ALDRIN VALDEZ (intro): Felipe Baeza’s art is beautiful and irreverent. He challenges people to think about the messy entanglements of religion, sexuality, and the ongoing legacy of colonialism and white supremacy. I think his art is powerful and necessary because it disrupts the status quo and reminds people of the daily violence that undocumented immigrants, queer people, and people of color experience. I’m happy to have had the opportunity to interview him for Uncompromising Tang and to share his art with people who might not already be familiar with his work.
ALDRIN VALDEZ: Can you talk about when and how you began making art? Is there a clear beginning for you?
FELIPE BAEZA: I was actually thinking about this the other day. From a very young age I was an obsessive object maker. I was constantly making things and that’s how I kept myself entertained. Throughout my childhood in Mexico I was fascinated with creating my own toys. I had a huge obsession with modeling clay. Right after my parents left for the US, I was around 7 years old and I do remember sheltering myself by creating objects and imaginary worlds with clay. Now that I look back at that, I realize that creating those objects was a way for me to cope with my parents’ departure, which at that time was really confusing. Creating things has always played a role in my life, but I never took it seriously in the sense that I wasn’t going to benefit from it or I didn’t imagine it being a profession. This has a lot do with my upbringing, coming from an immigrant family and growing up in a mostly Mexican working class community in Chicago where art was never part of the conversation.
But I do have to say that my time in Chicago was a turning point in my artistic development and understanding of what being an artist meant and that’s when I became an artist per se. It was right after 8th grade when I began taking all sorts of art classes at after-school programs. It’s in these moments that my interest in art became more serious and I became a young artist in my own understanding of what being an artist was.
Right around high school I was introduced to printmaking and since then I have been fascinated by its many techniques and history. My first pieces from high school mostly incorporated stencils and collage elements and these are elements that still show up in my work. It was bit of a struggle making art because I was very aware that I enjoyed and was very skilled at making things, but at same time it was hard for my parents to understand what I was doing. I think they thought it was a phase or something to keep me distracted from the streets. I do realize the last thing an immigrant family wants from their kids is for them to become an artist, especially because my family immigrated to this country to provide me a better quality of life and education. I am sure they imagined I would become some respectable professional like a lawyer or architect, which I find humorous.
AV: Has their understanding changed?
FB: My parents’ understanding of art and me being an artist has changed for sure. I have noticed that change more in my mom than in my dad. When I talk to them they ask about what projects I am doing or if I have any shows coming up. My mom loves my work and she has some of my pieces hanging around her house and even some of my very homoerotic prints. To me that has definitely been a change in their understanding of what I do and my work in general.
When I was in the process of applying to college they were both confused about my interest in art school and pursuing art as a profession. I do remember them being worried about my future and what I would get from art school. I mean I was also worried too but knew that there wasn’t anything else that I wanted to pursue but art. Even though they questioned my decision to pursue art, they were extremely supportive of me applying to college. I think they were just glad that I was pursuing education and was applying to colleges.
But because of my legal status, college seemed unimaginable to me. I’ve been undocumented since I came to this country. In many respects, my family’s experience mirrors the stories of many immigrants, especially those from Latin America: my parents fled poverty, corruption, and violence in hopes of providing their children with a better life. When we first arrived, we did not expect that our experience would resemble what we were trying to escape: as undocumented immigrants we had invisible lives and we lived in a low-income community plagued with a host of social and health problems. However, against many barriers, I managed to navigate the Chicago public school system, which led to a full ride at Cooper Union in New York City. If it weren’t for Cooper Union and the help from my parents I don’t think I would have gone to college or even left Chicago.
AV: How does being undocumented affect your life as a working artist?
FB: I have encountered a lot issues regarding my legal status and working as an artist. The main one would be working and sustaining myself first and then hopefully my art practice. The other issue would be the lack of resources. One of the problems that I’ve come across regularly is that a lot of art residencies require a legal status. I spent a lot of my time interning at various art institutions, not because I wanted to but because that was the only thing I was capable of doing without being asked about my legal situation. Luckily through interning, I came across amazing people who opened new doors for me. I’ve been living in the United States for over two decades. I’ve worked hard to access the limited resources available to us and it has taken a great deal of skill and learning to navigate systems that were not designed for low-income, undocumented immigrants to survive, let alone succeed in. Ultimately and against many barriers, I completed my undergraduate degree in Fine Arts from Cooper Union.
If someone were to ask how I got here, I’d have many people to name, but I owe a majority of my accomplishments to my rooted connection to community organizing and community mobilization. For the past several years I have engaged in community organizing at the local, state, and national levels for different campaigns and organizations. LGBTQ rights and immigrant rights have been a priority of mine throughout these years. These grassroots movements have granted me the privilege of applying for a work permit after nineteen years, due to the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program. As someone who has lived the majority of their life in underserved communities as an undocumented youth, I have experienced the process of removing myself from the shadows of fear, shame, and embarrassment that were constructed in me because of my immigration status and, at the same time, I was also able to do that for my queer identity. Developing my consciousness has helped me understand the injustices that are faced on a daily basis by the two communities I identify with. My experiences as a queer immigrant and my ability to navigate through unjust policies and inappropriate practices, which aim to keep people silent, are what drive my art practice.
AV: How would you describe your art process?
FB: It’s never been clear. Part of my process in making work is mostly taken up by investigation and not just information pertaining to what I am dealing with but also with materials and how I would go about executing each piece. I tend to put pieces off to the side for months and some even years and that’s how long some of them take to make sense and to be completed. I go back to pieces and not only do they make sense and speak to me but I go about executing them and finishing them in a way that I wouldn’t have been capable of doing earlier. Time plays a huge role in my art practice. This also explains the fact that a lot of my work tends to look differently than what I expected and in some cases it even speaks to others issues that I wasn’t planning on dealing with. Most of the time my art practice is somewhat bittersweet. That’s what makes it interesting for me. I can’t imagine dealing with work or going about making something that was clear to me from the starting point. That would just be unnecessary and not enjoyable.
AV: I really like “bittersweet” as a description of an art practice! It speaks to having to give up some part of the work that might have become too precious. I think it’s interesting to consider this messy, wayward process in relation to the images you end up with because your imagery is so iconic. I’m curious how Catholic iconography has influenced your work. When I think about how your imagery affects me, I think of it as pushing me in a way that’s hard to articulate. Maybe it’s part “wow, Felipe is gonna get in trouble with some Catholic fundamentalists” and part “wow, I wonder how he created this and what kinds of materials he used to make these marks.” You create forms and symbols that people might see and use in the context of worship. In your work, they are objects that provoke by drawing people’s awareness to that context of worship. But then you twist them in ways that I think may be expected but there’s still a surprise, an element that can make a viewer uncomfortable. I think it has to do with how much people, by not questioning the ubiquity of these images, imbue them with power. What’s your relationship to Catholicism?
FB: I find it fascinating how my work affects you and glad that it makes you feel this way. As an artist, I would want all my pieces to convey that and get that type of reaction from people seeing my work. I do see that in some of my pieces there is this shock value that people tend to gravitate to and make sense of. That has to do a lot with my imagery. As you mentioned I tend to use a lot of religious and primarily Catholic imagery in my work. I can describe my relationship to Catholicism just like my art practice which is “bittersweet.” I grew up in an extremely religious family, Catholic on my dad’s side and Christian on my mom’s side. So I had my fair share with religion on both extremes. But at a young age I always gravitated towards Catholicism. I have always been mesmerized and interested by Catholicism, the imagery and how dramatic and bloody everything is. If you look at the imagery of Catholicism in Spain and then look at the imagery of Catholicism in colonized lands they are extremely different. The Catholic imagery in colonized lands tends to portray a lot of suffering and a lot more blood and as we know figures tend to be more brown.
As a kid I enjoyed going to church and to me seeing the spectacle that processions tend to be. In my growing up process I learned the many horrors that come with religion and its history and also the imbedded hate towards me and my queerness. I am no longer an observant but culturally I can say am still very Catholic. This is where my bittersweet relationship comes into place: I enjoy the fable, imagery, and spectacle of it but I am repulsed by its power. There was a series of projects that I did a while ago that investigated the abuse of power by the Catholic Church, which excludes and condemns homosexuality. We have been witnesses for centuries of the abuse of power based on the Bible. The Catholic Church has taken the Bible as an oppressing tool for centuries to discriminate and exclude various groups; it’s been used to justify slavery, predestined women to a second-class status, and condemned homosexuality. This institution was founded for the worship of men and is based on fear and machismo and for the advancement of men. Finally, I find it quite problematic to have faith and believe in an institution like the Catholic Church.
AV: Hmmm…Catholic imagery in colonized lands portraying more suffering and are bloodier than the Catholic imagery in Spain? That’s really interesting. It’s making me think back to this figure of Christ in the Philippines. It’s a Christ that is very dark-skinned kneeling and carrying a cross. Like you, I was also raised in a Catholic community. I’m very critical of it now, but I also still love the spectacle of it. I love the processions and even when Christ and the saints are portrayed as suffering figures, they are decked out in regal outfits with gold-tinted ruffles lining their capes for example. Haute-couture suffering! Those figures, like the Santo Niño, are also very pretty and sometimes they appear androgynous. I responded to the Santo Niño figures in the Philippines as though they were very cute, chubby fairy godmother-like characters. I didn’t really think of them as younger boy versions of the same Jesus Christ that I’d see on the crucifix. This brings me back to the imagery in your work, where you flesh out the implicit or silenced sexuality in these Catholic images. One great example of this is the collage with two figures in flames looking up admiringly at the crucifix while a baby angel hovers above catching the blood that’s squirting from the body of Christ. It’s a ridiculous image to begin with, but then you’ve cut out the crucifix and underneath you glued an image of one guy playing with – presumably – another guy’s ass. What has been the response to your work from institutions that you’ve shown your art to (in applying for residencies or for shows, for example) and from the public?
FB: In my earlier work I was dealing more with religious imagery and also a lot of homoerotic imagery. This was around the same time when I was at Cooper Union. There wasn’t much dialogue during critiques and, at that point in my art practice, dialogue and critique were crucial to my work. I found my time at Cooper a bit frustrating for that reason. I felt that I was expected to make a certain type of work and for them it made sense that I was dealing with identity issues. I was put in this “Latino artist” box. But despite all of the expectations and lack of dialogue, I found a few professors who played an important role in my development as an artist.
In Cooper Union, I came across a repetitive reaction towards my work. I am actually surprised it didn’t happen earlier. In my junior year, I showed some prints during the End of the Year show and someone reported my work to a Catholic organization. From there it blew up. It became a huge ordeal, from people sending me threats to people asking the administration to remove my work.
AV: Wow, it’s terrible that there were organizations not affiliated with the school coming in and policing art being made by its students. But that shouldn’t be surprising because religious institutions have had a lot of influence on what kind of art can be shown.
FB: The administration at the school handled it pretty well and decided to display my work for the duration of the show. For me this was something that I knew I would be confronting with my work. The same situation happened during my thesis show. In that case, the administration wasn’t on my side. I had people calling the school to shut down the show and threatening to protest. I remember that there was also construction happening in the space where I was showing and even the construction workers threatened to walk out if the show was going up, which they did. This was a very dramatic and amusing experience and also proved to me how powerful art can be and how it can affect people in so many ways. The show still went up and, as I expected, it caused an uproar. I am very conscious about how my work can be seen and some earlier pieces can be seen as one-liners and those were the pieces that got attention.
I feel that a lot spaces have an issue with showing my work and it surprises me that even at this moment in time we have to deal with censorship. This, in a way, has made me self-conscious about what I am able to submit when applying for grants or residencies. Most of the time you are dealing with non-profits that depend on donors and I feel that plays a role in what they will show and what they will not show, which may not be a print of a guy with a cross in his anus. So definitely the response from institutions has been mixed and they tend to deal and show only the “safe” pieces.
AV: You’re a printmaker and, as you said, you began making prints in high school. How do you see the relationship of printmaking to the content of your work?
FB: Yeah, as I mentioned I began experimenting with printmaking back in high school, but it wasn’t until college that I immersed myself in the medium. I was for sure wanting to focus on sculpture and that was what I was primarily doing before college. With this in mind, at Cooper Union I took some sculpture studios courses and I developed such an animosity towards it. A lot of it had to do with the way it was taught and how much bullshit and macho attitude surrounded it.
I remember taking a silkscreen class and that’s where it all began. I feel like printmaking has been seen as inferior practice in the art world and a proletarian tool. In a sense this was what attracted me to the process. I was knowledgeable about its history in social engagement in Mexico and how it was seen as a radical tool for social change. Printmaking made more sense for the type of work I wanted to make, and this not only became clear because of the different processes but also because of the early history of printmaking. Using printmaking, I recreated religious imagery using woodcut and intaglio. I’ve mimicked the same process of documentation through printmaking originally used by the Catholic Church to disseminate their religious ideas. Using these same tools, my work proposed a critique of religious institutions and social control.
AV: Which artists would you consider as being very influential to you?
FB: I knew this question was going to come up! This is constantly changing and I’ll probably be embarrassed about the artists I was interested in during high school, who were most likely white and male. This has a lot to do with the fact that the representation and exposure of artists of color are minimal. We are under-represented. But there were a few artists whose work spoke to my young queer brown self. I was exposed to mostly to white and male artists working primarily in printmaking until Elizabeth Catlett made an appearance in my high school years. She made a huge impact on me not only because of her work, but because she was a person of color and one of the first artists I came across. What spoke to me about her work was how she depicts the Black experience and how politically charged her work is.
During that same time I came across Kerry James Marshall’s work, which to this day still has an effect on me. Just like Catlett’s, Marshall’s work deals with Black experience and identity. I was probably around fourteen or fifteen when I came across his work and at that time, like many other teenagers, I was dealing with my queerness and my legal status and the experience of feeling invisible and ashamed. I saw those themes in Marshall’s work. I became interested in how he dealt with themes of invisibility and visibility within the Black experience.
Another artist that I also came across at that time and that I consider influential to me has to be Nahum Zenil. Zenil’s work made a great impact on me because he was the first artist that I had encountered whose work deals with queerness and religion very explicitly. I remember printing his images and hiding them in fear that my parents would find them.
There are obviously more artists that influence me but these three were really influential to me at a young age. I think that the works of the current artists that I have been looking at and admiring are completely different from the work I make. I am very fond of socially engaged work and performance art that deal with identity, gender, and race. Artists like Regina José Galindo, Ana Mendieta, Hank Willis Thomas, and Carlos Motta. I’ve also been looking at and admiring the work of younger artists who use collage and printmaking methods in their work such as Wangechi Mutu, Firelei Baez, Yashua Klos, and Tschabalala Self.
AV: What are you currently working on?
FB: Forever figuring it out! I am taking a bit of a hiatus from printmaking, not entirely. I think I’ve gotten too comfortable with the medium and sometimes it’s not a process that makes sense to what I want to work with. I’ve been making collage work for a while now and collages were actually my studies of finished pieces and I rarely showed them. I’ve been working on small collages that have been dealing with the recurring theme of reversal ethnography and hybridity using porn and pre-Columbian imagery. I’m also doing some mixed-media work on paper incorporating printmaking dealing with hybridity and identity inspired by Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands. So I’ll expect you to come over soon once I am ready to show them!
AV: I can’t wait!
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTORS
FELIPE BAEZA: was born in Guanajuato, Mexico and currently lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. Baeza received his BFA from The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. His work has been exhibited in various group shows around the country including New York’s The New School, the International Print Center New York, and Meyerson Hall Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the recipient of the Michael S. Vivo Prize for Drawing and previous residencies at the Lower East Side Printshop and at The Anderson Ranch Art Center.
ALDRIN VALDEZ: is a queer Filipino artist and writer living and working in Brooklyn. They studied at Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts and was a 2011-12 Queer/Art/Mentorship fellow.