Laura Aguilar: A Case Study
Laura Aguilar (1959-2018) was a predominantly self-taught photographer who photographed marginalized subjects including herself—Chicanas, lesbians, obese women. She consciously moved away from heteronormative images of Chicana female bodies and their associations with male-centered nostalgias or idealizations and opens up “social spaces” for women of color and projects Chicana feminist aesthetics.(1) Aguilar documented her subjects with frank empathy and humanism. She was simply revering her friends and her life—intuitively and personally exploring routes to negotiate and navigate her ethnic and sexual identity, her challenges with depression and auditory dyslexia and the acceptance of her large body. This case study explores the following concepts and processes in Aguilar’s work: intersectionality, radical vulnerability, and (self) portraiture, especially (self) portraits as landscape, as a means of attaining (self) acceptance.
Intersectionality is a version of feminist theory that originated among feminists of color and was formally defined by law professor and critical race theorist Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989.(2) Intersectional feminism recognizes that for individuals who embody multiple marginalized identities, those identities cannot be considered independently, but must be considered in terms of how they intersect. For instance, Aguilar’s Chicana background cannot be considered in isolation without considering how it interacts with her Americanness, with her womanhood, with her learning disability, with her sexuality, and with her large body. This intersectionality is most obvious in her most famous work, Three Eagles Flying (1990), a large gelatin silver triptych where she stands in between an American flag and a Mexican flag. Her head is wrapped in a Mexican flag with the image of the eagle clenching the serpent prominently covering her face, her torso is naked, and she wears an American flag around her waist, draping her lower body. A thick rope snakes around her neck, torso, hands, waist, and thighs. The imagery of the three “eagles” (American “eagle” meaning Imperialism, the Mexican eagle signifying the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan that was sacked by the Spanish conquistadors led by Hernan Cortes, and Aguilar whose name derives from the Spanish word for eagle, aguila). In her essay for the Laura Aguilar Show and Tell catalog, “Beyond Face Value,” Deborah Cullen quotes Luz Calvo: “Far from staging a straightforward critique of racial and sexual oppression in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands, Three Eagles Flying produces a thoroughly ambivalent position for both the spectator of the image and for the Chicana lesbian subject of the photograph.”(3)
Laura Aguilar, Three Eagles Flying (1990)
Three Eagles Flying is so rich in iconography that it goes far beyond sexual oppression. The use of flags is very powerful and has a rich history (Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830), Jasper John’s Flag (1954-55), David Hammons’s red, black, and green African American Flag (1990) and Juan Sanchez’s use of the Puerto Rican flag to signal the fraught territory of identity for Puerto Ricans in Mixed Statement (1984).(4) The rope around Aguilar’s neck alludes to lynching of black and brown people in the United States, or it might allude to BDSM as in Catherine Opie’s O Portfolio (1999).(3) The covering of the head/face alludes to human rights violations and disappearances experienced by activists in Latin America or to prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Another Hispanic artist to whom Aguilar’s work alludes is Ana Mendieta and her Earth Works and Silueta series where Mendieta embedded or buried herself in different settings in Cuba, the U.S. and Mexico in order to get closer to the earth. This was likely a result of her displacement from her homeland in Cuba; she was a Pedro Pan child whose parents sent her and her sister to the U.S., unaccompanied, to live in foster homes in order to escape the Castro regime.
In the 1960s Chicana written and visual studies focused on the virgin/whore dichotomy perpetuated by colonialism, represented by La Virgen de Guadalupe as the spiritually pure mother and La Malinche, the defiled mistress of conqueror Hernan Cortes. Guadalupe became the Patron Saint of modern Mexico, and Malinche became La Chingada, the “fucked” mother of the first mestizo. Healing the dichotomy entails deconstructing the ways it regulates spiritual and sexual practices. Although Aguilar does not fall into this binary system, her process of photographing herself and lesbians who frequented the Plush Pony bar in the Plush Pony series (1992) was a way of tapping into her sexuality as a source of creativity. As Irene Lara
Laura Aguilar, Plush Pony #2 (1992)
explains, “one’s sex is the inkwell of one’s creativity.” (5) Not only did Aguilar create these portraits as a means of giving queer women agency, they were done in a very humanistic way. Aguilar befriended the women at the local bar in East L.A. She photographed them as they might look on any given night at the bar. They look attentively into the camera, they are posed against a simple dropcloth backdrop, they are presented in an honest fashion, without
costumes or presumptions. Aguilar stated that her photography did not only help her understand her sexuality better, but it helped her understand Laura better.
Laura Aguilar could trace her maternal lineage for five generations to the San Gabriel River Valley; the Californio people were tied to the River. Her maternal grandmother collected rocks, many of which looked like the rocks Aguilar gravitated to in her self-portraits-as-landscape. I am interested in why one would want to document oneself in the landscape. Perhaps it is because early landscape painting in the United States, like those by Frederick Church and other Hudson River Valley painters, depicted the landscape devoid of any human beings, devoid of the indigenous peoples who lived there. Perhaps it is because these landscape painters and later, photographers, tried to claim the lands that they depicted/photographed as their own. For example, no subsequent photographer could touch Yosemite without encoutering the presence and influence of Ansel Adams. There was a sense of ownership inherent to these landscape paintings and photographs. In contrast to the desire to possess the land, Aguilar inserted herself into the landscape to declare her presence, as an indigenous, brown, obese, lesbian woman. Her personal bravery resonates through her images.
Another reason to intercalate herself in the landscape was as a means of self-acceptance regarding her obese body type. In the self-as-landscape series she calls attention to the contours of her body, the irregularities of her body, the folds and defects of her skin, especially when viewed in the context of the desert rocks with their own deviations, inherent folds, pockets, and crevices. She gained acceptance of her body through her work and through her own and others’ acceptance of her work. Her primary goal was to tell her truth—honesty—and the secondary goal, self-acceptance. She demonstrated immense personal bravery in her nude photographs. This is what author Jones discussed as “radical intersectionality,”(6) a vulnerability that is deeply affecting to the viewer.
Laura Aguilar, Grounded #11 (2006)
“In investing her practice with radical vulnerability, Aguilar’s project offers this possibility of exposure, as well as a strategic mode of intervention into the convention of portraiture: rather than seeming to ‘give’ us the person depicted, as portraiture of the Renaissance through the modern period offered to do, she makes us work for a relationship, one coded in terms of body size, able-bodiedness, ethnicity/race, class, and gender/sexuality, all as intersectionally coextensive modes of identification. Rather than fragmenting and multiplying the subject into a splintered array of personae…Aguilar, by making us work to relate to the people depicted (particularly herself), makes us aware of our own mutability and vulnerability, always in relation to these myriad modes of identification.”(7) Inserting oneself into the artwork definitely affects the viewer. By being authentic (unlike Cindy Sherman, for example, who portrays herself as a myriad of “characters” rather than herself), Aguilar connects to the vulnerability of the viewer through her own vulnerability and helped herself and the viewer attain self-acceptance.
(1) Daniel Perez, “Chicana Aesthetics: A View of Unconcealed Alterities and Affirmations of Chicana Identity through Laura Aguilar’s Photographic Images.” LUX: A Journal of Transdisciplinary Writing and Research from Clarement Graduate University. Vol. 2: Iss. 1, Article 22, 2013, 1.
(2) Allyson Healey, Episode 6: “Fly Like An Eagle.” Art History for All: A Podcast Dedicated to Making Art Accessible. July 30, 2018. Accessed December 10, 2019. https://arthistoryforall.com/page/4.
(3) Luz Calvo in Deborah Cullen, “Beyond Face Value: Reconsidering Laura Aguilar’s Three Eagles Flying,” in Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, Vincent Price Art Museum exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2017, 27.
(4) Cullen, 28-29.
(5) Irene Lara, “Goddess of the Américas in the Decolonial Imaginary: Beyond the Virtuous Virgen/Pagan Puta Dichotomy,” Feminist Studies, The Chicana Studies Issue, Vol. 34, no 1/2, Spring-Summer 2008, 111.
(6) Amelia Jones, “Clothed/Unclothed: Laura Aguilar’s Radical Vulnerability,” in Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell, Vincent Price Art Museum exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2017, 42.
(7) Ibid, 39.