Nao Bustamante & Marcus Kuiland-Nazario at Transformer

Nao Bustamante and Marcus Kuiland-Nazario’s exhibition Prim@s evokes multiple generations of personal and political histories through mixed media works at Transformer in Washington, DC.

Bustamante and Kuiland-Nazario both present selections from ongoing projects. Bustamante’s Soldadera work engages with the women soldiers of the Mexican Revolution, and Kuiland-Nazario shows Album Interventions from his Maxi Kitsch series. Questions of time, memory, and history pervade the exhibition.

“Prim@s” means cousins. The use of the “at” sign is a textual gesture of refusing to signify gender, neither primas nor primos, but prim@s. The artists have been friends for over twenty-five years, and the mutual influence is apparent in the exhibition. Kuiland-Nazario told me, “Our work is very different from one another, but I feel like we are from the same tribe, pulling from the same cloud and weather systems of extreme emotion and risk. We met at the 18th Street Art Center in Santa Monica at Highways performance space during a queer exchange of artists from the bay area and Los Angeles. She’s a kindred spirit, my soul sister, my Prim@.”1

In the storefront window of Transformer’s project space, a record player pipes out the 1978 Mexican pop sounds of Mis Ojos Tristes by Juan Gabriel con mariachi. The album cover has been “refabulized” as part of Kuiland-Nazario’s Maxi Kitsch series. An intricate mask of beads adhered with beeswax covers the once sultry photograph of the musician. The interventions evoke the elaborate and nearly psychedelic Huichol beadwork, and the colorful luchador wrestling masks, connecting traditional and popular Mexican visual forms with over-the-top sentimental music that similarly bridges high pop and local tradition. The vintage of the record calls forth a time a few decades past, and the beading points to a much older past.

The albums in Maxi Kitsch were all once part of his father’s record collection. When Kuiland-Nazario inherited the collection some of the original albums were damaged or lost, so he has been “on a quest” to replace those records. Kuiland-Nazario’s primary practice has been performance, both as an artist and an organizer, so it is tempting to think of the perfomative aspect of this task of reconstructing his father’s incomplete archive, and complicating bits of it through the beadwork. Indeed, it resonates with a performance Sacred Chore that Kuiland-Nazario did at Transformer in 2005 as part of the Touch & Go performance art series. In an installation of “an abstracted performative Boveda (Espiritismo altar)” he talked about his difficult relationship with his grandmother as a child and the renewed appreciation and loving relationship with her as an adult, while he performed the chore of ironing that he had learned from her. He also invited audience to share stories about their own ancestors with whom they had problematic experiences. He said ironing is his “hot electric gestural prayer, just for her, every day.”

Like Sacred Chore, there is an underlying meditation in Maxi Kitsch, evidenced by the slow beading process. Maxi Kitsch turns the album into an art object, a devotional object, and then back into a record again as it is taken off the wall and put on the record player. Time is made elastic, the record can be stopped or repeated, and pasts can be revisited.

But there is another sound in the exhibition somewhere below the mariachi beat on the record player, a quick irregular rhythm like popcorn popping. It is emanating from an embroidered stool that is part of Bustamente’s piece Chac-Mool, an anachronistic-looking contraption that shows a stereoscopic video. The subject of the video is soldadera Leandra Becerra Lumbreras, the last surviving soldier of the Mexican Revolution. Dressed in bright red and reclining on a white bed in front of a deep yellow wall, Lumbreras fills the frame of the video. She taps on a tin, on her thighs, and on her shoulders. Bustamante asks, “How can we reach across time to know the soldadera’s experience of the past? How do we bring her into the here and now, to experience her future?” Chac-Mool gives the viewer a very private experience, an affective and multi-sensory encounter.

“Chac-mool” is a type of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican figural sculpture that may have represented slain warriors; they hold a bowl or plate for sacrificial offerings. Lumbrera’s pose in the video mirrors these sculptures, and echoes the devotional symbolism. While it is widely agreed upon that the chac-mool depict warriors much of their meaning is lost in time. The Mexican Revolution was not so long ago, but Bustamante points to the swift loss of knowledge as first-hand experience escapes the world. In the video, Lumbreras’s rhythmic tapping feels like an attempt at communication, a coded language that must be translated to be understood.

Bustamante met Lumbreras in January 2015 in Zapopan, Mexico. At the time of their meeting Lumbreras was also the oldest person in the world; she passed away shortly after on March 19, 2015 at the age of 127. Lumbreras was a leader of the soldaderas, the women soldiers of the revolution. She also worked as a seamstress, and the peacock embroidery on Choc-Mool’s stool is inspired by a piece of Lumbrera’s own needlework, made circa 1970, also on view in the exhibition.

Hanging above head-height on the wall next to Chac-Mool is folded and draped shawl in an unusual shade of light yellow. Bustamante’s Rebozo is made of Kevlar, the synthetic material known for its use in bullet-proof vests. The rebozo is an iconic garment, usually brightly colored and intricately patterned, and used for warmth, shade, to carry babies and other bundles. The fringe ends of Rebozo are intricately and traditionally hand-knotted, a laborious process that deftly asks questions about different types of women’s work.

To see a rebozo recast in the Kevlar is at once unnerving and empowering. It is a gesture of support for soldiers in the past, a contribution to the revolution by imaginatively protecting the women soldiers, and a very real task of preserving and sharing the stories of the soldaderas. It is also a challenge, who will be the soldaderas of the future?

The pieces on view in Prim@s are subtle at first, and expand to great complexity with consideration. It is appropriate that these works take time, as time figures so significantly in the exhibition. For both Bustamante and Kuiland-Nazario, lived and experienced connections come to represent a bigger project of understanding the past while moving forward to the future.




Nao Bustamante & Marcus Kuiland-Nazario: Prim@s was on view at Transformer in Washington, DC February 4 – March 5, 2016.
Photos: Georgie Payne

  1. Quotes in this essay are taken from an online interview with Kuiland-Nazario on February 20, 2015.

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