SAINT PAUL, Minn. — “What happens when five feminist artists lock themselves up in a gallery for 48 hours?” asked the mujeres behind the Twin Cities arts collective Electric Machete Studios, located in the first Latino neighborhood of Minnesota, West St. Paul.
Working in an area now grappling with gentrification and cultural appropriation, Electric Machete’s members — a “collective of artists, musicians, dancers, stylists, producers, film makers, fashion designers, curators, teachers, and community organizers” — are highlighting those who built this now covetable neighborhood by paying homage to West Side artists, incorporating indigenous Aztec and Spanish practices into the collective’s own work, and serving as a resource and network of support for the community.
Interventions: A Xicana & Boricua Guerrilla Perspective is the multimedia response the five women in the collective — Arianna Genis, Maria Isa Perez, Rebekah Crisanta, Tania Galaviz de Espinoza, and Jessica Lopez Lyman — generated. The project was conceived as part of the Guerrilla Girls Twin Cities Takeover, with Electric Machete as one of 30-plus partners collaborating with the feminist art-activism group in a sprawling tribute to their work. Exposing sexism in the art world for over three decades, the Guerrilla Girls’ three-month project culminated in March, and per the group’s site was their most extensive collaboration with a community to date.
Interventions is a critique of the feminist agenda told through the lens of indigenous women of color who find their roots in Latin America and are impacted not only by sexism and patriarchy but also issues of colonization and assimilation. The project arose out of a desire to move dialogue beyond creating spaces for cis, white, abled women, and instead spaces for all women.
The five mujeres locked themselves into their studio for a period of 48 hours during which they traded skills, explored their personal histories, motherhood, reproductive rights, and identities under the umbrella terms “Latino” and “Hispanic.” The resulting work reflects the complex identities of the women as feminists and artists. Each displayed her diverse skills, which range from visual arts to community organizing to music, performance art, and dance. Sitting in the sunny gallery of the Electric Machete studio, I caught up with Crisanta and Lopez Lyman to talk about the relationship between art, feminism, and indigenous identity.
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Kari Mugo: How did Electric Machete come to be?
Rebekah Crisanta: We were just a super creative family hanging out. We lived in a building that wasn’t too far from here and started dreaming about what it would be like if we took this seriously and created an arts hub/gallery. Originally the name came from an idea for a tattoo shop. Eventually, we had to scale the idea back down to something we could start out with and see how the community would respond.
KM: And what is the community saying?
RC: We knew there was going to be sort of a core support; there has been momentum and excitement that this place exists. That there is a space that can house Latino art that runs the gamut from folk to avant-garde and it’s all valid because we say it’s valid.
Jessica Lopez Lyman: Most of our events are intergenerational. It’s wonderful to see folks bring their kids, their cousins, teenagers. For many folks, this may be their very first experience in a gallery, so I consider us the gateway drug to bigger galleries in a sense.
KM: What inspired Interventions?
RC: In college I had a lock-in experience. It was such an important experience that I remembered it all of these years. When we were thinking, “How do we make time to do this show that we want to do? Well, let’s just do a lock-in and whatever happens is what happens.” That was the approach.
JLL: We decided to use it [the Guerrilla Girls Takeover] as an opportunity for us to come together as the mujeres in the collective. We cleared out the entire gallery and came here for 48 hours. This entire show cost us nothing. It was about things we found in the studio. The only thing we brought in was stuff for the altar, but that was from our homes.
KM: What was the experience of creating the show?
RC: We opened it with indigenous ceremony and had some pretty heavy conversations about not just sexuality and feminism and being women. But a lot of discussion about struggles with assimilation and identity, and how that related to a healthy identity as a woman. I’m not sure that we really conveyed it in as deep a way as we wanted to, but we were really speaking about all of the things that are really important to us as indigenous women and as indigenous feminists.
JLL: The show was about process; it represented a moment. It’s very ephemeral and it was trying to capture this ephemerality of us playing around, which ultimately is what we transitioned to. We had this kind of heavy discussion about trauma and resiliency and then, at the end, during the last 24 hours, it really became playful. All of our aesthetic turned into jokes because you get stir crazy at the same time. [For “Fighting Shadows”] we were wearing masks, it was 3am and we started recording ourselves dancing to random Pandora music.
KM: Let’s talk about partnering with Guerrilla Girls for Intervention.
RC: I have a lot of respect for them. But I think their message missed the mark a lot in terms of whom they’re representing. So that was part of our idea too — we’re going to insert ourselves into the narrative of women artists who are excluded from the “art scene,” but also show how Latina artists are missing or being misappropriated even in the Guerrilla Girls’ message.
JLL: I think what’s hard is we have these contradictions when we have multiple identities. One half is like, “Okay they’re women and we have to support this,” but at the same time you’ve got some white woman calling herself Frida Kahlo. One of my home girls got an opportunity to interview the Guerrilla Girls and she asked them about the name of Frida Kahlo and the woman responded, “Well, I don’t know, maybe my grandmother’s Latina or something, I need to look into that.”
Mainstream white America is more racially conscious now that at least folks know that it’s not okay to appropriate in that way, so they have to justify by saying they have a lineage of some sort. Which to me is also very disheartening and problematic because for many Latinos in particular, the forced assimilation that folks have had to go through, the stripping away of indigenous language first by the Spanish and then the stripping away of Spanish by the British — these are generations of traumatic assimilation stories and so to just “try on” an ethnicity is a mockery of our very livelihood.
I don’t want to outright dismiss their work, but I think it’s very problematic when their voice is the only alternative voice or challenge to mainstream arts institutions.
RC: I’m really uncomfortable that one of them calls herself Frida Kahlo. What the Guerrilla Girls do brilliantly is to open up the conversation. Where I think they can go a little bit further is in actually giving a platform to communities to speak from their own voices.
KM: What’s the future of Electric Machete?
RC: Multiple events; we want to have this be an active space that is supportive of artists, featuring art on the walls, but also a space where people can come in and interact with artists, maybe take a workshop class. We’re taking bits and pieces of everything that we like in the Twin Cities, with different models and making something that works for us.
JLL: One of my favorite things is the flexibility of the space, how it invites people to experience art in an entirely different way from what they might assume it be. How many galleries have you been to, where people feel like, “I don’t know how to be in my body in that space. I have to disassociate myself from my body, I feel like I can’t move, like I’m gonna break something?” That’s not the space that we want to have in here at all. Come kick it on the couch!
Interventions: A Xicana & Boricua Guerrilla Perspective continues at the Electric Machete Studios (777 Smith Ave S, Saint Paul, Minn.) through April 30.
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