, we shopped at Mexican grocery stores, watched Spanish language television, and my parents were very traditional in every sense of the word. The fact that we were undocumented always made me feel like an imposter calling myself an American even though I was raised in this country. So I always had this feeling of not really belonging in either of those worlds. I’m too Mexican for American folks and too American for Mexican folks.
I left home when I was a teenager and pretty much ran away from my upbringing and embraced my Queer identity, being that young I thought I could only have one identity. Fast forward to me moving to NYC and leaving all that I knew behind, I started missing “home”. I started missing the culture that I took for granted for so many years. I don’t know if it was guilt that made me react a certain way but I became very militant about my Mexican identity. It manifested in the books I started reading, the tattoos I started getting and the art I started making. My Mexican identity is the first thing I started exploring in my earliest self-portraits. My parents retired almost 15 yrs ago and moved back to Mexico. So it was in my 30s that I first started visiting Mexico. It was the first time that my whole existence started making sense to me. The colors I’ve been attracted to, the DYI aesthetic, the urgency to create something out of nothing did not start with me, it is part of my DNA, it’s part of my culture. I used to think of the term “Ni de aqui ni de alla” (neither from here nor from there) in a negative way but now I see it as a privilege… to be able to navigate both worlds.
Do you think about beauty often? I want to hear your thoughts on beauty as an artist, and as a person. Do you consider beauty to be the goal? The means to an end? An interesting by product of the journey?
I think about beauty often and constantly looking for beauty and so perhaps I can say that as an artist, I can’t say that it’s an intended goal. I find beauty in symmetry or another word I’d use is balance. For me personally, balance is a key to beauty. Being able to find a balance of either using a certain material, a certain color. My eyes are drawn to bright colors but somebody wearing an outfit that’s entirely bright red would be too jarring but say that person is wearing earth tones with splashes of bright red then my eyes are not only going to be drawn to that but I’ll take my time and study the entire outfit. I find beauty in imperfections… when I go to a museum and look at an old painting. I tend find the pattern of the cracking paint on that painting more beautiful than the entire piece. I find beauty in a perfectly mitered corner of a frame. I find beauty in work where you see the artist’s hand.
Are there any projects that you are working on currently?
I am still working on Queer Icons, that is my labor of love and will be okay working on this project til my last days. I’ll never get tired of shining a light on my beautiful Queer/Trans community of color. I am also thinking of a documentary style photo series of Queer couples. I’m very fascinated by the idea of relationships. Two individuals becoming one unit and being able to make that work is something that’s always been so elusive to me and I want to capture that, perhaps some of that magic will rub off on me!
Please talk about your identit(y/ies); perhaps as a recipe?
2 parts Virgo, 1 part Queer, 1 part Mexicano and a sprinkle of Midwest and East Coast spice and then baked.
We came to the states when I was a toddler, although I grew up in this country and spoke English like my classmates, I never called myself American, it might have to do with the fact that we were undocumented until I was a teenager, so I always was reminded that I was Mexican. I didn’t travel back to Mexico until my 30s when my parents retired and moved back. I was in my home state of Zacatecas when I realized how American I was. People back in Mexico picked up on it immediately and would ask me where I was from. Returning from my first trip is when I started identifying as an Americanized Mexican. More recently I’ve been identifying as Mexican-Amaricon. It’s a play on words. Maricon means faggot. It was a word that was hurled at me at a young age but a label I now embrace and wear with pride. So I felt it was appropriate… I’m a queer Americanized Mexican… a Mexican-Amaricon! So my full identity is left-handed double Virgo Mexican-Amaricon stoner!