After losing his sight from an HIV-related infection, Manuel Solano’s new paintings grew even more powerful: Interview and Studio Visit by Michael Anthony Farley

Getting to the home and studio of Manuel Solano isn’t exactly easy.

Solano lives in Ciudad Satélite, one of those spiraling mid-century “new towns” designed around a mall and the idea that cars driving as fast as possible should take priority over pedestrian survival (think Columbia, Maryland on speed and you get the idea). There’s a conspicuous lack of crosswalks, stop lights, and sometimes even sidewalks in most of the planned suburb. True to its name, Satélite lies frustratingly just out of reach of the Mexican capital’s sprawling grid of metro lines. A studio visit involves transferring in a bus depot larger than some airports, locating an informal microbus heading that direction, a bouncy ride that drops you off on the side of a highway, and sprinting across several disorienting concentric rings of speeding traffic.

For me, it’s doable—and worth it for a chance to see the five new paintings Solano is about to ship to New York for the New Museum Triennial (titled Songs for Sabotage), opening February 13th. I cannot, however, imaging successfully navigating Ciudad Satélite as a blind person. I also cannot imagine making a successful painting as a blind person. And yet here we find blind painter Manuel Solano—in the depths of Mexican suburbia—successful against all odds.

Solano lost their sight in 2014 due to complications related to HIV/AIDS. Since then, they’ve continued working across a variety of media, steadily gaining recognition in the art world both at home and internationally. The paintings Solano is sending to the Triennial might be their most ambitious yet. Unrolled on the floor, each appears larger than the artist’s own body. They’re each shockingly distinct from one another, though each retains a common logic that appears cryptic at first and then reveals itself to be refreshingly transparent. Kneeling inches above the paintings is an experience. My perception of the surfaces switches between grin-inducing graphic recognition of their imagery and a sense of almost-anxious wonder at their tense, painterly materiality.

Mostly, though, I’ve come for the conversation. Manuel’s verbal storytelling is a lot like their oeuvre of visual artworks—woven un-hierarchically with dark humor, color, bittersweet anecdotes, pop culture references, and a personal-is-political sensibility. Over the course of hours, our conversation seamlessly flows from 1960s art history to 1990s pop music, the nitty-gritty of a studio practice as a blind painter to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Mexico, and from cultural attitudes towards disability to Sinead O’Connor. [All edited for time and clarity with as light a touch as I can mange.]

The vast new paintings alternate between familiar and hard-to-place imagery. One crisp-and-bright portrait of a man leaning against a wall (which at first strikes me as a self-portrait)  turns out to be a still from a Michael Jackson video. I immediately recognize the second—a bird’s-eye-view of a crazed-looking woman strapped to a bed:

“I’m Flying” 2017

Michael Anthony Farley: Oh my god, is this Fairuza Balk from The Craft? I love that movie!

Manuel Solano: Yes! I’ve painted her before, actually, because I love that movie too! I call this one “I’m Flying”—because that’s her last dialogue in the film, when she’s strapped to the bed, just repeating “I’m flying!” I thought of that scene when I heard the PJ Harvey song “Ecstasy”, because it’s also one of the lyrics… But people always think this one is a self portrait too… Actually, what’s the next painting in the roll?

Hm… it’s a red-headed woman standing outside a cabin in the woods at sunset. This looks so familiar too, but I can’t place why…

Oh! That one actually is a self-portrait. It’s called “I Don’t Know Love.” It’s based on a photo of me dressed as Leeloo from The Fifth Element from a Halloween party in Taos, New Mexico years ago.

“I Don’t Know Love,” 2017

Yes! Also, hands down, one of the best movies of all time! This is a really good Halloween costume… I just realized the orange straps/harness thing she wears. I love that identifying with strong-but-vulnerable female characters from the 90s is such a recurring theme in your work.  And it’s also just a good and strange painting… the Jack-o-Lantern on the porch of the house is so smart, it contextualizes this as Halloween, even though it’s this bucolic landscape…

No one has ever noticed that before! I put that there because it was important for me that people knew it was Halloween. How does the sky look?

It’s actually really impressive! The sunset and the trees remind me of those sublimist paintings from the 1800s… when painters would go visit the “new” territories of the United States out West and paint these huge canvases to document the landscapes and then people would pay to go see them back East.

I really wanted to get the colors of the clouds right. They were described to me by my friend and frequent collaborator Damien Moreau.

It turned out really well. This painting has such an odd quality of being familiar and kind of surreal at the same time. It’s so specific and also kind of universal? But this other one, the giant portrait of the woman wearing pearls, feels different… like a caricature but also kind of timeless?

This is a portrait of my great aunt, based on this photo I remember from growing up. We all saw her as this kind of strange character—she had this thick Norteño accent and my father always said she looked like a drag queen. I always thought she was so glamorous… She wore these big thick sunglasses and bright lipstick with huge fingernails and gold hoop earrings and gold makeup… She had this affected femininity and coyness. Like, she would smile without showing her teeth! I was so taken with the image I could paint it even though I obviously haven’t seen it in years.

“La Tía Ana Retratada Con Sus Perlas (Aunt Ana Portrayed With Her Pearls)”, 2017

The pearls are a personal triumph for me, because when I was sighted I was really proud of my ability to paint the refraction of light, like on a Christmas decoration or a faucet or crystal glasses… I could do that really well. I remember the “trick” to that was a combination of different spots contrasting in a tiny space. I thought if I could organize my colors well enough, clearly laid out, I could do that without being able to see. So I had René mark a pin in what would be the center of every pearl and then mix four colors for me—an off-white grey as a base, a very light grey leaning towards blue, and others leaning towards yellow/flesh tone because those are the colors that are going to be reflected on the pearls, and a very dark grey. And then I tried to lay them out around the same spot in each pearl.

It’s funny, because I didn’t even think of this reference, but a lot of people have brought up Vermeer’s “Girl With a Pearl Earring” when they see this piece. I guess the pose and the fact that she’s wearing a pearl earring? But I didn’t even think of that until I had started! Have you seen the movie? I don’t know if this is a real thing from art history or just fiction, but there’s a scene where she’s posing and Vermeer tells her to wet her lips. So he’s not even really instructing her into a pose, but an attitude. I think this painting is all about attitude—an affectation of femininity and gender performativity—the things we do to be more comfortable in our bodies. In some ways that’s fun and comical but it’s also a struggle—something I relate to.

But my aunt… I think she was so glamorous! I have been thinking a lot about her lately in a new light. I think she was probably one of the most glamorous people I knew growing up—I’m talking about the lengths she would go to to bring out this panache and girliness. It’s all an attitude, right? It’s all a performance in the end.

“The Basement”

And this last painting, a kind of washy, dark scene with a black figure in the corner… it’s so different from most of your work. Is this based on a photo too? It also looks familiar but I can’t remember from where…

This is the first grayscale image I’ve made since I was blind. I didn’t notice that until I started! It added a whole new layer of problems. Because when you’re using color, you can make something “look like something” just with color, right? That takes importance away from how well it’s drawn—if you see a green blob with a brown vertical thing underneath, you understand it as a tree. But in greyscale, you can’t rely on that.

So I had to think about the combinations of black and white that would make a 50% grey. Based on that, I mixed three batches of different greys, basically the whole painting was made with just 3 variations of grey interacting in different combinations.

The absence of color really highlights your handling of paint, which is what I love about this piece. There’s something so striking about the figure especially—this gestural quality that’s very raw…

I was very angry and kind of sad while making this painting. I think during the first layers I was sobbing… basically beating the painting. It was so frustrating. When you’re working with a gradient, the whole surface needs to be wet all the time, so that all the colors diffuse into one another. Working on a surface this big, that was basically impossible! It was so much work…

I often think of John Berger’s book “Ways of Seeing” when I look at your work, because he asserts that so much of painting—and almost all subsequent Western modes of image production—is about evoking the sense of touch. So many old still lives were about conveying a sense of texture, to almost catalogue the luxuriousness of the objects they depicted. So as viewers, I think we’re drawn to paintings with a sense of touch or texture—and I imagine that’s how your paintings are made from the artist’s perspective? They’re so visceral…

That’s not really a conscious decision for me! (Chuckles) I do love how thick and leathery my canvasses end up being…

“Fairuza 2” ( from the series BLIND TRANSGENDER WITH AIDS ), 2014

Did you always work in acrylics?

No. Only when I became blind. I used to work in oil, which I like much better, but I don’t think I could use oils now on my own. I have to work with my hands, and oils are so toxic! Oil painting also involves so many ingredients… with oil I’d always be worrying about whether or not I was using linseed oil or turpentine or whatever… whereas with acrylics I can just grab the color and apply it to the canvas.

It has a directness, which is another thing I am always drawn to with your work. We were talking about how representational painting often relies on color to communicate an image… that’s something they teach us in art school, you know? “Tricks” to create an illusion of depth or form or whatever. Whereas your paintings have an “honest” quality to them, if that makes any sense? They’re legible as images, but direct and not reliant on “fooling” your audience. There’s something refreshing and enjoyable about that kind of viewing experience. You present us with an image, and sometimes we recognize it, sometimes not…

Do you get the reference here?

No! But it looks so familiar…

It’s the ending of The Blair Witch Project. Have you seen it?

Oh my god! So long ago! I barely remember it… I think I was in middle school when it came out but it was filmed in my state so it was kinda a big deal.

I think I only saw it twice, around that same time, but this one scene sticks with me. It’s the ending, when she finds the witch’s house. She’s somehow lured to this house while she’s searching for her friend, who’s been lost for a day. So the legend is that the witch kills her victims two-by-two… she has one wait, facing the corner, while she kills the first one. At the end, the girl finds her friend immobile in the basement of this house, facing the wall, and then she dies. The camera just drops.

What struck me about this is that the person in the corner is being seen, but unable to see. Like, the purpose of having a person face the wall isn’t just to have them wait—but to make them unable to see.


“It’s like this fantasy I always like to imagine: that we’re reached by alien ambassadors, and their mothership lands and the doors open and the first thing they do is perform a song by Katy Perry.”


 

The first time I ever saw your work, what impressed me most was your ability to use pop-culture references so eloquently. There’s a sense that mainstream cinema and music can be a universal language to pull references from to communicate a more complex or even personal idea, the way artists and writers used to use allusions to classical mythology as a kind of “shorthand” for a more esoteric narrative or something. The Blair Witch Project is not a reference I would ever expect to see heading to a museum show un-ironically. But there’s not a trace of irony to the use of pop culture in this painting—if anything there’s a pleasant surprise to the realization that it’s a reference. You gift a sense of gravity (if that’s the right word?) in a way that basically bypasses the old “high-low” art dichotomy that’s really not an interesting conversation anymore.

This might seem like a odd association, but this piece also makes me think of Philip Guston’s grey paintings from just before the time he was starting to transition from abstraction to weird representation. This defined, anxious black figure floating in an ambiguous grey space… two summers ago Hauser & Wirth in New York had a whole show of these nearly-identical, nearly-monochrome paintings with a similar sense of scale and handling of paint….

OH MY GOD! It is so weird that you would say that… That moment was actually very important for me. I mean, not that Philip Guston is a deliberate reference for me, but I think alot about these two images my art history professor showed me… I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that after years and years of abstract expressionism—which was supposed to be, from their perspective, some kind of Nirvana, like the ultimate goal of art at the time—his paintings start to take “shape”!

And suddenly there are contours and silhouettes around these shapes. And suddenly those shapes start become like caricatures of the KKK? It’s not even like he’s portraying the KKK? What is that? Like, why would you reach the supposed “summit” of high culture—abstraction—and then bring back the nastiest side of Western civilization? It’s like this fantasy I always like to imagine: that we’re reached by alien ambassadors, and their mothership lands and the doors open and the first thing they do is perform a song by Katy Perry. I don’t remember much from art history—it’s just not that important to me—but that’s the one thing that stuck with me! Philip Guston’s work changing! It’s so odd that you would bring that up, because I feel like these paintings are a big turning point in my work, too.

Should we go downstairs? I can show you what I’m painting now.

Solano’s studio

So these new paintings represent a time lapse?

Yep. I wanted to paint a dance, but I don’t really know how to paint “dance movements”? How do you convey that a person is dancing? So it’s going to be three of them, where I’ll be in different poses in each of them.

I’ve never been able to dance, or rather I’ve never been a good dancer. But when I was a little kid I liked to dance. My best friend and I would put on “dance shows” for our friends. I was obsessed with Michael Jackson. I dressed up like Michael Jackson and put on a show for my sixth birthday party. There’s a video of that, and I saw it right before I got sick and went blind. I remember thinking “this is going to go viral, like that little kid dancing to ‘Vogue’ by Madonna!” But it wasn’t really that epic… I guess my idea of “dancing” was really just “posing”? So I wasn’t very good at dancing, but I was great at posing!

You should take Vogue classes with me! It’s all about just posing… dance as a series of images!

I tried in Portland! But it’s hard to take a dance class when you’re blind. I obviously can’t copy what the instructor is doing. Thankfully some kind soul in the class offered to help me by physically adjusting me into the right positions. It was stupid as fuck! I don’t really know what I was expecting. I think I thought it was more about an introduction to theory or history of drag and vogue culture or something? At any rate, I wasn’t really able to “serve.” One day maybe…

But here, this painting, is going to be of when I was six years old, with my cousin. Because when I was six years old, I saved up my allowance and my dad took me to Plaza Meave on Eje Central, right by Zocalo. It’s this flea market that’s several stories of technology and cell phones and music and it’s where you would go to buy video games and CDs when they were like, a new thing. So the first CD I ever bought was an album by Whigfield—at the time their song “Saturday Night” was my favorite song. Do you know it? No? Oh, Michael… I would say it’s like, a basic part of pop culture, but it somehow was this phenomenon that happened everywhere in Latin America and Europe and Australia and not in the United States! Whigfield was huge! To this day that song is so iconic and it’s just one of those things Americans don’t know…

Work in progress in Solano’s studio

Ha! I always explain that being from the United States is the equivalent of growing up in a cult or the family from that fucked-up Greek movie Dogtooth… like we only get snippets of global pop culture or music or literature and they only teach us one language and that “miles” and “feet” are a thing! The world outside is scary! What the fuck is fahrenheit? Why would 32 degrees be freezing? That doesn’t even make sense! I think it’s all a conspiracy to keep us trapped there…

Something tells me you would be really into Whigfield… she was a model in Denmark and she had this song that came with a whole dance. My friend and I learned it and we would perform it for my cousin. I dressed up in this skin-tight aqua shirt and tights—ever since I was a little kid I had a thing for skin-tight clothing—anyway, I got in the outfit and performed this dance for my cousin. The idea was that every song would be a different dance, which obviously my cousin didn’t have time for! Most of the album was that kind of cheap early-90s Euro Pop but some of the songs were ballads, so those were “danced” laying down. I remember laying on the floor making all these faces, and my mom walking in like “what are you doing??” and I replied, “I’m dancing for my cousin!”

I love seeing these in progress, and knowing the backstory… your work has this logic that’s so rewarding once you “get it.” Could you describe your studio process?

Sure! Well I usually have my mother or brother help me shop for the canvass and cut it. Depending on the size, I’ll stretch it myself… which can take hours, starting from the center and stapling it directly to the wall, feeling the distance between staples and working my way out.. At this point I’m getting good at feeling the tension and any unevenness with just my fingers, but it can take hours! Then there’s the whole day of priming and drying and layers… I’m so lucky I can work with assistants now because just preparing the surface is so much for me…

And you do the drawings with pins and wires?

Well, I usually paint the backgrounds and then start the drawing. Obviously the backgrounds need a lot more movement a lot faster [before paint dries] so if I have pins in the way of my hands I could hurt myself. It’s easier to leave it clear.

Then I start with pins, and now that I have someone assisting me it’s easier. Fortunately, René is really smart! For example, when we were plotting out Michael Jackson’s fists, he knew to mark this and this [gesturing to the anatomy of the wrist] and helped me mark the lines between fingers rather than the fingers. So I could lay out flat flesh color and then start building up the shadows.

I usually work with three colors at a time.So if I need to paint a face, I use three flesh colors. I lay a middle tone, and then a darker one for doing eye sockets, the sides of a nose, cheekbones, whatever… and then add a highlight.

So you work with René to mix your colors?

Now I do! I wasn’t doing that before.

How? I can imagine that must be frustrating…

Very!

But also having to surrender a little bit of control…

Yeah, but it feels better than having to do it all myself! Especially those first steps… I mean, the backgrounds are relatively easy… sometimes I just don’t care that much if it’s exactly the right color. I mean, it’s going to be covered up anyway, right? Now I’m using transparent mediums—that’s one thing I’m doing now that I wasn’t before—I’m using a lot of acrylic gels so the layers actually interact with each other.

“I Looked Like A Model” ( from the series BLIND TRANSGENDER WITH AIDS ) 2015

This is unfortunately something I didn’t really have a chance to put into practice when I was sighted, because this knowledge came to me later in life. Someone once told me that when someone sees a painting, the eyes see something that we’re not aware of. The eye can detect the colors behind the surface. It’s like painting a “black” background—it doesn’t look the same if you lay down black paint than if you lay down a layer of blue and then red and then yellow and start creating a dark by adding different colors. It vibrates.

When I first heard this, I thought back to “The Girl With the Pearl Earring” again! Because that was one of the first exercises we had to do in painting class—reproduce that painting, first in tempera and then in oil—learning those old Dutch oil painting techniques. I remember they only allowed us to use primary colors in painting class. So we couldn’t buy flesh colored paint or black paint, we had to mix it.

I remember that background being so strikingly black… so now that’s what I’m trying to do again. Apparently it’s working? I mean, everyone loves the new paintings!

But yeah, colors have been very important to me, and it has been frustrating. Before I was working without an assistant I could spend hours mixing a color and hours applying it to the canvas. Let’s say I’m painting a sunset, and I mistook one color for another, and it comes out green! If I can have someone mixing my colors, all the better. And thankfully there’s René. He went to art school too, he knows how to mix colors, and most importantly he knows me! I mean, we were boyfriends, right? I can just describe a mood to him and gets that. He knows what we need to capture. I need to trust someone “blindly” and that’s so valuable. And he gets my sense of humor. I think I realized how important that is when I was working on my last show at Karen Huber.

 


“I don’t know how to not be an artist. Now that I’m blind and I’ve made a name for myself as an artist I see that my work is all I have been doing all my life.”


 

I loved the sense of humor in that show. You had a painting with this backstory—something like an aunt asked you for “something nice to hang behind the couch”? And your response to that was a reproduction of Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son”?

Yeah! That painting is called “Sangre y Homosexuales” or “Blood and Homosexuals”. This woman, over the years, kept insisting I give her a painting. In practical terms, she was basically my aunt. She was my mom’s best friend while I was growing up, and her daughter was basically like my sister. She always wanted a painting, for years!

I started painting when I was 14 years old, and that’s when it started—there’s always someone who wants a painting “because you’re going to be famous”, right? So years went by, and I never gave her a painting and I gradually saw her less and less. One of the last times I saw her I was 18 or 19—and she had heard that I was a “freak” and “a gay” or whatever—so she asks me “Why don’t you paint me a painting? But nothing with blood or homosexuals or any of those things you like!” I thought that was so funny… because I didn’t see my work as including blood or homosexuals …at least at that point!

“Sangre y Homosexuales” (Blood and Homosexuals), 2017

That always strikes me—even in art school—people would always say my work was so “gay” which is so funny to me. Back then there was no representation of anything like sexuality at all! So this show about my childhood was kind of a response to that. Actually, one of the tropes of this show is this woman’s presence in my life—and then her absence, her conservatism. I lost a lot through those people. I lost a lot when they went away.

Wait, what was your question again?

Oh it wasn’t really a question! Just that I love that “Saturn Devouring His Son” is your response to the prompt “make me something I can hang in my living room”!

Oh, it was more along the lines of “don’t make me something I can’t hang in my living room”! She used to get upset when the Christina Aguilera “Beautiful” video would come one MTV and shout “This is why the world is the way it is! The media is always telling you ‘DO DRUGS! DO DRUGS! BE GAY! BE GAY! BE LESBIANS! DO DRUGS!’”

Well, I think you have your next exhibition title! By the way, I am always impressed by your encyclopedic memory of pop culture references… for example, you’re doing a series of paintings based on Karen O’s hand movements you remember from music videos and seeing The Yeah Yeah Yeahs in concert years ago…

Oh yeah! I know them by heart!

It makes me feel like I don’t observe enough as a person with sight! But you have this appreciation and power of memory of observation…

To be honest, most else in the world is lost on me. Like art history, for example… I could not tell a Monet from a Manet. Art does not stick in my brain. I realize now I’m not an art person.

Really?!?

Oh yeah! I pretend to be, and I navigate it. I don’t actively consume art any more, but I have learned since becoming blind to actively appreciate artists. I don’t think I was ever forced to engage directly with artists when I was sighted—to have these dialogues. A lot of times I obviously can’t get an artist’s work, but I get them. And that’s meaningful.

Would you mind talking about the story of how you became blind?

Sure! It’s a long story though… I didn’t receive retroviral treatment when I needed it. I requested it, and it was denied.

By the government? Here?

Yeah, here. Then I had a very difficult and traumatic experience with a doctor in a private hospital. He humiliated me, he discriminated against me, told me that he had “zero tolerance for my kind”. I had only met this doctor once before this. I obviously would not have gone back to this doctor if I had known this about him. I mean, this is the essence of discrimination! He was saying that me—the essence of who I am—is intolerable to him.

I reported him to the Human Rights Commission and they told me I couldn’t prove discriminatory practice because he didn’t say what he was discriminating against me for… it’s bullshit… even though I have a recording on my computer of him saying “tengo cero tolerancia para gente como tú.” I really can’t see how we can’t have this person pay the consequences for what he did…

But after that I couldn’t go back to that doctor. And in the public hospitals it’s just so frustrating, it’s so much waiting and it’s just a nightmare. You have to get there early and stand in line for hours just to get your blood drawn, then come back and stand in line again two weeks later for the results. And they’re shoving condoms in your face! Like, “Are you going to turn away free condoms after WHAT YOU DID?” It’s so much judgement, shame, guilt…

And after all of this, I got my medicine denied! They told me I didn’t need it, every time. At this point I had lost almost 8 kilos… about ten percent of my body mass. I was clearly in need of help.

That’s outrageous! How can they just not provide HIV medication to someone who is HIV positive?

They’re supposed to! By law, they’re bound to give you HIV treatment. But I didn’t know that, and I let them lie to me and convince me I didn’t need it and that it would actually be harmful. They told me the side effects were like chemo. They try to shame you and scare you away from healthcare. The more the hospitals can convince you not to take HIV medication, the less money they have to spend on HIV medication. And if some of us die, even better! It’s what happened to Alan [Balthazar: artist, model, and Mexico City nightlife fixture who died from an HIV-related infection after not receiving proper treatment from a hospital last year], and in my case it cost me my eyesight.

After that doctor at that hospital, I sadly fell into the hands of someone who gave me very bad advice. And I followed some really terrible advice. For months, I didn’t go back to a doctor, and then I got sick and then I became blind.

And now here we are… in the very room where I became blind. And I have to paint, which I hate. And the irony is that other people can see and enjoy my paintings—which I can’t, and I just feel trapped here.

“Graffiti” ( from the series BLIND TRANSGENDER WITH AIDS ) 2014

I have to ask, why did you go back to painting after becoming blind?

The other option was to die basically—to kill my identity and become something I don’t know how to be. I don’t know how to not be an artist. Now that I’m blind and I’ve made a name for myself as an artist I see that my work is all I have been doing all my life. I’ve just been trying to get into a point where I can make my work. And now I see that the things I do through my paintings are what I have been doing through other things all my life, even my personality.

Growing up was so difficult because I was not being an artist—I was not making “work” that served a purpose of putting myself out there. Now that I am, I see that this has been the one single endeavor throughout my life. When I became blind the choice was to keep doing the same thing even though it would be extremely difficult or to stop being the same person and become “a blind Mexican”—basically a piece of furniture in my mom’s house, dependant on my family for the rest of my life.

If I wanted to live like most blind people in Mexico, I’d have to move closer to one of the schools for blind people in the city, because there’s no way I could travel from way out here. And even if I went through “rehabilitation” there’s no hope. Of course there are blind people in Mexico who have actual professions and places in society—I know blind psychologists and professors and someone who works at an NGO that does sex education for trans sex workers and immigrants and blind sex workers—but those are exceptions, and they were all born blind.

I saw. And as soon as I tried to dip my toe into the world of being blind in Mexico, I saw it was never going to work for me. The job training places I know train you to be a baker, masseuse, or a Bonafont bottled water vendor in the metro. I speak four languages! But there’s no precedent of a blind person being an interpreter or translator. Society does not have a place for us. It’s so bad… people address the person who’s guiding me instead of addressing me. It infuriates me!

You know, I was just in Portland doing a project, and in the United States the attitude towards disability is that it requires adaptation. The “fully-abled” world needs to adapt to accommodate disability—our buildings need to change, the way we deal with someone who is disabled needs to change. If someone has a disability, they can’t do anything about it, so you adapt to accommodate them..

It’s not so here. I had this discussion with my mom and she said “You think the world needs to change for you! And we have to treat you differently! And we’re in no way obligated to do that! If we do anything it’s because we’re helping you and we’re generous but you take it for granted! The world isn’t going to change for you! Your country isn’t go to change for you!” She thinks it’s me who needs to change and accept that I’ll never be equal to other people.

Fuck that shit! I’d die before I think like that, and I’m going to get out of here as soon as possible.

Everything with the art world is leading to me getting out of here. I’ll die here. Or worse, be left behind by the art world. The art world isn’t reliable and I can’t count on my moment lasting forever. I need to use this momentum to get myself securely in a place where I can actually be. I might never get another chance. I don’t want to go back to just being a thirty-year-old freak who lives in the suburbs with their mom and needs help going to the 7-Eleven a block away. I don’t think the situation for blind people in Mexico is ever going to get better in my lifetime. Getting out of here is literally a matter of life or death for me.

When people come by and I tell them I need to get out they’re like “Wait? What? Don’t do that! Don’t move from Mexico City! That would be the worst!” and they’ll give me a speech or sermon about how the last thing I should do is move away from Mexico City because “Mexico City is like, where to be an artist! It’s so cheap! This is where people are coming to see your work in its context and this is your context!” And I am like, yes… but I am disabled. And that completely changes things.

Yes, if I was sighted and standing where I am standing now in my career, then yes, Mexico City would be the best place for me. It is my city. And I know how to work it! I know it and I hate it and love it and maybe we’ve always hated each other but we know how to deal with each other. But then I became blind.

“High and Dry,” acrylic on paper

I love this city, but how can anyone in their right mind lecture you that living here as a blind person is a good idea? If I look down at a notification on my phone and don’t look where I’m going I almost break my leg in a sinkhole in the sidewalk every day. Have they ever tried crossing Eje Central when an electric trolleybus is speeding towards them silently or noticed when a street inexplicably ends in a pit of cobblestones?

…Or when there’s a building with a random thing like a balcony sticking out at head-level?

Mexico City just isn’t physically accessible if you’re disabled, and so people aren’t accustomed to disability being a part of the social scene. Even this “diverse” queer scene here feels like it doesn’t have a place for me because people aren’t used to the idea of a blind person going out.

I don’t find the queer scene accessible. It’s not really fun going out a lot of times, because at a typical party I can’t hear or see people. The times I do have fun are going out and just dancing with someone—because dancing is based on touch.

But it’s frustrating for me, because it’s just hard to go out with people. I’m far away, and I’m not someone people “call to go out”. Maybe I’m also inaccessible?

At any rate, I feel lonely here. Before I got sick,  I had just started discovering how I wanted to present my gender identity. When I moved back to Mexico from France, before getting sick, I was dressing differently, moving differently. I was making… adjustments to my face in order to appear more gender-neutral.  I remember getting excited when I would go into stores and the cashier would call me “señorita”. I was so proud to be “misgendered”!

I lost touch with that person when I became blind. I couldn’t see me and all I remembered were the last images of myself… a sick man. An ugly man. Then I tried to become reacquainted with Mexico City… I was so lonely, I started trying to present more masculine. But I think people can look through my eyes and see my gender neutrality…

So when I think back on the art I was making in France, I think of my Sinead O’Connor performance [“The Victory Of Good Over Evil,” 2012] as one of the most personally important pieces I have done. It changed me forever. I shaved my head, which was terrifying because I’ve always been somewhat obsessed with my hair. And I was expecting that when I shaved my head I would see “a man”, but it was something different. And I wasn’t trying to do “drag” per se where I looked like Sinead O’Connor, but communicated that I was embodying the idea of Sinead O’Connor. But it was this revelation—I was doing “drag” but it wasn’t about adding something, it was about stripping things away. But maybe “drag” isn’t the right word? I think of “drag” as being about making a caricature of femininity—with the over-the-top makeup and lipstick and hair—but I was interested in just impersonating this person who happened to be female. I don’t really understand drag. My friends keep trying to get me to “watch” RuPaul’s Drag Race and I just can’t follow it.

I think the concept of a “drag” that’s about stripping something away—down to something honest, rather than creating an illusion—is a nice way to sum up your work, actually. You kind of coyly inhabit/represent these female icons, but in a way that’s about presenting a personal truth rather than “putting on a show”.

I can’t even describe what I am or what I feel like in my own language. Contemplating a future with my kind of identity in this place is terrifying.

I owe it to myself to make it better.

“Aquaerobics,” acrylic on paper, 87 x 57 cm

 


 

Author’s note: The HIV/AIDS situation in Mexico City is heartbreaking and frustrating. All too many cases go undetected or untreated, and too many young queer people have died or barely survived horror stories that sound like something from the 1980s. This should not be happening to our generation. Mexico City is one of the largest, left-leaning, and gayest cities in the Americas. Same-sex unions have been legal here since 2006,  just days after more than half-a-dozen U.S. states (including “progressive” Colorado) voted to ban gay marriage. Mexico has a socialized (albeit underfunded) healthcare system. No one should be dying from lack of access to HIV/AIDS services.

Anecdotally, many Mexicans blame the stigmatization of HIV on abhorrent sex education during the years Mexico’s federal government was controlled by the right-wing PAN—the years most of my generation was in middle and high school and a sizable chunk of Mexico’s current medical workforce was being trained by the State. Many don’t know their rights or how to navigate the system.

If anyone is struggling to find LGBTQ-centric or HIV-related medical services or information, I encourage them to go to Clinica Especializada Condesa. The clinic offers free testing, access to PEP (post-exposure prophylactics), and consultation even to non-citizens. I’ve personally gone there to be tested, and my experience was great. A case worker even scheduled a follow-up to see if he could get me into a trial for access to free PrEP as a preventative measure (which is unfortunately not yet widely available via the public health system, but hopefully will be soon).

Go get tested. Bring your friends. Know your rights.