Mexican Painter Alida Cervantes Dips Her Brush in Sex, Race, and Violence

We talked to the artist about interracial relationships, alter egos, and the unsteady power dynamics of love and sex.

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Sep 30 2015, 7:20pm

All images courtesy of Alida Cervantes

You'll recognize the stories in Alida Cervantes' paintings, even if you haven't seen some of them play out like this before—after all, a lot of girls confess to having done some bad things to their Barbies. Cervantes, a Mexican artist who was born in San Diego but grew up in Tijuana, plays with dolls, puppets, kitsch figurines, and masks: the miniatures, for the most part, that we've made of people. She blows them up—these paintings are big—and explodes assumptions about image and power. Cervantes' paintings present a kind of distilled folklore, both hellish and humorous, telling tales of love and violence and the power struggles inevitable in both.

Raised at the edge of the US/Mexico border, Cervantes absorbed an early sense of the hierarchies that determine social life—intimately, at home, and on the broad stages of history and politics. In a series of works inspired by the Mexican casta paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries, Cervantes depicts interracial couples embroiled in dramas that highlight or subvert hierarchical notions of sex, class, and race. Cervantes flips narratives of domination and subjugation from one picture to another: The same figure can be cast as both victim and aggressor.

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In pictures both vulgar and subtle, Cervantes wrestles Mexico's complex colonial history and hybrid society into an arena that defies specifics of time or place. The heaviness of some of the scenes—the castration in Horizonte en Calma (2011) for instance—is lifted entirely by the freedom of the paint, and by an irrepressible sense of humor. The paintings are funny, and Cervantes knows it: "Sometimes I know a painting is finished because it makes me laugh." The lightness of touch, the confidence and the pleasure in the paint seem to say, "It's just a game, after all."

"Horizonte en Calma," 2011

BROADLY: How did you start painting?
Alida Cervantes: The story is not particularly epic. I painted when I was a small kid in school, as all kids do, but then stopped. When I was about 11, I started drawing portraits of people I knew or of famous pop stars (mostly Duran Duran). Later in high school I would draw my classmates and pin them on the wall for everyone to see and judge. So I was drawing for many years, but not painting. I think I was afraid of painting. I remember the only painting I made during those years was a really small awkward painting of a duck. Then around the time I was 18 I went to study painting in Italy as an exchange student. Right after I started doing it I knew it was what I wanted to do.

How did lose that fear of painting? Does fear, or fearlessness, still play a role in your work?
Yes, I was afraid. I still am. My process has been one of me trying to recognize and negotiate the two things that painting most provokes in me: fear and pleasure. Ironically, I feel more fearful now than back when I started. I think it's because I'm more aware of it now. The best way to ignore it is to connect to the sensuousness of painting and the pleasure it brings to me. It's like pleasure is a way of neutralizing fear.

As it turns out, it's a big rush and also pretty fun to be a macho dickhead ladies man.

How did you know it was what you wanted to do?
Tijuana was a really small town when I was growing up. The main message sprouting out around me as a woman was, "Find a man to support you, get married, have babies." I always sensed that I needed a way out of that. When I started painting I felt like I had found a space for myself, a space where I could explore things outside of the bubble I had grown up in, but also react to them. Painting gave me a lot of pleasure. It excited me.

Have your subjects and your process changed a lot over time? Has there been a core there, driving the work?
My process and subjects have changed a lot over the years and are still changing. Living like I have, crossing a border between two worlds on a regular basis, can make you a bit schizophrenic! I'd say this has affected my stylistic expression to a large degree. In terms of a common core, I think that my work has always been directly or indirectly autobiographical.

"Piña para la niña"

Tell me about the original casta paintings.
The original casta paintings were made in Mexico during the 17th and 18th centuries and depicted the interracial mixing of the time. After the Spanish arrived, the Indians started to die in large numbers, which brought about the importation of African slaves. The three races intermixed (whites, Indians, and blacks), and the Spanish created a caste system based on the classification of people by racial makeup. Whiter people were on top, Indians in the middle, and black people on the bottom. The casta paintings depicted interracial couples and their offspring, usually in a domestic setting. The artists would write racial tags for each individual on the paintings in the popular terms used to describe various racial combinations. For example, "black and Indian produces lobo" (literally wolf), "Spanish and Indian produces mestizo," "Spanish and black produces mulato," "white and mulato produces morisco," etc.

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Why were you drawn to them?
These paintings represented many aspects of my own life, past and present. The paintings depicted certain ideas about class, gender, and race as they were during the colonial period but which to a large degree I had also been brought up with. For many years I was involved in my own "casta" relationship with a man of a different class and race, which also made me identify with the work. The paintings spoke to my interest in the expression of power relations impacted by love or sexual desire.

"Sensibilidad," 2013

Describe the process behind your paintings, from source material to execution.
I wanted to paint a very simple thing: an interracial couple in the midst of some sort of drama, dealing with some combination of love, sex, and power. I had been playing around on Photoshop with different images of dolls, Mexican folk art figures, masks, classical European sculptures, etc. I made tons of collages and at one point started to print and paint the ones I was most drawn to.

And the painting process?
The painting process was pretty repressed (ironically people talk about how "loose" the paintings are) because I was basically trying to reproduce the collage. I was sort of enslaved by wanting to reproduce it exactly as it was, but with paint. I was more interested in the pleasure of the final image than in the process of making it, which is something that has changed dramatically in my work now. It made me discover the power dynamic in my own relationship to painting at the time, in which I was extremely dominated by the image I was trying to reproduce. So the way I was painting was very much related to what I was painting.

With the black Barbie killing the matador, I think it's OK that she's attacking him, even though he looks like he could be a nice guy.

Still, you could have left the work with the digital collages, which stand alone as compelling pieces in their own right, but you didn't—you made paintings. What is about painting an image that transforms it?
When you paint an image it's like passing it through a filter, through the artist. Like a car going through a carwash: It goes in looking a certain way and comes out looking different. Artists are filters. I want to see what happens when images get filtered through me by painting. I am interested in that process, in which my life experience determines what is in my brain, and my brain communicates to my body, and my hands to the brush, and the brush to the surface. I don't find the process of just printing the collages engaging in the same way, although I agree they can stand on their own as pieces.

What is it in figurative painting that most interests you?
My work is about human nature. I am drawn to telling stories about humans (and animals). It makes sense for me to paint figures.

"Matadora," 2011

The figures in the paintings feel very much "on display," like they've been arranged into these narratives or encounters by a third party. What, or who, are these figures to you? Do you feel a sense of their desire or autonomy, like characters in fiction?
I agree with you. I make an arrangement and it tells a story—it's like playing with dolls. And it's very in your face, like being front row at the opera. I do ask myself questions about the characters. What they must feel, what their motives are, how they came to be in each situation. Like in Matadora, I thought, "Well, that guy had it coming to him." Although I'm not sure if the black Barbie is killing him because he did something bad to her, or if she's just really pissed that he kills bulls for a living. And I make judgments. With the black Barbie killing the matador, I think it's OK that she's attacking him, even though he looks like he could be a nice guy. What I don't know is if she'll regret it.

Talk to me about scale—do you always work big?
I like blowing anything up. I have a hard time making medium-sized paintings (although my casta paintings look medium to me now) because they don't stimulate me enough. If I'm going to make something I want it to be really big or really small. When I make something big it's a lot about being able to move my body around and to a degree to impose upon the viewer. In that sense it is also tied to my performance work.

"Obediencia," 2013

Tell me about your alter ego. How does the performance element of your practice fit with your paintings, or are they completely distinct?
My alter ego is a Cuban timba (Cuban salsa) singer called El Puro that I developed during my relationship with my ex-partner, who's also Cuban. Timba is a male-dominated genre, and the performers are highly sexualized. The music is sometimes very misogynistic. The performance was about appropriating Cuban machismo. [Ed. note: Cervantes performs El Puro in drag.] It was about getting out of a body that is looked at and judged and getting into a body that does the looking and judging. As it turns out, it's a big rush and also pretty fun to be a macho dickhead ladies man. It's also quite tragic.

Do you view painting as a performance?
My performance work is just now starting to become more explicitly apparent in my painting process. In the same way that as a woman I appropriate machismo in the performances, I'm now playing with the idea of appropriating 'macho' painting—this sort of large-scale expressionist gestural painting style. But using it to treat the subject matter of the woman that I am.

"Mama," 2010

Who or what have you been most influenced by?
I think one of the things that has influenced me most has been experiencing the complexity of relationships growing up at home, between my parents, my brother, the servants that lived with us—I'll go as far as to include the pets! The power dynamics between us (parent/child, husband/wife, master/servant, etc.) were very distorted, and it made me curious about what drives humans to set up those relationships. Growing up in a border city like Tijuana only added to that. I would continuously cross the border to go to school, and the feeling of being a part of Mexico but at the same time outside of it, the competing realities on each side of the border; these things had a big influence.

What's the art scene in Tijuana like?
The art scene in Tijuana is small but very vibrant, fresh, and without the bullshit and pretentiousness of the art world in other places. There are no big galleries, museums, or collectors (with a couple of exceptions), so the scene consists of artists making and showing in art spaces, small galleries, or the street. And it's always accompanied by great food and beer!