interview by FABIOLA TALAVERA
portraits by OLIVIER ZAHM
women engaging in acts of love, lavish interiors of fast cars, tropical landscapes, modern machines, altar-like triptychs hiding secret images, and canvases in the shape of stars and lamborghini doors: mexican artist frieda toranzo jaeger combines a diverse array of motifs and mediums in her work, introducing queerness to design and decor
FABIOLA TALAVERA — You were based in Berlin for many years. Why did you move there, and how did it influence your practice?
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER — I lived a total of eight years between Berlin and Hamburg, studying in the latter city under the mentorship of Jutta Koether. To be honest, I went to Germany because I wasn’t accepted at La Esmeralda [the National School of Painting, Sculpture, and Printmaking in Mexico City] and had the great privilege of having a German passport from my mother’s side of the family. Studying in Germany wasn’t my favorite option as I was born and raised here, but I think the experience was very informative. Even though the European school system isn’t perfect, I think that over there, there’s an empowerment of women in art — which is also happening in Latin America, but not on the same level. It was very inspiring having the guidance of women painters who, already in the ’80s, completely understood that this was a medium dominated by men, and who created strategies like starting their own magazines and writing texts about each other — and by doing so, empowered themselves by creating a critical, academic, and practical network around painting. I think that’s what mainly influenced my practice: to say that I come from a women-made discourse and also that the painters I find the most inspiring are women.
FABIOLA TALAVERA — What has changed, now that you’re back in Mexico City?
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER — I’m happy to be back. I love Mexico, and I think it’s important for me to be here for my postcolonial investigations. I feel there’s a lot of potential and extraordinary things happening here that don’t happen elsewhere. The people who are constructing the most interesting discourses are not necessarily from first-world countries or the West. As my work has been exhibited mostly in Europe and the United States, I’m a bit of an outsider to the art scene in Mexico, but if all turns out well, and I have the opportunity to do so, I’d love to stay. We come from a very rich and complex imaginary world that simply hasn’t been academically exploited, so
I feel there’s a lot of space for opportunity, to explore new ideas around painting while converging with those of Western
FABIOLA TALAVERA — On the differences you mentioned between how painting is understood in Germany and in Mexico: up until several years ago, contemporary artists in Mexico distanced themselves from painting to take up other mediums. Why do you think that happened?
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER — I feel it was rejected here because there’s a thought that painting can’t be political or have a real focused political weight — it has a bourgeois commodity status attached to it from several old philosophical and critical positions. For me, it’s quite the contrary — any medium can be as political as the next.
FABIOLA TALAVERA — As for the mediums that you use, painting and embroidery, painting has been dominated by the male gaze, while embroidery has historically been considered a minor art made by women. Why did you choose to work with those two?
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER — It was important for me to try to break the preciousness and historiography of painting by creating these hybrid fusions of both mediums in my work. When I place a craft such as embroidery in my paintings, there’s a questioning of which history it belongs to. We’ve always seen history as being linear, but it isn’t; neither is it indestructible — we now know it’s a fabrication of those in power. My paintings either have embroidery or they are freestanding, off the walls. For me, that’s my way to find autonomy from painting. Embroidery tells the history of women, always having artisanal status but never more than that. It’s a craft that shows how many women have resisted oppression to be able to express themselves in some way. It’s as valid as painting to me. Embroidery is a family tradition; I only work on it with my family.
FABIOLA TALAVERA — Your work often deals with contrapositions, not only in its mediums, but also in what you choose to depict. At the same time, you reveal the blurred borders of how we categorize things. What can you tell us about that?
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER — I think categorizations and even identity politics can be quite puritanical. Latinos are a hybrid of races: to me, it’s very important to express those complexities and not be scared of them. I can use, for example, a self-driving German car prototype to talk about queer theory, even if it’s usually thought of as a completely heteronormative space. I can use those subjects because while investigating them, I do what I call semiological vandalism. Instead of using certain clichéd Mexican culture motifs, I have the agency to reuse and create my discourse with something that might not necessarily belong to me. I feel it’s very important to be exposed to these kinds of complexities and not fall into our own stereotypes.
FABIOLA TALAVERA — Mexican art has well-established, untouchable historical art figures that are always referenced and recycled. Do you feel your work is influenced by Mexican art history or culture?
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER — My influences come from everywhere and are completely eclectic — and even more so nowadays, with the Internet. I’m not afraid to reference Mexican art. I often cite David Alfaro Siqueiros: I think his work is great. And I don’t want to completely deny influence from works relating to Neomexicanismo [Neo-Mexicanism], such as with Julio Galán — he’s a great icon for me. But within my style, I’m more interested in how Siqueiros understood painting and movement, translating those teachings into my practice. As for Mexican culture, one can’t fight geography and the problems and fears that carved your thoughts and way of being. For a foreign woman, walking alone at night might not represent a threat, simply because she was not taught to fear that. I can’t deny that I’ve lived under certain sociopolitical conditions that made me the
person I am today.
FABIOLA TALAVERA — I certainly see the influence of Siqueiros’s thick, dynamic lines in your work, and the way he understood how painting could be experienced from a moving car, but he would never have imagined that a queer woman in the 21st century would appropriate his teachings. He was pretty upfront on his views of what he called “effeminate sentimentalist” artists. Did growing up in a city landscape influence the car motifs in your work?
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER — When I was growing up in Mexico City, cars were always a fundamental part of my life — having to commute to school every day, which took two hours. At the same time, it’s clear to me that having a car is a privilege in itself. I like to explore cars as ontological objects, which are indeed patriarchal and capitalist. It’s hard to think of a way that we can liberate ourselves from cars completely: they define architecture, landscape, and the way we move. They’re very interesting to me as a queer person for their relation to masculinity, questioning how those clichés were formed, studying masculinity outside gender: how does it work? Why is it like that? Why would someone need a machine that makes that much noise and takes up that much space to affirm his or her identity? The study and questioning of masculinity, enforced by men or women, are pretty straightforward in my work.
FABIOLA TALAVERA — Going back to what you were mentioning about how you aim for your painting to have autonomy from painting’s history, your works are often made in unconventional canvas shapes. What do you think stepping away from two-dimensionality has given you?
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER — I’m very interested in the performance of painting, so I think that by giving it these new shapes, painting becomes a performance. With this gesture, theatricality is highlighted. I like making paintings that can’t be put together in just one fixed image. I might need five or six photos to show you this painting. It allows a liveliness and, of course, a way of trying to find autonomy from painting’s cannons that, in one way or another, are still very prominent.
FABIOLA TALAVERA — You just inaugurated your first institutional solo show at the Baltimore Museum of Art. How was the process of working on it different, compared with previous shows?
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER — This show was made entirely during the pandemic in Mexico City; it’s very intimate. I feel artists were even more isolated than usual — from the collective and from working together. People rarely come to my studio, maybe just a couple of close friends. Being here in Mexico, I have a much bigger network of friends and family to call if I need help with something.
FABIOLA TALAVERA — What are your thoughts on being a queer woman artist in Mexico today?
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER — My work is about exploring the possibilities of painting within itself as an expression and, as a Mexican queer woman, showing other Mexican queer woman that they can do it, too. When I was growing up here, Mexican women having successful art careers was something unheard of, even less so for explicitly queer women. It was very empowering to have strong women around me during my artistic formation. Believing that it was possible was really important for me.
FABIOLA TALAVERA — Is Mexico City a place of opportunity for the queer artists of your generation?
FRIEDA TORANZO JAEGER — Even though my access to exhibitions and other events has been limited due to the pandemic, I find that what the queer community is doing here is most interesting. At the same time, they’re gaining more attention outside of the country. From DJ collectives to music and fashion, I see lots of talent and potential in the expressions being made. The problem here is there’s a lot of potential and little financing and visibility.
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