Mundo Meza, “Documentation of a window display at Maxfield Bleu, West Hollywood” (c. early 1980s) (photo by Mundo Meza, courtesy Pat Meza)

LOS ANGELES — Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano LA, a collaboration between the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA) and ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries, is a pun on axis mundi, the mythological axis connecting the earth to heaven and hell, and around which the universe revolves. By replacing “mundi” with “mundo,” the phrase shifts from Latin to Spanglish, even while retaining its original meaning. The title is apt, insofar as the exhibition explores how queer Chicano/a artists collectively created a world in Los Angeles from the late 1960s to the early ’90s that has been largely unknown.

In contrast to the axis mundi, Axis Mundo refuses to center any given figure, although the show is the result of research into the lesser-known artist Edmundo “Mundo” Meza, who was born in Tijuana in 1955, came of age in the Chicano/a art community of East Los Angeles, and ultimately died of complications due to AIDS in 1985. But even while Meza occupies a prominent place, the true focus of the exhibition is on the queer Chicano/a networks of Los Angeles.

Certain people reappear throughout the exhibition, at times in surprisingly different ways. For example, we learn on the first floor of MOCA’s Pacific Design Center of Meza’s relationship with Simon Doonan, now the Creative Ambassador-at-Large of Barneys, but then a window dresser at Maxfield Bleu in West Hollywood. The duo produced provocative displays, such as one satirizing the abduction of a three-year-old girl by a coyote. On the second floor, we see documentation from a performance at the Hong Kong Café in August 1979 by Johanna Went, who received leftover props from Doonan and Meza. Doonan makes a final appearance in the afterword of the exhibition catalogue, giving us the essay “Mundo Goes to Hollywood.”

DIVA TV, “Still featuring Ray Navarro from Like a Prayer” (1990), digitized VHS video, 28 min. (Ray Navarro Papers and Videos, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries)

Of course, networks are already embedded in communities with longer histories. For queer Chicanos/as, the inheritance of the Roman Catholic Church is particularly fraught. During the AIDS epidemic, direct action groups like ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and WHAM (Women’s Health Action Mobilization) held protests like the legendary “die ins” to protest the Church’s inaction and misinformation, particularly as they pertained to safer sex education. Ray Navarro’s “Like a Prayer” blends the eponymous Madonna track with footage of Navarro dressed as Jesus Christ and a “Stop the Church” action against the Cardinal of New York, who opposed contraception, a position many activists believed was contributing to the spread of the virus. Through performance and video, Navarro and others found a way to sidestep the mainstream media, which they accused of not adequately covering the epidemic.

Gerardo Velázquez, “The Neglected Martyr” (1990), acrylic on canvas, 80 x 66¼ in. (gift of the Nervous Gender Archive, ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries, photo by Fredrik Nilsen)

Nevertheless, the engagement with Catholicism in this show isn’t entirely oppositional — some artists also use Catholic imagery proactively in their work. For example, Gerardo Velázquez’s “The Neglected Martyr” finds a resonance between the story of St. Sebastian and the suffering wreaked by HIV. Velázquez depicts the saint without his usual loincloth, revealing a sexuality that was there all along. With his bare chest and arrow wounds, St. Sebastian evokes both punishment and desire, the twin aspects of gay male sexuality in the age of AIDS. The center blue panel adorned with the red and white stripes of the US flag openly indicts this country for its reluctance to address a public health disaster of cataclysmic proportions (the addition of the “Made in USA” panel underscores this failure). Pairs of skeletons copulate within the reconstructed flag, as if anticipating their deaths within a sea of blood, both a route of transmission and the prime arena of the virus. Echoing these forms is another skeleton rendered in the blue that traditionally represents justice in the flag, a cruel irony for those aware of the pointed lack of justice in the history of HIV/AIDS.

Laura Aguilar, “Judy” (1990), from the Latina Lesbians series, (1985–91), gelatin silver print, 14 x 11 in. (image courtesy Laura Aguilar)

Although Axis Mundo engages seriously with gay masculinity, it isn’t a show just about men. Laura Aguilar’s black-and-white photographs of Latina lesbians include texts written by the sitters, partially mitigating the gulf photography creates between the photographer and the photographed. By giving back voice to the depicted, Aguilar prevents her images from devolving into hardened stereotypes of lesbianism.

Harry Gamboa Jr., Roberto Gil de Montes (1978), Gil de Montes shown with his work “Tongue Tied” in the No Movie exhibition at LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions), May 2–31, 1978, chromogenic print, 14 x 11 in. (© 1978, Harry Gamboa Jr.)

As part of the broader Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, Axis Mundo is one of over 70 shows across Southern California innovatively exhibiting Latin American alongside Latino/a art in Los Angeles, allowing viewers to follow the circuits linking Latin America with one of the largest concentrations of its diaspora. Axis Mundo brings us a group of artists who followed events in the US just as closely as those in Latin America. “Tongue Tied,” for instance, depicts artist Roberto Gil de Montes’s partner, Eddie Dominguez, as a bound figure, bringing to mind los desaparecidos (“the disappeared”) throughout Latin America, with as many as 30,000 disappeared in Argentina alone during its “Dirty War” (1976–83). The wires creeping down from the photo connect to silicone goat tongues, reproducing the original installation of the work at LACE in 1978 and referencing the truth telling that gets citizens under authoritarian regimes in hot water. In the above documentation by Harry Gamboa, Jr., the artist has substituted himself for the tongues. The substitution draws our attention to what is left behind in the wake of social disaster. Will the words of our tongues outlive us? Will our friends?

As worlds begin to fall apart, at what point does one intervene? Do we wait until harm reaches our own circles, or until it infringes on our own freedoms? By gathering the answers to such questions given by a community not so long ago and not so far away, Axis Mundo implicitly asks how we will respond to these questions ourselves.

Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano LA continues at the MOCA Pacific Design Center (8687 Melrose Ave, West Hollywood, Los Angeles) through December 31. 

Brandon Sward is a writer who lives and works in Chicago and Los Angeles.