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While Pride Month is a time to celebrate the strides for equal rights made in the LGBTQIA –lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning, intersex, and asexual – community, it is also a time to spark proactive discussion about the existing challenges still facing it today.
Through their art, brothers Mark Anthony and Michael Martinez are facilitating that discussion. Their joint-exhibition, Profiling Made Visible at Bihl Haus Arts, explores the prevalent yet rarely discussed topics of homophobia and racism in modern U.S. society using photography, video, installation, and performance pieces.
The complexities of gender, sexuality, and racial identification are not lost on the brothers who have come to their own personal understanding of their identities as they relate to each of those markers. Michael, who identifies as a queer Latinx, focuses more on representing queerness in his work, while Mark Anthony, a self-proclaimed “off-white, cisgender, hetero-performing male,” emphasizes race.
The San Antonio Southside natives portray each of their personal identities in their work in an effort to spark dialogue about the prejudices facing their respective communities, a dialogue in which Mark Anthony has noticed not many people want to engage.
“These conversations about identity, about difference, specifically in the case of my brother (being queer) and me being brown, (the conversations) are still very much on the margins and are still very much something that we need to address more often,” he said.
Both Michael and Mark Anthony, who is the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center‘s visual arts director, received their Bachelors of Fine Arts at Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland. That experience, they said, shed light on the marginalized spaces they each occupy in society.
“A lot of our work started from, for the first time, feeling very isolated in Portland as minorities since Portland is a majority white city,” Mark Anthony said. “San Antonio is a majority minority city, so everyone looks more or less like us, they have our surname. There’s a specific culture and history here that doesn’t really exist anywhere else and I think we’re kind of spoiled in a way and take it for granted.”
Both brothers have faced discriminatory acts: Michael was once called “Latino trash” by a driver passing him on his way home from school. While alarming and hurtful, the act of aggression motivated him to react positively instead of returning the hostility.
“For me, the immediate thing was to find a way to put that into art and to kind of talk about that experience and to deconstruct that experience and ask why that is a thing,” Michael said.
Racial discrimination across the country inspired Mark Anthony to focus his work on “whiteness,” and, in turn, highlight the difficulties brown-skinned people face in a world that largely paints whiteness as normative, beautiful, or aspirational.
“I’m basically highlighting (whiteness) as a source of hierarchy, as well as it being a standard that is present (in society),” he said. One of his performance pieces in the exhibition, Brown Sugar, involves Mark Anthony or a surrogate operating a cotton candy machine that makes brown cotton candy instead of the traditional pastel-colored treat.
“People are kind of repulsed by it because it’s not a shade of cotton candy they’re used to,” Mark Anthony said. “I like that because it really sheds light on how we internalize and view color and how when those colors are associated with body types it can be damaging to a community.”
Similarly, Michael uses mixed media and technology in the exhibit to facilitate dialogue about the diversity of the LGBTQIA community.
“My work specifically sheds light on challenging notions of gender roles that have become internalized within the LGBT community and also within the straight, Latin community,” he said. Even in his hometown of San Antonio, Michael doesn’t feel completely comfortable expressing himself as the “good old flamboyant Michael” that he was was in Portland, which he attributes to the “unfortunate history (of discrimination) that this city is working through.”
Traditional cultural values in the community, too, make it difficult for Michael to fully and openly embrace his queerness in San Antonio. In the exhibition, his video piece Only to Dream challenges time-honored cultural notions of sexuality.
It incorporates English translations of Mesoamerican poetry with homosexual implications on two computer monitors. Michael’s own lips placed over the Aztec and Mayan masks on the screens inserts his queer identity into the piece, perhaps to further emphasize the existence of homosexuality in ancient time periods.
Another piece features a vanity mirror with lyrics from Vicente Fernandez’s classic song Paloma Negra written on it with lipstick.
“(The lyrics say) ‘quiero ser libre, vivir mi vida con quien yo quiera’ – I want to be free to live my life with who I want,” Michael said. “I want that imagery to be reflected directly onto my audience, that anyone can be gay or straight and that it doesn’t matter.”
Both Mark Anthony and Michael believe that not enough conversations about racial discrimination and homophobia occur in San Antonio. The brothers point to media portrayals of non-white people and queer people as perpetrating the limited stereotype of each group.
“People (are) seriously harmed by certain ways of thinking,” Mark Anthony said. Even in contemporary society, it’s difficult or uncomfortable for many people to challenge those widely accepted views and portrayals of marginalized groups.
Society isn’t comfortable with these conversations yet, he said.
That’s why the two brothers are sharing their art with the community, Michael said. Especially during Pride Month, they hope that their work will serve as a catalyst for forward movement.
“I want this (exhibition) to be a platform for building friendships, for building solidarity, and for building understanding,” Michael said.
Profiling Made Visible: The Art of Mark Anthony Martinez & Michael Martinez is showing at Bihl Haus Arts, 2802 Fredericksburg Ave., through July 9.
Top image: “Paper Cut” by Mark Anthony Martinez is meant to call attention to the history of racism in advertising. Photo by Camille Garcia.