El Chow: Mango verde is the second iteration of local artist and curator Moe Penders’ exhibition series, El Chow. This exhibition, on display at Manteca HTX through Saturday, May 18, highlights queer Latinx artists from Houston and seeks to have complex conversations with a diverse range of identites within the queer Latinx community. I recently got the chance to sit down with curator Moe Penders and four artists from the exhibition, Violette Bule, Farrah Fang, S. Rodriguez and Junior Fernandez, for quick interviews.
Byline Houston: Tell us about El Chow. How did it come about?
Moe Penders: Last year is when I started the series. “Chow” is just a translation of “show,” but in Spanish we would pronounce it “chow” since we don’t pronounce the “sh” sound. I curated artwork from Latinx women and queer artists for the first El Chow. This time, I wanted to change it to only queer artists.
“Mango verde” is when mangos aren’t ripe yet, so if you eat them, they will still be crunchy and tart. When I thought of it, it was an ode to the artists in the show. We were once baby queers, but now we are all grown up! We have to keep giving space to the children and young people who are queer so they can grow up in a safer and more welcoming environment.
Byline Houston: Why did you decide to switch the focus of El Chow?
Moe Penders: Women and queer people always get lumped in the same categories and I didn’t want to continue that. It was important for me to give space to the people of the LGBTQIA community, within the Latinx community, in Houston. We don’t really have a gallery or a space that will feature us. I really wanted that to happen.
Byline Houston: Is it challenging or intimidating to create a space that highlights LGBTQIA artists in an environment that might give you push back?
Moe Penders: Yes! It was difficult to present this show when I was first talking about it. There were a few instances where people kept relating the idea of queer work to being erotic… I mean, you can make erotic work and that’s totally fine, but just because you’re queer doesn’t mean that that’s what your work has to be about.
Explaining is exhausting!
Byline Houston: What is the impact of showing work from Black and Brown LGBTQIA artists in white spaces?
Moe Penders: It’s important to take over spaces and change the norms!
Violette Bule is a working artist originally from Venezuela. She has lived in Mexico, Florida, New York, and has now found herself in Houston with a studio space in Box 13. Bule’s pieces in El Chow were extremely clever and hard-hitting, yet graceful. I contacted her for more details, so we met up in a cafe, sipped on our teas, and got to talking…
Violette: What you saw in the exhibition is a project that I started to do in 2015. It’s a large mixed media project. Most pieces involve the senses of the viewer, like the smell of soap. I want you to interact with the pieces to acknowledge the tension that exists with immigration.
Byline Houston: Has the weight of your work changed since moving to Houston, Texas?
Violette: It’s expanding! Houston understands the issues that I am dealing with, so my art is adapting and growing with this city.
Byline Houston: How do you keep making work that’s so political, especially during a time when the news is just one shit-storm after another, then you go home and make work about the news? How do you keep going?
Violette: Right now, in my country, people are killing each other on the street. Then, here in the states, I see all of the children that are being separated from their families by ICE. At the same time, I need to pay bills! I can’t sell a piece a day. It’s really hard. Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing and why I haven’t found something more stable, but this is what I have to do. It’s the way that I have to process the world. It’s therapy.
Byline Houston: When did you learn this?
Violette: One day, I remember waiting for the street lights to change and I saw a flyer for an opening reception for a photography school happening that night. I decided to go. Soon after, I asked my sister if she could lend me some money to buy an analog camera. That’s how I found my purpose in life. That moment was so important, and I hope that my work is a way to give someone else that same moment.
Farrah Fang is a Latinx trans artist based in Houston, Texas. If you’ve been to El Chow, her work would have caught your attention. Fang exhibited intricate gaudy collage works that could hook you in with the infinite possibilities of narrative. So, naturally, I had to speak with her as well.
Byline Houston: I really enjoy the density of your work. With everything happening at once, they really do remind me of Greek paintings! Is that something that you draw inspiration from?
Farrah: Those are definitely major inspirations! I also watch a lot of Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. It’s a show that covers a lot of conspiracy theories and ancient artifacts. I look at my inspirations and try to figure out how I could connect the past with the present.
Something about that connection makes me feel eternal, like a goddess, and that has a lot to do with the trans identity. Feeling like a goddess on the inside, but not necessarily on the outside, so you’re trying to find that balance.
Byline Houston: Do you feel like a goddess displaying your work? Do you feel free?
Farrah: When I was doing it strictly online, yes. But having my work printed in a show is different… I don’t necessarily feel connected to it.
Byline Houston: Is that because of the physicality of the work?
Farrah: Yeah. Like, I know I made that, right? But now it feels outside of my control, it’s now open for other people to enjoy and claim. It’s like I’m releasing my babies out into the world. I guess I feel more like a goddess when I have complete control.
Byline Houston: I understand that this show was your first gallery exhibition! How does it feel?
Farrah: I only recently felt like I could be a part of this art world, which was thanks to El Chow. It’s so hard for trans and queer voices, especially those of color, to have their voices heard.
I want people to realize that we are being murdered and it going unseen. I need that to be heard. I need that to be said. Too many a time have I been disrespected, not heard, and pushed aside because people see me as a trans person. That one thing about my identity can really make or break me sometimes. So, if there’s a way for me to express my identity through art to make people see me, I’m going to do it.
Walking into El Chow: Mango verde, to your left, was a beautiful installation in various shades of blue. From a simple glance, you would think that it was an elegantly hung color study, but as you step in, you see small, intricate grids and shapes that seem to have been hand drawn. I met with the artists, S. Rodriguez and Junior Fernandez to find out more…
Junior: I was born in Havana, Cuba. My parents and I moved to Houston when I was 13…
S: Show us your Grindr profile!
Junior: I can do that! So, they ask you for a display name…I didn’t put anything because I’m a minimalist. I’m 23 years old. I’m 6’3”. I’m 180 pounds. I don’t like answering body type or position… My tribes…
S: Oooh, did you answer that one?
Junior: No I did not, but I have in the past on another app. I’m not a bear, but I’m not a twink, I’m somewhere in between. Tribes are a spectrum, truly.
I didn’t answer my gender identity but my pronouns are he/him/his.
I’m a Houston sun, Brooklyn moon, Mexico City rising.
S: I’m from Houston… I can pull out my Grindr. Mine is more minimalist than Junior because I’m the real minimalist. I’m 5’8”. I’m Latino. I’m non-binary. My pronouns are they/them/theirs.
Byline Houston: Wonderful! Alright, so tell me about your work in El Chow: Mango verde.
S: It’s the idea of cruising as a movement based practice that extends beyond time and place. For a lot of people cruising is really outdated because there are apps now. But before, you had to go to certain spaces, do certain things, and move and act in certain ways to signify that you are here to fuck and others that are there will recognize it and…go fuck.
Junior: The language that cruising relied has disappeared.
S: The youth don’t cruise. Us, as the youth.
Byline Houston: Was cruising safe? Did you feel safe?
Junior: S and I use these apps differently. S, as a non-binary individual, has different anxieties about the app than I do.
I’ve driven to places and turned around. Like, I’m not going to go in there.
S: I always worry about getting murdered. What if they don’t look like their photo? What if they didn’t read my profile? That happens all the time. I almost never meet up with anybody.
Byline Houston: Can you talk about the lines?
S: We mapped our own physical trajectories to cruising spots that we’ve gone to before, so it’s a combination of both of our experiences.
Junior: Some of those were from memory because we couldn’t remember which route we took.
S: The project is the idealized version of cruising. There’s a start point and an end point, while abstracted, there are still two points in a line. The possibilities in that line are interesting because you don’t know what really happened. I could have driven all the way there and came right back without ever doing anything.
Junior: Originally, the cyanotype was used to make architectural blueprints, so that made me think about how our work with the grid and our abstract lines aligned with that. They represent a non-space and reveals an aspect of anonymity of cruising.
Byline Houston: What about the size of the pieces? They are pretty small!
Junior: We made them postcard size.
S: You could mail them to a friend!
Junior: Yeah. Then, the lines became palm sized, so I started thinking about the lines on my hands and palm reading. The way that we read into the meaning of specific line makings. The blueprint is all about possibilities, what it could be.
S: Or what it was, or something that might happen. I find it interesting that these are both temporal and atemporal in the sense that it is the past, present, or future of an event. You could revisit that or just let it be something that no longer exists, except in this one form, a postcard.
Byline Houston: I like the detail of these being postcard size. I relate that to having to tell a friend who you are meeting, where you will be, etc. whenever online interactions turn physical. You never know who you are meeting. These maps could be a way to send your location… by snail mail, of course. But I’d rather that then have no one know where I am!
Junior: Absolutely. And postcards are a form of memory. This grid, the travel, the language of cruising, the transaction of cruising, it all becomes a memory.
El Chow: Mango verde is on display at Manteca HTX through Saturday, May 18.