Hettie Judah: Did you grow up in a creative family? Was there art around you?
Alida Cervantes: I live in San Diego right now, a 15-minute drive to Tijuana where I grew up in a family of lawyers. When I was growing up, Tijuana was a small border town. There was not a lot of art to see, we just did what you do in small towns. Becoming an artist was a way of getting out of that.
Hettie Judah: Where did your visual stimulation come from?
Alida Cervantes: When I was about 10, 11 years old, I started to draw portraits. Actually, I would draw portraits of Duran Duran, and from there, of the students in my class. I didn’t start to paint until I was 19. In my teenage years, I wasn't interested in art per se: I was a teenager thinking of boys.
Hettie Judah: At what point did you decide to study art?
Alida Cervantes: When I was a teenager, I wasn't thinking about art, but I was thinking about all the power dynamics that influence the themes of my work. I grew up in a white, middle/upper-class family, we had servants in the house, as many Mexicans that are middle/ upper-class do, and they're a different race: they're indigenous Mexicans. I grew up in a very macho household where I was taught traditional ideas about what it is to be a woman. At the same time, I was crossing the border to go to school in San Diego every day. I was always thinking about how my position fluctuated depending on what side of the border I was on. Here in San Diego, we would be called 'beaners', for example, or derogatory terms. On the other side of the border, the fact that I'm white and had light hair automatically gives a privileged position: there are still the remnants of colonialism. I was thinking about all these things growing up, but I didn't start to actually paint until I was 19, when I went to Florence on an exchange programme. The first day that I started to paint was: 'Okay, this is it, this is what I'm going to do.'
Hettie Judah: What did you see in Florence that made you start to paint? Were you in the Uffizi, looking at the great painters?
Alida Cervantes: I would like to say ‘yes,’ but to be honest I wasn't interested in Michelangelo. I was in a school where we had a life model and I literally got taught how you mix the colours of a skin tone, drawing, chiaroscuro – all these traditional things. I was really into that. I was living with friends that had come with me from Tijuana, and all they wanted to do was drink spumante and eat gelato, and I was just in the studio. When I was at home, I was doing self-portraits. Of course I did study – we had art history classes in school, and studied the Renaissance, and contemporary art – but I wasn't one of those artists that would go to the Uffizi and take my sketchbook.
Hettie Judah: How long were you in Florence?
Alida Cervantes: It was about two years, but in segments.
Hettie Judah: There must have been something about Florence that was special for you. Was it just the teaching?
Alida Cervantes: In Tijuana, I grew up privileged, but the family and social structure felt like a bubble. In Florence, it wasn't just that I was learning: it was also a place where I could be me.
Hettie Judah: It's interesting hearing you talk about all of these restrictions because your work is very much the opposite.
Alida Cervantes: Yes, I think you're right. My work has been a process of breaking out from all those things: not only what you're supposed to do, but how my body was supposed to look, and my hair, how I'm supposed to move, how I'm supposed to walk. For me, painting has saved me and slowly liberated me from those physical, psychological, societal restrictions. I was not supposed to be a painter: I was supposed to find a man to support me, have babies, and take them to their dance class, go to baby showers and first communions.
Hettie Judah: What pushed you towards a freer way of painting? What was your journey from that classical, Florentine painting to where you are now?
Alida Cervantes: Well, I'm 48 years old. I started to paint when I was 19 - from a model, or myself in the mirror - only from life. In school, it was easy: you had a professional model. When I came back, I would want to paint a friend, but I discovered that people move, so I started to paint from photographs. My intention was to reproduce what I was seeing: I wasn't trying to be expressive or interpret it. I started grad school at UCSD when I was 35, and started to work with collages. I would work with images on the computer, play with them and fragment them in Photoshop. Then I would print them out, and treat them just as I was treating the model and the photographs: I would reproduce as faithfully as I could. One of my professors at UCSD asked me, 'Alida, are you trying to make images, or are you trying to make paintings?' I wasn't exploring or giving anything of myself: I actually started to feel like a servant to the image. After I finished my series of Casta paintings, I decided I couldn't paint like that any more, just from what I saw, so I started to experiment. Drawing was a big tool for that because I'm very free: I've always drawn from my imagination. I took that as a starting point, and I started to experiment. Slowly I've been developing painting where I feel I'm not just creating an image. Now I don't necessarily know what it's going to end up like: it's more liberating, more fun.
Hettie Judah: Can we talk a bit about your engagement with Mexican art history?
Alida Cervantes: Casta paintings were a huge point in my development for everything that I've done since I started my MA: in each painting, there are all my interests, there's gender, class, and race. I think my paintings are still Casta paintings: in the paintings that I'm making now, the figures are the hybrids of those couples, and their bodies are mixing.
Hettie Judah: We should explain what the original Casta paintings were…
Alida Cervantes: Casta paintings developed in Mexico in the 17th and the 18th century. The Spaniards had colonised the indigenous people, and a lot of those indigenous people died. The Spanish decided that African slaves could do more work. At a certain point, there were more African slaves being brought to Mexico than to the US. In Mexico, we didn't have the strict laws that the Americans have in terms of segregation: everybody started to mix. The Casta paintings were depicting this mixing of the Spaniards, the indigenous Mexicans, and the Africans. It's said that people in Europe were freaking out about what was going on in the Americas. Europeans would bring the Casta paintings back, and it was a way to show that we did have a social structure, we had families, people get married, they had kids, there was order. The Spanish rulers developed a caste system: depending on what percentage of Spanish, indigenous or African blood you had, you were either higher or lower in the hierarchy. They came up with terms to describe each mixture: for example, the mixture of Spanish and indigenous is called 'mestizo', the mixture of Spanish and black is called 'mulatto’. So, you have a couple and their offspring, and usually on a Casta painting, they write the combination, literally: ‘Spanish and black produces mulatto.’ They also have information on how people dressed, and would include animals, or fruits and vegetables that were not known to Europeans. Sometimes, when a Casta painting is depicting people lower in the hierarchy, there's violence involved. In some of the paintings, you see a very well dressed Black man, not from a lower caste, and with a white woman. It's interesting to see that in Mexico, the social barriers were a lot more flexible than in the US. I think one of our first presidents was a black Mexican. There’s a lot of richness to these paintings in terms of Mexican history.
Hettie Judah: How did that translate into your own work? What was it about Casta paintings that was inspiring and exciting you?
Alida Cervantes: At the time, I was involved in a relationship with an Afro-Cuban man, so I was a little bit in my own Casta relationship. I think what I was most interested in was that there were all these rules to try to keep people from mixing, but they didn't work because people are attracted sexually to each other. So, in my Casta paintings, I was focussing on sexual tension between an interracial couple, and how each person can seize it. The [original] Casta paintings depict a couple and a kid, and for me, the subtext was: 'These people had sex.' So in my paintings, that was what I focussed on.
Hettie Judah: It seems quite thrilling and energetic.
Alida Cervantes: My paintings are barbaric: it's like opera, it's tragic, sometimes it's funny.
Hettie Judah: There are also very dramatic settings that give you a lot of colour to play with.
Alida Cervantes: Sometimes I was thinking of these paintings like they were people on stage, and I was giving them props.
Hettie Judah: You also costume the characters in your paintings quite lavishly.
Alida Cervantes: Yes, it's like a baroque performance, it's very dramatic: there are props and dresses. When I was creating the collages, I had a huge collection of images of dolls, of Mexican folk art figures, Barbies, and I felt like I was playing with dolls, 'What's this one going to do to this one? Oh, well, this girl cut somebody's penis off,' or, 'This one, he's trying to hit on her, she doesn't seem to like it much.'
Hettie Judah: With these recent paintings, does it all happen on the canvas, or do you work with sketches beforehand and develop the idea?
Alida Cervantes: The work that I'm doing now is a lot different. When I'm sketching, sometimes, I'm doing it from my mind. Sometimes I'm looking at certain things: a Goya painting; a couch; some fruit. Certain drawings will literally excite me. This is how I think about my work. Sometimes, I picture myself as a man, and my drawings are women (it's interesting because my performance character is like this). If a drawing really excites me, I don't even want to make a sketch, I just want to paint it. Sometimes, it comes out nice, but sometimes I make a mess, so I have to control my impulse. When I make these paintings, they're huge, they're 5'x6.5' [150x 180cm]. So, if I mess it up, it's not great.Sometimes in the middle of making the painting, I will make a painting sketch, and it'll help me navigate where I want to go. I print the images that inspired my drawing – the Goya painting, or fruit, or dress – and have them hanging next to my painting so I refer back to them, to the drawing. If I made a painting sketch, I refer back to that. I alternate between looking at these things, and doing my own thing.
Hettie Judah: Is there quite a large proportion of the paintings that you end up scraping off or turning over?
Alida Cervantes: Oh, my God, if I told you how many paintings I've discarded, destroyed, rejected! I think the pandemic has really calmed me down in that respect, helped me focus and not be so impulsive.
Hettie Judah: It's really interesting: it shows you're excited by things that you can't control. You want to leave parts unplanned. So the final stage in your creative process is deciding which paintings end up doing more than you were expecting.
Alida Cervantes: Yes, and it's more risky. That didn't happen when I was painting from photographs because you have total control, but I like this not knowing. It's taken years to realise the recipe I need: how much planning and how much to leave to chance.
Hettie Judah: We’ve talked about your performance and masculine aspect. Tell me about this character El Puro – he was not at all what I'd anticipated – I'm fascinated to hear how he came into being.
Alida Cervantes: When YouTube began I started to make funny videos of me lip syncing to Cuban songs. I wanted to lip synch to Cuban music called Timba, but this genre is completely male-dominated, so I was having trouble finding female singers. One day, I found a song that had a male singer and what I thought was a female singer: I was going to do the female for my video, and my boyfriend at the time was going to do the male, but we had a fight. So, I dressed up as a guy, and did the part of the man. I loved it. After that, we were having a party, playing Cuban music, and he said to me, 'Why don't you dress up as your character? Just go in your room, dress up, and we'll play a special song for you.' He was fascinated by it. What was most satisfying is that I could get out of my female body, which I feel is a bit of a jail in terms of how I grew up. Dressing up as a man, I can have a break from my body. I can also become the oppressor, and look at women, and bother them for a while. It’s funny because since it's not real, women love it, it becomes a game: they want to be hit on by me, and they want to be my groupies. It is also homage, because in the end, I love these musicians. I was doing this specifically for Cuban machismo, Mexican machismo is very strong, but it's totally a different flavour, it has different ways of playing out.
Hettie Judah: Is the name El Puro like a cigar?
Alida Cervantes: It means a cigar, but it means also an old guy, an old fellow.
Hettie Judah: Do you think of El Puro in terms of drag?
Alida Cervantes: Yes, it was drag.
Hettie Judah: Do you relate that at all to your painting practice?
Alida Cervantes: I think of my work in terms of sex all the time. When I'm making a painting, I feel like I'm a man, and my painting is a woman, and I'm seducing it. Is this a painting that's going to be a one-night stand, or is this going to be a relationship? Sometimes, when I'm working on a bunch of paintings because I can't commit to one, I'm like, 'Wow, I'm such a stud, I have all these paintings going.' When I'm in the painting, I think in terms of having sex: how good is it going? Is she liking it? In my mind, it's very similar, there's something about the process of engaging or intensifying something, or maintaining it or stopping…
Hettie Judah: It's funny as well because your paintings are the same size as you, so, you're engaging very physically with these surfaces.
Alida Cervantes: Oh, yes. I also think about how free I'm being. I had a neighbour, a painter, and he would show me his paintings, I'm like, 'You know what, you're just holding her hand, that's so annoying. Are you going to fuck her or not?’
Hettie Judah: You actually said that to him?
Alida Cervantes: I did, I said that to him, he's my friend. I recently read that George Condo, one of my favourite artists, said that painting is like sex, so I'm not the only one.
Hettie Judah: It's a funny because I think if it was a male artist saying that, I'd think it was disgusting and sleazy, but because it's you, it's funny and charming, and I get it.
I’m also interested in your use of humble materials because class is such a part of your work.
Alida Cervantes: The studio that I have now is in the middle of downtown Tijuana. Being in an environment that was so scrappy and chaotic, I thought I couldn’t just paint on a traditional support, it didn't make sense, so I started to go to construction sites. I collected a lot of materials, mostly pallets, and pieces of wood that are warped or have holes. When I was growing up in Tijuana, I had an inferiority complex that there was no culture.My father's from Mexico City, where there's so much history and richness in that regard. Later, when I grew up, there were things about Tijuana that I started to embrace, and be proud of, one of which is the dirty, rowdy, scrappiness of the town, so I wanted to incorporate that into my work. Afterwards, I started to paint on aluminium, which I think is still connected to found materials in that it's not a traditional support like canvas. These paintings might end up being placed on the floor or mounted on concrete blocks, so the materials feel like where I am, where I grew up.
Hettie Judah: You also address religion in the Santas.
Alida Cervantes: The series, in my mind, is a marriage between the Casta paintings and the Spanish painter Zurbarán. He did paintings of saints, and they're hilarious: they have axes stuck in their head, or they're getting tortured. There's a famous one where one of the saints has her breasts on a tray. Mexico's Catholicism, in my mind, is a tool of the patriarchy to tell women that they have to be like the Virgin of Guadalupe: obedient, submissive. You cannot like sex. I wanted to create these saints that are not really as saints are supposed to be.