The mujeres of the Electric Machete art collective (photo by Electric Machete)
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I first came across Rebekah Crisanta, Tania Galaviz de Espinoza, Arianna Genis, Jessica Lopez Lyman, and Maria Isa Perez at an erotica open mic hosted at Cafe SouthSide in Minneapolis. The women, members of the art collective Electric Machete Studios, were a commanding presence onstage, their faces hidden behind luchador masks in a style reminiscent of famously anonymous art activists the Guerrilla Girls. The Electric Machete members ended their performance by encouraging the audience to come and find out “what happens when five feminist artists lock themselves up in a gallery for 48 hours.”
The resemblance to the Guerrilla Girls was no mere coincidence or homage. As it turned out, the women of Electric Machete were partnering with the Guerrilla Girls for their Twin Cities Takeover, staging a two-day creative lock-in that would result in the performance and gallery exhibit Interventions: A Xicana & Boricua Guerrilla Perspective.
Interventions was an opportunity for Electric Machete to stage an artistic intervention, fighting back against the erasure of women of color, queer women, and disabled women from the mainstream art scene. It provided a Latina and indigenous response to the work of the Guerrilla Girls, who have historically been white women.
Electric Machete, which has over 60 members, describes itself as a “Twin Cities collective of artists, musicians, dancers, stylists, producers, film makers, fashion designers, curators, teachers, and community organizers working along side and with one another in the contemporary creative narrative of the Mexican/Chican@/Latin@/Indigenous identity and artistic style.”
Located in West St. Paul, Electric Machete is invested in maintaining the cultural heritage of Minnesota’s first Latino neighborhood. West St. Paul was initially a strawberry picking community, and it was a significant site for the Chicano Movement of the ‘70s. West St. Paul was home to an active Latino artist community and had its own chapter of the Brown Berets. Civil rights activists such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta helped train and organize locally on workers’ rights. Gentrification is now threatening the erasure of much of this rich history.
Visiting their gallery show, I sat down with two of the five women in the collective, Rebekah Crisanta and Jessica Lopez Lyman, to discuss the state of the arts for Latino artists and other artist of color.
KARI MUGO: How did the Interventions show come together? Did the Guerrilla Girls approach you or did you approach them?
JESSICA LOPEZ LYMAN: During the Guerrilla Girls [Takeover], one of the main organizers reached out to us to put something together. We have a partnership with Latina Theory, a local podcast [focused on centering Latina voices] run by Maria Isa and Arianna Genis. They record out of our back office and are affiliated with us, so we invited them to be part of the show as well. We cleared out the entire gallery and came here for 48 hours.
Arianna does not consider herself an artist at all, so this was a big step. We definitely needed to have us sharing our knowledge. She does a lot of digital organizing for TakeAction Minnesota, so she led us in these really excellent exercises, like charting five different moments in your life about what it means to be Latina. I do poetry and performance art. Rebekah taught us how to do these large poster-works and milagros. Her medium is very much about remixing icons. Maria Isa is really known for her music, so she was the person that facilitated sound for us. Tania is head of a local danza Azteca group, so she opened up and closed the space in ceremony. So this is all work we made together.
“I See the Chingona in You” by Jessica Lopez Lyman
Did this process change how you approach art? Maybe not necessarily being so concrete about what you’re creating and making it more collaborative and participatory?
LOPEZ LYMAN: Absolutely. I’m working on my PhD right now, and it’s isolating a lot of the time. This project was really healing from the grad experience where the creative spirit isn’t always welcomed with open arms. Being able to work collectively had its challenges, of course, like anything, but ultimately it’s a much better show because you have five women all bringing their knowledge, talents, and helping us create more dynamic work that wouldn’t have happened if it was just ourselves.
There is a lack of space for women and artists of color to tell their stories, so we end up creating these alternatives, much like you are. Can you talk to me about that?
REBEKAH CRISANTA: There have been other organizations [in the Twin Cities created by and for Latino artists]. The lead artists of those organizations are still our mentors in many ways, and we hope to learn from what didn’t work and not repeat those things. There’s a super long history of Latino artists doing things. But as communities of color, the system is not set up for us to succeed.
LOPEZ LYMAN: There [are] very few spaces, but that doesn’t mean there are very few artists. There are so many artists.
CRISANTA: [The problem is] there’s no resources to pull it all together.
Do you work with anyone else or know of other groups doing the same work?
CRISANTA: I like what Juxtaposition Arts and City Wide Artists are doing. We look to each other as role models and peers. We support each other as a network of alternative arts spaces that can come from the heart of our own people.
LOPEZ LYMAN: Even though this is a really small space, we still do really dynamic things. But we come from an aesthetic and a legacy of making do with what’s at hand. In Chicano studies we call it rasquachismo. For example, you have a coffee tin: You’re not going to throw it away, it’s going to become a flower pot. A lot of communities of color and working-class communities have this ethos, and it very much informs our aesthetic.
I struggle with finding a balance between maintaining the integrity of these neighborhoods we find our work in without being reliant on mainstream funding. What are your thoughts on how we maintain ourselves as artists of color and create things that are lasting if we don’t have the means to capital or ownership?
CRISANTA: Part of it is trying a collective model. The process is a lot slower, there’s a lot more interpersonal working and making sure the ego goes to the side. That we’re all in this together, working for the next generation. Among many communities right now, but definitely within the Chicano and Latino communities, there’s a return to our indigenous identities that have been erased. For some people, there’s [been] a very long time of disconnection, so it might be more difficult, but this is an indigenous model, so we have to think about what’s going to happen for the next generation.
LOPEZ LYMAN: Theoretically we can oppose the nonprofit industrial complex, but at the end of the day, we have to pay rent. People have bills and things to pay. Those are the material realities that we can’t just dream away or think theoretically that we’re beyond that. I think artist dues is one way, but who knows long term how sustainable that is. I would love to figure out a way to make some type of cooperative model where it’s membership and the community owns it. But again, this all takes time, research, labor, and trying it out, and we still have to put shows on, we still have to do marketing and all these other things. There are limits, or like Rebekah is saying, having to progress slowly.
What was previously in this gallery space? Do you know?
CRISANTA: A stripper shoe store that was only open like one hour a week.
LOPEZ LYMAN: Yeah, and the basement is super scary and sketch.
CRISANTA: It has way too many locks on the door. Everybody knows it was a front for something. So it’s also about reclaiming spaces in our neighborhood and transforming that negative energy into something positive. People see that we are doing that, and they’re just excited that we’re here. No matter what, they wanna be supportive. We’ve had shoulder-to-shoulder events in here, which is really exciting.
LOPEZ LYMAN: Often places like Mia [Minneapolis Institute of Art] or the Walker [Art Center] may curate exhibitions where they’re specifically targeting communities of color, but there’s a disconnect. They don’t have a relationship; it’s such a large institution. We have, at times, a very violent history as folks of color and indigenous folks with museums in general. I see this space as a really important intervention disrupting all of that. Letting people know this is as much their space as it is ours.
Electric Machete’s current gallery exhibit, The West Side Show, which features artists who self-identify as St Paul West Siders, is up through July 4. If you’re in town, don’t miss it.
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