The first and overwhelming impression of the atmosphere at the Las Otras: (Re)Imaging Queer Latin@s exhibition on Friday was one
Created by Tisch alumna Lupe Salinas, who graduated from the Department of Photography & Imaging in 2011, the air of unreal is not because the displayed images are particularly whimsical or strange, but because the subjects of the works wandered among the photographs at the Friday night opening in a rare case of direct correlation between life and art.
Whether chatting with friends or squeezing a partner’s shoulders with easy affection, the women on which Salinas chose to focus her lens gave the impression of having sprung from their portraits and into real life.
Such reality is the aim of Salinas’ vision, for which she was awarded the department’s 2012 Constantiner Fellowship award.
The photographs themselves are fairly straightforward — the exhibit consists of a series of portraits of women, either alone or with a partner, accompanied by a personal testimonial explaining their stories of growing up and becoming aware of their cultural and sexual identities. However, the mastery of Salinas’ concept is in her notion of an intersection of two distinct cultures, queer and Latina, which her photographs convey beautifully with undramatic lighting and intentionally tepid backgrounds.
“Her portraits are respectfully confrontational, elegantly and simply composed, showing the women in her pictures as both familiar and powerful, intriguing and less like the ‘other’ of her title,” said Fred Ritchin, a former professor of Salinas.
“I wanted to bring [LGBT and queer culture] out to the daylight,” said Salinas, who added that the aim of her artwork is “not necessarily beautifying in any manner … [but] more to take photos and let them do the talking.”
And talk they do — these women explode out of the photographs with their geometric hair, spangled outfits, bright red lipstick or often simply the gravity and depth in their expressions. Salinas’ subjects have been through a lot on the path to self-actualization.
“Our sexual orientation is more often than not denied to us,” wrote Paola Andrea Lebron of her relationship with her partner, in the description of her accompanying her photograph. “With men either hitting on us or hoping we’re merely related.”
“Each [story] is unique,” Salinas said. “I’m very thankful and happy that everyone took the time to write their own personal message.”
The stories on the walls span from hilarious to heartbreaking, as Salinas’ subjects discuss everything from the restrictions of being labeled a typical Latina to the archetypes of matrimony.
“For us, marriage was not about replicating systems of oppression, it was about using a common language to translate what we felt for each other to our community,” says the message next to a photograph of two women identified only as Ivette and Crystal. “Despite our hectic schedules, throwing parties and designing collections, Ivette still manages to have dinner on the table every night, and Crystal manages to avoid doing the dishes. There are some things about marriage that are universal.”
The artist’s photographs definitively remove the cultural barriers that restrict the subjects of her work, but she also dissolves the feeling of separation between the audience and the art — in Salinas’ vision, there is no “other.”
Las Otras: (Re)Imaging Queer Latin@s will remain on view through Jan. 17 at the Gulf + Western Gallery in the lobby at 721 Broadway.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Dec. 3 print edition. Helen Holmes is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.