San Diego Art Institute’s ‘Forging Territories’ a place for the often unseen

Exhibit at Balboa Park institution features LGBTQ artists who are African American or Latinx


The San Diego Art Institute’s current exhibition is about pain, hope, hardship, joy and beauty. But above all, “Forging Territories: Queer Afro and Latinx Contemporary Art” is about celebrating a segment of society often marginalized and invisible.

The show focuses on 20 regional artists, all members of the LGBTQ community and all African-American or Latinx.

“We were very concerned with showing the breadth and excellence of LGBTQ black and Latinx art. Their breadth of concerns stretches beyond the traditional LGBTQ community,” said Caleb Rainey, the museum’s director of development. “We intentionally use pieces that spark conversations and also connect with history.”

Those conversations range from the violence, discrimination, AIDS and religion to just being different.

The shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando spurred Amina Cruz to photograph “brown queer punks” at clubs in East Los Angeles. Rubén Esparza, who is also the curator of the exhibition, wrote the names of the 49 people killed at Pulse in calligraphy with his own blood. The use of his blood is also a reminder that gay men are restricted in plasma donations.

“My activism is through an artist’s lens,” said Esparza, who considers curating “Forging Territories” a form of activism by “showing queer brown and black bodies.” The Los Angeles-based artist said he started curating shows — founding the now international Queer Biennial — because he never saw himself represented at art shows.

Esparza also channels the work of Felix Gonzalez-Torres, who died in 1996 from AIDS. Esparza reprises Gonzalez-Torres’ installation created from candy pieces that were the weight of his partner before he contracted AIDS.

“I felt compelled to do this. It’s a very personal piece,” said Esparza, who also had a partner who died from AIDS. But the installation is also meant to shine a spotlight on Gonzalez-Torres, who was internationally known for his minimalist art.

An untitled work from Gonzalez-Torres at the exhibition consists of a 6-inch-tall stack of white letter-sized paper. Each piece has names and dates significant to LGBTQ history. Visitors are encouraged to take a piece and look up the facts. Each evening the museum will replenish the stack.

“It’s about presence and absence,” said Rainey, who also noted that the museum’s labels list each artist’s preferred pronoun.

The show, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of New York’s Stonewall riots that started the gay rights movement, deals with current issues and identity.

“Some explore identity more directly, others more indirectly, but you can’t completely remove identity from art,” said Jacqueline Silverman, the museum’s executive director.

Devin Morris’ painting “A Long Line (Chair 2)” looks at domestic space, tweaking familiar scenes to examine the idea of normalcy. “He is full of ideas and wonder,” Esparza said.

Joey Terrill and Carlos Almaraz are central figures in Chicano art. Terrill uses traditional painting techniques to portray nontraditional subjects, sometimes in traditional Chicano settings. Almaraz, who died in 1989, worked with César Chávez and helped bring Chicano art into the mainstream. His painting “Struggle of Mankind,” of a black man and a white man wrestling, speaks to race as well as identity.

For Angel Divina, food is the bridge to community and her mixed-media pieces celebrate Mexican food items in bold abstract forms adorned with items that can be found in a drag queen’s dressing room: glitter, sequins and feathers.

“The works we selected one way or another are representative of the artist. They are the result of who they are and the world they are living in,” Silverman said of the 60 pieces in the exhibition.

Esparza’s goal for “Forging Territories” was to invite established as well as emerging artists and to represent all members of the LGBTQ community. Three legacy artists provide a sense of history. The range of art and subjects tells a story that hasn’t been told on the walls of a museum.

The show has a “good balance of joy and resistance,” Rainey said. The mix of emotions visualized in the exhibition, he said, can be described as a parade and a funeral at the same time.

Alma Lopez looks at empowerment by painting women who were seen as outcasts as religious icons — people like Julia Pastrana, who had hypertrichosis and was known as the “Ape Woman.”

A self-portrait by Texas Isaiah — called one of the “top 12 African American photographers you should follow right now” by Time magazine in 2017 — captures the struggle of moving through daily life as a black trans person with a simple composition of Isaiah shot from behind. Both he and the image are stripped bare to focus on light and shadow — and raw emotion.

Some of the nudes in the exhibition are a tribute to the acceptance of self and the body. Maurice Harris, a floral designer and photographer, portrays men and women sitting among floral arrangements. The photographs, Rainey said, “celebrate black people while they are still living. He makes them visible while they are still alive.”

“Forging Territories” marks a turning point in the 78-year-old art institute.

“We want to be relevant and represent something unique,” Silverman said. “This exhibition is really a repositioning of the organization.”

“We underestimate how invisible black and Latinx artists can be,” Rainey said. “This exhibition has the power of authentic representation.”

Like the large female body that reflects the shape of the rock behind it in the late photographer Laura Aguilar’s work, the exhibition explores what some consider “unnatural” and puts it in a natural environment.

The queer, brown and black are normal, visible and celebrated.

“That’s one the magical things that happens when you walk in,” Rainey said.

‘Forging Territories: Queer Afro and Latinx Contemporary Art’

When: Through Nov. 3

Where: San Diego Art Institute, 1439 El Prado, Balboa Park

Tickets: $3 to $5. Free with guided tours Wednesday and Saturday, 1 to 3 p.m.

Phone: (619) 236-0011


Schimitschek is a freelance writer.