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MEET JUAN ARANGO PALACIOS
Photo credit (above): Mindy Lee
None of us "naturally" belongs to a place - we carve out a place in this world by creating our own origin stories.
This is an epiphany that lands early on and forms the worldview of like artists like Juan Arango Palacios who migrated from Colombia to Louisiana and Texas, now in Chicago. To them, fantasy is precisely the fluidity of identifying either (or both) with a single, symbolic flower or sweet memories of the jungle from his personal life. The flipside of being often misunderstood is the pleasure of having your own sanctuary.
Q. General life questions first - how have you been spending quarantine? Any new routines or adjustments in your work environment?
I’m doing well! I feel healthy and I feel good.
My work environment has definitely changed. I don’t have access to my studio with canvases and paint. So I’ve been working on smaller scale drawings. I just bought a big roll of paper so maybe I’ll do some large scale drawings, too.
I also just recently started a job, so I have to work around that and focus on the time to make work. It’s challenging especially with the pandemic going on - that I can’t go out and get a breath of air. But still feeling good about where my works are headed.
Q. What are you reading/watching/listening to?
I actually have books right here-
I’ve been re-reading Chromophobia. It’s a book by David Batchelor about the fear of color in Western culture, speaking about color and art and issues related to racism and colorism.
I’ve also been reading Sabers and Utopias by Mario Vargas Llosa. It’s a series of his essays on a bunch of different sociopolitical issues in Latin America in the 20th century. It’s a really good book.
Also Hispanism and Homosexualities. It’s different than what I thought it’d be. It’s also a series of essays and stories from queer identities in the Hispanic world. A lot is focused on Spain so it’s not necessarily Latinx but has very interesting stories in it despite the colonial undertones.
Q. Have you done anything impulsive so far?
Yeah, I moved in with my partner (yay!)
It feels nice, it feels new. It was definitely impulsive but everything’s working out so far. Mine’s a quarantine love story.
Now about your works…
Q. I remember you talking about storytelling through music in Colombia. Can we pick one of the works you have on Curina and talk about the narratives layered on it?
I’m going to choose Flower.
It’s the most relevant to what I’m feeling right now because it’s recent. It’s one of my favorite works from the last couple of years. It’s a very beautiful and simple drawing but it has so much meaning to me that also come across to other people.
The basis of it is the culture I was raised in, especially in regards to gender. A lot of music I listened to growing up, for example Cumbia music, places a lot of emphasis on gender roles. The songs are about being a man - if it’s sung by a woman, about being domestic, delicate, or beautiful.
*Some examples of Cumbia music: https://www.npr.org/2013/11/10/244132028/cumbia-the-music-that-moves-l
I like to take on these expectations and gender norms and reinterpret them through my lens. There’s this idea of sexuality and virginity being depicted as a flower. As purity and delicateness. I was never allowed to be delicate, but expected to be “a man”, brave and strong. But I just want to be a delicate flower!
This flower also comes from several images I’ve seen from weeds and flowers growing in between concrete or in places where they’re not meant to be. My alleyway here in Chicago just has flowers in trash cans! I see them as symbols of endurance and perseverance. You can be a delicate being and still grow through hardships.
Also, a song that inspired this is Selena Quintanilla’s Como La Flor.
She’s a Mexican icon in the States, and someone I can relate to because she’s part of the Latin diaspora but also very relevant in American culture. She’s known in hip hop and rap cultures. I can feel that sense of intersectionality in her work. She’s also a very strong female icon that I gravitate towards a lot.
Q. I see a lot of Americana imagery (cowboys, football players) as well as religious ones. Does this have to do with your time in Louisiana and Texas? What does your painting do to transform these narratives?
I guess that imagery has two perspectives.
The first one is me seeing American culture as an outsider. With modernization and globalization, I was exposed to a lot of American movies and music when I lived in Colombia. They seemed very distant. I remember being 5 years old and watching a dubbed version of Home Alone and not understanding it - he’s in the city, then he’s in the forest now, which is actually Central Park?? So understanding Americana icons was hard at first, but some of them caught my eye. Cowboys, for example. Football players, which are actually soccer players, also allude to a global culture since soccer is so widespread.
In Colombia, cowboys were everywhere in cartoons, toys, and music videos. That sense of masculinity was appealing and repulsive to me at the same time. Then I moved to Southern Louisiana and lived in a rural town of 2,000 people. There would be classmates who came to school dressed just like cowboys. In Texas too, I lived in suburban Dallas and people dressed in cowboy hats and buckled boots. So it became more real and changed my perspective on that kind of imagery. It’s not an imagery that belongs to me or one that I relate too, but it’s something I’m taking ownership of. If I want to live my cowboy fantasy, I can. These images are everywhere and take up our pace so I feel entitled to make them my own, too.
Q. You talk about “ambulant queer identities”. While a lot of places in the world are in themselves not too kind to LGBTQ+ people, as someone who is constantly floating around different places I resonate with how much this movement in itself can shape your identity. Can you elaborate more on this?
I love the word “ambulant”. I often feel like a ghost identity or an identity that doesn’t have a root. When I go back to Colombia, I don’t feel fully Colombian. When I’m in America, I don’t feel American either.
When talking about queerness, we talk about survival and how when you’re living in oppressive society you come up with tactics to survive as a queer person. That’s also something I experienced as an immigrant - the things I would do to purposefully fit in, for example when my brother and I were the only non-American kids and were put into speech classes to lose our accent.
There’s a theory on migration that when a migrant leaves their homeland, the homeland is never the same. I think this can also allude to a queer person coming out, leaving a whole world behind. Thinking of experiences as migrations is what led me to take images that are geographically distant from one another and put them in the same place - putting cowboys traditionally in the desert into a jungle. A flower expected to be seen in a bouquet or vase on a brick wall. These mixed images make for a “confused” narrative, but it is a narrative that is accepting of itself.
The jungle was a big theme of my works in the past, I have a series on it.
It has to do with my first ever experience with another queer person as a child in Colombia. I used to go to this huge Catholic school. I had this friend - we both just realized we were both queer but didn’t know what that meant or what to do about it. The school was out in the countryside and was surrounded by tropical forests. So we would go out into that forest - we kissed once, we would talk about our experience and how we felt like we didn’t fit in. How we didn’t like P.E class or playing sports. So the first place I felt comfortable as a queer person was the jungle. I took this jungle as an archetype of safe haven.
Q. I think fantasy - the glitter, rainbows, raves, manic pixie styles - has become somewhat of a mainstay in queer, especially gay, culture. Your vision is fantastical, yet a bit different. How so?
I describe my Jungle series which includes the two Cowboy paintings on the Curina collection, as atmospheric and monochromatic. I do that to evoke a blurred memory - when you move away from a place and never see it again, and it’s not clear what it looked like. I also do that to evoke a dream, a fantasy that a queer person would have of a safe space, a place of no judgment.
Fantasy plays into my use of mythology created based on my own culture and Catholic images. Making things happen that shouldn’t or don’t happen in real life. When I bring that into queer culture it has a beautiful combination with American queer culture, specifically. Drag always had a relationship with the idea of fantasy - becoming somebody else and living it. Although, being a drag queen or king is a privilege because for some people it’s not a fantasy but reality.
I guess it also has to do with club culture. When I turned 21 and started going to gay clubs, I realized how much of a fantasy the club scene is and isn’t. It quickly becomes hostile towards certain people. Queer folks and people of color are usually not accepted by white gay men who were originators of this club scene. When clubs started popping up in the 70’s and 80’s they were more of safe spaces for white gay cis men and that is still prevalent today. One club I do like to go to is called Fantasy here in Chicago. They gear music towards and Black and Latinx audiences, they often play hip hop or reggaeton. I felt more welcomed in that environment than in a club that would play, say, Ariana Grande.
Q. I think a lot about ornamentation when I see your works - whether it be using beads, using jewel tones, or textiles.
My use of rhinestones has to do with fantasy too. Rhinestones are plastic. They are in themselves a fantasy. Many Spanish-speaking countries refer to rhinestones as “fantasy diamonds”. Everyone knows they’re fake but who cares, we’re still living our fantasy. I like to express that power and glamor.
Q. Pride Month this year is so many things at the same time. First of all, how do you think we can celebrate the community spirit, that has been so integral in empowering LGBTQ+ people, without physical events?
We’re living in really critical times right now. A time when action is needed from everyone.
It’s important for us to look at Pride from a more political standpoint. Black and POC people have never been prioritized with in the queer community, and neither have Trans people.
We’ve seen how protests against police brutality have already brought some policy change around the world. Some news came out yesterday about gay workers' rights, which is nice but it’s crazy that it even has to be there, that it has to be debated on.
We should share information about it on social media, but also, with precaution, march in protests. We have to keep protesting and donating, making works relevant to a political cause.
Q. Black Lives Matter and the repeated violence on Black trans people has me thinking a lot about intersectionality. Although neither one of us can speak for Black experiences specifically, what role do you think art plays in fostering healthy conversations around cultures we’re not directly part of? What’s its value as a medium of communication?
Artists are influencers in culture. We produce culture, that’s what we do. So we should unapologetically put our opinions out there.
It’s also important to bring this to the attention to art institutions: museums and big galleries. They have more allocated power and resources, so it’s our job to demand change. The Art Institute of Chicago hired white curators for the African Art, Ancient Art of Americas and Chinese Art sections. Institutions need to reassess who they’re hiring and whose story they’re really telling. The curator for Chinese Art for example, may have connections to Chinese collectors but he’s a white man from Britain so he can’t really tell the story of works made from a culture he has no connections with. Hire curators of color, who are passionate about their own cultures, indigenous people to curate indigenous works that were stolen and looted. Institutions have a lot of work ahead, and it’s up to them whether to make change or not.