Y Tu Mami También

11/29/2016

Interview with Katherine Chavarria: Kaytlin Esparza and Hannah Jurgens

Katherine Chavarria is a contemporary artist from Texas. Her work, shown in the 2016 BFA thesis show at Texas State, is an active progression into the themes of cultural exploitation and xenophobia inherent in our society. Her paintings are reflections of the issues she has faced growing up in a bicultural home, as well as the objectification of her ethnicity and gender. She is interested in exploring the commodification of culture, the fetishization of “Other” products, and the sexualization of race through painting the packaging of Hispanic foods, feminizing them through her use of color, and elevating them in a higher medium.

Kaytlin Esparza:

So, tell me how you started painting, and why?

Katherine Chavarria:

I started painting when I was 15. It took me forever to start because I always really liked art, but it had always been drawing or just basic high school art until I turned 15. I felt like there was something that was always telling me “You don’t know how to paint, so don’t paint,” which is really stupid, the only way you’re going to learn is if you do it. So I think there was one summer where I was like, oh you know it’s summer, I’m only 15, I’m not working, so I’m going to teach myself how to paint. So for my birthday I asked to go to Michaels and buy oil paints, so I bought them and I started painting.

Hannah Jurgens:

You started with oil?

KC:

I started with oil. I’ve never done acrylic. Everyone is always like “Wow!” Because oil is like “the elite”, which is why I like it. I just really loved it, and so I never stopped. And here we are.

KE:

Has your work or method of work changed during undergrad?

KC:

Yes, definitely. Back when I didn’t know how to paint- I used to paint very… I had this phase- I’ve been thru every phase- I painted abstractly, I painted thickly, I painted thin and realistically, I painted all the weird things and all the cool things. I’ve been through it all. It’s horrible. It’s changed pretty drastically. Especially when I think about how in Painting 3 I was painting thickly and abstractly. There was no sort of imagery, and now I paint fairly realistic in thin layers, and there is an obvious subject.

HJ:

But the same colors?

KC:

Yea I’ve always been obsessed with pink. Bright colors. Color is very important to me.

HJ:

Speaking of colors, your clothing style, your painting style- do you have an aesthetic?

KC:

For sure I think everybody has an aesthetic, I like things that are weird looking, but I also like things that revolve around pop culture and that are social- and I think that’s another reason why I chose to paint those foods. The packaging is amazing. They’re shiny, they’re bright, and they’re eye catching.

KE:

Thinking about your paleta painting- your work has to do with commodification and cultural fetishization, are there any situations or experiences you’ve had that directly influenced these ideas?

KC:

Oh, for sure. I think my work is definitely a reflection on the things I have faced as a Latina and as a woman, for sure. And that’s why I want to talk about it. I care about this issue and I’m tired of being objectified just because of my race and my ethnicity and my culture. Which are things that were hard for me to understand and accept while I was growing up, so I hate that it’s something that in two seconds men accept and automatically are so excited by it. Oh my god it makes me so angry, it’s disgusting. But I mean I’m sure there are several situations, but I can’t think of a specific one.

KE:

It can be as deep as you want it to be.

KC:

That’s what I love most about art, the fact that it gives me an outlet to be personal. Obviously you know that I’m painting these things because they relate to me as a woman and as a Hispanic. But I don’t have to be directly personal with you. I think the way we grow up and where we grow up affects us a lot. I grew up in this area that was predominantly Black and Hispanic and pretty shabby looking, and then I traveled thirty minutes everyday to go to a private catholic school, with the help of scholarships and my parents just working their asses off because they wanted better for me than what they had and it’s weird. It’s weird growing up there and seeing those kids throw money around like nobody’s business. They don’t care and the things that they say and the things that they do are just… bad. So I think a lot of my work is about that too. Just trying to create an outlet for those experiences.

HJ:

Would you say you, yourself are unique or are you speaking for a piece of a larger community?

KC:

I mean I’m definitely not unique. The sexualization and race stuff, obviously I’m not alone in that, it’s something that happens to all women of color and even men of color, like the sexualization of Black male bodies. But I’m not trying to speak for anybody but myself and my own experiences. It’s not my place to speak for anybody else. I would never say that I’m trying to speak for all Hispanics, that’s not right.

HJ:

What kind of community inspires you or your work?

KC:

I guess I would have to say the Latino community, obviously all of my imagery is from there, while I’m not trying to speak to them or speak for us as a whole I obviously went through similar issues or burdens that Latinos have. I think I’m inspired a lot by my parents just in general. I think they’re a big reason as to why I make the work that I do. Watching them haul ass my entire childhood, that’s why I keep trying to push the race issue. Because it pisses me off, it just pisses me the fuck off. My sweet immigrant parents, and everybody wants to treat them like trash- I’ll fight you. Don’t start with me. Those are things that affect the work that I do. Being the daughter of an immigrant father, someone from El Salvador, my mom being from Ecuador. I see the way they’re treated and I see them try to take it easy and I’m like no no no, I don’t think so, I’m not taking that. I’m always the bitch that talks about race in class, like I didn’t want to be that person before I started painting these things, but that’s me now, that’s fine, I accept it.

KE:

Seeing your art as a Latina gets me fired up, it gets me motivated; do you feel like your work is activist? Has it always been that way?

KC:

It’s always been that way, ever since I started the Hispanic like- let me paint all of the foods- it was always about let’s have a discussion about race because nobody ever wants to talk about it. I try to use it as a ploy to lure everybody in, a Trojan horse, all of the colors, the mark making, it’s beautiful, it’s food- food is attractive, it’s sexy. I want to talk about those things. I want to talk about bigger issues than just a chip bag obviously. I want to talk about things that are important to me, that relate to me, and that just so happens to be one of the biggest issues- race.

HJ:

How do you respond to or identify with people who come up with wildly different meanings in your work? Does that ever happen?

KC:

It just depends on what you see, obviously I understand that I’m going to interpret my work differently than you or anyone else, and that’s fine, I’m not against it. There are some people who I just don’t understand, or people who don’t want to take the time to understand, so I have a lot of trouble with that. My teachers are always trying to guide me on a certain route. They say don’t be so explicit in what you’re trying to say, and that really pisses me off. Because I really just want to throw a fuck you in there. I’m not trying to be an angsty teenager with “fuck you” art, but I want to be more explicit about the race issues and objectification. My teachers tell me to tone it down because I’ll “make my viewers angry.” And I did do some works where I used terms like mojado and ilegal and things like that but you do have people that get angry. They’re like, “Why are you using that word?” Why is it any of their business? I’ll never understand. People will be like, “I don’t get this,” or “You’re not pushing it enough,” and when you do push it they’re like “Why do you think you can do that?” You can’t really please everybody. If you see it differently it’s fine. I don’t care. Sorry. I really don’t.

HJ:

What’s the weirdest interpretation someone’s come up with?

KC:

I think somebody once, because I used the term mojado, and they were Hispanic, they were like, “You just stripped me of my pride.” I would never mean to do that, because that’s not what I want to do at all, that’s what I want to talk about, the Latino community- because Latinos are the best. That’s just the truth. No offense, Hannah. Obviously that wasn’t my intent- the Hispanic girl painting Hispanic sweet treats would never try to strip Hispanics of their pride, but I guess that’s the weirdest one. I have a teacher that’s always like- that’s about consumerism. And it’s like it’s fine, I understand that there are obvious signs of consumerism in my work- especially now with the packaging and I don’t deny it, but he says that’s it. That’s all it’s about and I’m like listen, consumerism is a very like, old white man’s concept, it’s not mine. And he is an older white man, so whenever I talk about race, or the sexualization of objectification of race, he’s like “What are you talking about?” And I’m like “Ok, you need to get out of my face right now.” He always makes me angry; he always says, “I don’t get your work”.

KE:

Exactly, because he’s an older white male. If your work were about consumerism it would be a bag of Lay’s chips, not the yuca chips that you paint.

KC:

Yea, like they’re Hispanic objects for a reason! Like Jesus, Tommy, god… Ok, ok, I’m sorry.

KE:

You’re also working with text now, is that something we can look forward to in the future?

KC:

Yes definitely. I really enjoy text and I guess right now text has become this outlet for me to be more straightforward and more explicit since my teachers keep telling me to tone it down. I know that I’ve been thinking about the word chunti a lot, which is something that means, like ghetto, but it has very classist undertones. It’s very like us versus them and it’s often used to describe somebody as low class or tasteless or straight up from the ghetto. I really want to talk about that word. So that’s coming up, don’t worry.

KE:

What do you want people to feel when they see your work? Does this message change when a Latinx person sees it versus when a white person sees it?

KC:

Yea it does, actually. For Hispanics I just want it to be relatable in some way, whether it’s through the concept or just because you’re like, “I used to eat this as a kid.” This girl came up to me about the paleta and said, “I used to eat these all the time as a kid, like one time I ate too many of them and my tongue bled,” and I was like what the fuck, I didn’t know that was possible, but I guess that makes sense if your tongue gets so raw. I was like “That’s horrible.” But I want it to be that way for Hispanics; I want you to feel proud of what our culture has and what it does. Because it’s amazing and I think I grew up really ashamed or kind of like pushing it away during my childhood. And so finally I was like what the fuck am I doing, this is amazing. The music’s amazing, the food’s amazing, everything about it is amazing. The language is beautiful. And I think for other races, especially white people, because they seem to be the most ignorant for some reason, they’re so entitled… I just want them to see and to understand that something is wrong with our country. We can’t push away or say that the race problem is gone or doesn’t exist. I guess I just want them to be aware and I want to start a discussion with them about it. Even if it’s going to be a stupid one because they’re going to deny everything I say, but whatever.

HJ:

Tell me the last thing that intrigued you.

KC:

I guess I see certain things. Today I saw this picture of a stupid ass number two cake, it’s a cake that’s shaped like the number two, and I was like, ok this is dumb why would I ever want to make a cake that’s in the shape of a number two, but all of the candy that was piled onto it, it was such a nice texture with so many nice colors and I was like, that needs to be a background and I need to be the foreground. Objectify myself immediately. Recently I also saw a picture of those metallic letter balloons and I was like, that needs to be a painting immediately. It needs to say like mami or something like that. That’s it. I see little things every once in a while. Like the neon lights, I’ve been trying to make one; it’s going to say mami, también. I always want to say that I’m not influenced by advertising just to show my teacher off about the consumerism thing, because he’s always like, “You should talk about advertising,” but ok it’s there, I’m very attracted to it. It’s supposed to be. That’s usually how new ideas start, I see something and I’m like, yes. It could be as simple as this table pattern, and it has to go into a painting soon. My dad’s parents were recently in town, and they’re from El Salvador and they brought these weird little candies, like marshmallows, and I was like, I’ve got to do a mini painting of this. It’s so fucking weird and hilarious at the same time, and they’re fucking pink- it was made for me. It’s a baby, like a little cherub. This is me in a nutshell.

HJ:

Do you want to bring religion into it?

KC:

No. Hell no. I don’t ever want to talk about religion. We can leave that to somebody else.

KE:

Is that from the catholic school experience?

KC:

I wouldn’t necessarily say so; I just don’t care about it. If he’s there, he’s there, if he’s not, he’s not. I just don’t give a shit, he can live his life and I’ll live mine. My parents aren’t so supportive of that idea, but it’s whatever. I just don’t get why we’re so obsessed with him.

KE:

If you could choose anywhere to show your work where would it be, and why?

KC:

I would be pretty happy as long as I got to show it in galleries in Chelsea, New York. That’s my plan, to go to New York, as long as I’m showing stuff I’d be pretty happy. Everybody always wants me to go to San Antonio because I’m Hispanic and I make Hispanic work and there’s a lot of Hispanics over there and I’m like, I don’t think so, don’t box me in, bitch. I’m so tired of people telling me what to do, I get that I could use the criticism and all that but after a while it’s like, I think I know what I’m doing now. Back up. Just let me fuck it up and then learn from it.

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