Someone Who Looks Like Me: Elizabeth Vazquez on Block internship research

As part of her 2023 Block Curatorial Internship Elizabeth Vazquez (’24 Anthropology and History) conducted research around potential museum acquisitions. Her work came to focus on the photographer Laura Aguilar, and in Spring 2023 Vazquez successfully presented a justification to the Block Acquisition Committee to accession three works by the artist into the museum collection. Here Vazquez describes the personal impact of this research.

Three acquisitions of work by artist Laura Aguilar on view in The Block Study Center. Left to right: Grounded #105 (2006/7), Motion #68 (1999), and Motion #53 (1999).

During my time as a Curatorial Intern at The Block, I participated in the acquisition of three works by photographer Laura Aguilar (1959–2018). I was tasked with scouting artists for the Block Museum Student Associates’ annual student acquisition under the theme of “thinking about gender.” While researching recent exhibitions on our theme, I found Aguilar’s work; first, I stumbled on Latina Lesbians (1986–1990), a series of portraits focusing on Latina lesbians accompanied by handwritten notes where the subjects describe their identity in their own words. With her intersectional view of Latinidad and queerness, I selected Aguilar for further research.

Laura Aguilar, Julia, from the series Latina Lesbian, 1987, Gelatin silver print., Smithsonian American Art Museum.

While learning more about Aguilar, I found her self-portraits. In particular, I was struck by Nature Self Portrait #5 (1996), one of her first nudes in nature. She stands proudly on a dead tree, arms extended freely to the sky and her back to the camera. Nothing hides her unconventional body that looked so similar to mine. I was completely taken by it, this grounding of the big-bodied person in a space that often seemed only fit in art for conventionally beautiful woodland spirits or Classical goddesses. There was no fatphobic joke hiding in the work’s interpretation, only a woman trying to learn more about herself in the deserts of the American southwest.

Aguilar’s practice focused on portraiture. She gave visibility and space to Latine and queer subjects within the Anglo-American culture that often sidelined their stories. She tried landscape photography in her early career, but found that portraits allowed her to better interact with people and their bodies. In 1990, she started Clothed/Unclothed, a project in which she photographed her community members with and without clothing. Clothed/Unclothed #4 features Aguilar’s friend and fellow photographer Willie Middlebrook in a denim jumpsuit and nude. Without the jumpsuit, he crosses his arms across his chest upper chest. His expression remains the same, but now he tilts his head differently, almost coyly, nearly tucking his chin behind his palm. The physical openness from his clothed photo is gone as he obscures his chest with his arms.

Laura Aguilar, Clothed/Unclothed #4, 1990. Gelatin silver print on paper (diptych). Tate Modern. Lent by the Tate Americas Foundation, courtesy of the Latin American Acquisitions Committee 2021.

We ultimately acquired three of Aguilar’s photographs, Motion #53 (1999), Motion #68 (1999), and Grounded #105 (2006/7), all featuring nude self-portraits of the artist. When they arrived, I had the opportunity to sit with the works to practice close looking, finding details I had not noticed in the small reproduction images before. Now, I saw a shadow of a tripod or perhaps the legs of a fifth person at the bottom of Motion #53 or, the sharpness of the prairie grass contrasting with the shade of the tree that Aguilar and the two others stand under in Motion #68.

As a fat Latina at Northwestern University, researching Aguilar’s photographs has been truly an amazing experience. For the first time, there is art representing someone who looks like me made by someone who looks like me in The Block’s collection, and I am grateful to be a part of the process to bring Aguilar here. This has been by far my favorite project that I have worked on—one that I will carry with me after my time at Northwestern. In this acquisition, I found representation and a sense of understanding that I had never experienced with photography before.

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