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PHOTOGRAPHY Iconic photographer honored in 'Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell'
by Kerry Reid
2019-04-10

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Laura Aguilar—who died at 58 in April 2018—explored multiple aspects of her identity in her photographs.

She was queer, Latinx, working-class and what some might deem plus-sized. She also struggled with auditory dyslexia, depression and diabetes—the latter being the cause of her premature death.

In "Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell," now at the National Museum of Mexican Art ( NMMA ) through Sunday, Aug. 18, Aguilar's eye ( bold and unflinching, yet wholly empathetic ) on her own marginalized status and those of others through her three decades of work comes into sharp and emotionally resonant view. It's the first major retrospective on Aguilar, and the first time her work has received a major exhibition in the Midwest.

The show began at the Vincent Price Art Museum at East Los Angeles College in September 2017 and moved on to the Patricia and Philip Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami last spring. Sybil Venegas—who started as an early photography teacher and mentor for Aguilar at East Los Angeles College and became a close friend—curated more than 100 photos and videos that Aguilar created over the years.

"Laura was an interesting person," said Venegas in a telephone interview with Windy City Times. "She was very funny, she was very shy, but she was also very engaging, too. She knew how to attract mentors into her life. That was a gift she had, because she had a lot of them."

When they first met, Aguilar was a photographer for the campus newspaper. Aguilar began going over to Venegas' house to show her new work, and Venegas began taking Aguilar around the Los Angeles art community. The earliest section of Show and Tell contains portraits of older artists and mentors in the Chicano art community who influenced Aguilar.

Venegas noted that the path through "Show and Tell" reflects Aguilar's own journey. She said, "One thing just led to another and it went from maybe ethnic and sexual identity and portraiture to self-portraiture and then finally toward the end of the career, leading to the self-portraiture of her body—her nude body—and what that meant."

In the late 1980s, Aguilar came out as lesbian. She also began incorporating text in her work. In the series "How Mexican is Mexican?," Aguilar took portraits of Latinas she knew ( including Venegas ) and had them write reflections on their ethnic identity, along with a thermostat on the bottom providing a "pepper" rating—mild, medium and hot—for how "Mexican" they felt.

On a recent tour through the exhibit, Cesareo Moreno—the director of visual arts and chief curator for the NMMA—noted that Aguilar's portraits of the lesbian community also explored class components. The Latina lesbian series, he pointed out, includes subjects who "are all professionals. We have the lawyer, we have the university professor, we have the archivist. We have women who have gone to college." Here too, Aguilar asked the women to write information about themselves. Tellingly, Aguilar included herself in this series. Her self-caption reads, "I'm not comfortable with the word Lesbian. But as each day goes by, I'm more and more comfortable with the word LAURA."

At the same time, she was also photographing working-class lesbians just outside East LA at a bar called the Plush Pony. "These are not her close friends, but she hangs out there," said Moreno. The women in the bar were initially reluctant for her to take their photos, noted Moreno. But when Aguilar offered to sell them their photos for $5 a print, they agreed. Moreno added, "I personally find it interesting that in the working-class world, there is this understanding that 'OK, I will pay you.' Otherwise they don't understand. 'Why would you want to take my photo?'"

The show includes what is perhaps Aguilar's best-known image, "Three Eagles Flying." Here, the flags of the United States and Mexico ( two nations who incorporate eagle mythology into their national symbols ) flank a central image of a bare-breasted Aguilar ( whose surname means "eagle" in Spanish ) bound by rope and the American flag on the bottom half of her body and blindfolded with the Mexican coat of arms. There have been many interpretations of the meaning, but Moreno stated, "Laura said, 'They're all full of it. This piece is about me and my relationship to my mother.'" ( Aguilar's mother died when the photographer was a teenager. )

Aguilar's struggles with depression come into sharpest focus in the series "Don't Tell Her Art Can't Hurt," which features an image of a nude Aguilar with a gun in her mouth. Excoriating confessional videos lay bare the pain of self-doubt that accompanied her along with her camera.

Yet there is also great joy in the show, from the "Clothed/Unclothed" series, in which Aguilar captured all different kinds of families, including queer couples, with and without clothing, celebrating their connections with each other. She also created a series of breathtaking works in which her nude body meshes with the wild landscapes of the New Mexico desert. Aguilar—who spent so much time on the edges of identity as well as economic and emotional upheaval—once said, "I am trying to know that it is my right to stand on solid ground."

"Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell" takes place through Sunday, Aug. 18, at the National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St. Call 312-738-1503 or visit MationalMuseumOfMexicanArt.org .


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