January • 13 • 2021

Zoe Rosenblum of Queer Collections
An Unusual Border Collection: An Interview with Performance Artists Balitrónica Gómez and Guillermo Gómez-Peña About the Objects in Their Home

Zoe Rosenblum interviews Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Balitrónica Gómez at their studio in San Francisco about how their collection of performabilia and Mexicanabilia informs their performance art and interior design. With photographs by Tristan Crane.

*Disclaimer: This article includes some art and artifacts of troubling, controversial nature. While the context of these items are addressed in the interview, some photos or descriptions may be NSFW or uncomfortable for some readers.

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Guillermo Gómez-Peña and Balitrónica Gómez-Peña standing in front of their alter to sex workers. (Photo by Tristan Crane. In Queer Collection, 2017).

Zoe Rosenblum: Can you describe your collections? How long have you been collecting? What triggered the collecting? And when did you realize you were actively collecting?

Guillermo Gómez-Peña: I began collecting as a kid. My parents were collectors of mid-twentieth-century paraphernalia. Our home in Mexico City was like a roadside museum of the 1940s, 50's & 60's unique objects, furniture, one of a kind artifacts, and paintings from their travels all over the world. The whole house was carefully curated. As of today, the house remains intact.

When I was very young, my parents instilled in me the desire to collect all kinds of things including old coins, cards of soccer players, toy robots, animal bones, and albums. In the late 1970s, when I crossed the border and became an immigrant in California, I realized that collecting artifacts and what I term “performabilia” would help me to re-territorialize myself in a new country that didn’t exactly “like” me as a Mexican immigrant. It worked. Since then, I have never stopped collecting. It’s an obsession.

This loft in the Mission District of San Francisco, which I have inhabited since 1995, was termed, “The Smithsonian of The Barrio” in a PBS documentary. Every object, figurine, graphic, costume, or prop is somehow connected to my artwork and identity. It all works as a total art piece.

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Shelves of Performabilia, Mexanabilia, racist depictions and Satanic figures, alongside a commissioned velvet painting.(Photo by Tristan Crane. In Queer Collection, 2017).

When Balitrónica moved in in 2013, the house was completely re-feng shui’ed to accommodate her complex aesthetics and the two of us soon realized that we wanted to live inside a permanent ever-changing art installation that expressed our aspirations, aesthetics, and fetishes.

ZR: Do you recall which were the first objects in the process of re-territorializing? What sort of characteristics do they have?

GP: As a new immigrant in California, I became obsessed with over the top hyper Mexican artifacts that depicted Mexican working-class identity gone wrong. My early Mexicanabilia included queer mariachis and wrestlers, an electric guitar bearing the Virgin of Guadalupe, pre-Columbian dildos, and other “fake” pre-Hispanic artifacts for tourist consumption. I loved to collect figures that screamed, “Fuck You” to the tourists in Mexico. I also began to commission velvet paintings in Tijuana bearing my own politicized and oversexualized performance imagery, stuff like...like horny and drunk gringas in Tijuana or transvestite pachucos. I also began to use racy Catholic imagery in my own performance work. Nude pietas, female Christs, pagan saints, etc. This perplexed and fascinated the US art world and got me in trouble in Mexico.

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Dildo with ‘Orientalized’ figures. (Photo by Tristan Crane. In Queer Collection, 2017)

ZR: What kind of Trouble?

GP: Censorship. Mixing Catholic imagery with national emblems and overt sexuality was an anathema. I was often excluded from art shows and festivals.

ZR: And you Bali, when did you start collecting? 

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Plastic penis with Performabilia. (Photo by Tristan Crane. In Queer Collection, 2017.)

Balitrónica Gómez: I was raised on the San Diego/Tijuana border region of California by a family of self-described Satanists and heavy metal rocker intellectuals and artists. Since I was a young girl, I was fascinated with extreme Catholic iconography gone wrong. 

Bleeding Christs, burning Joan of Arcs, Lesbian nun imagery, and of course, all imagery depicting Baphomet and the Devil, himself. I used to cross the border every week into Tijuana with my friends and was amazed by the stuff being sold in curiosity shops that included nude women with mariachi hats, witchcraft paraphernalia, and Satanic masks. I also have a pretty serious unicorn and Pegasus obsession (although this has been going on since I was 4 or 5). When I met GP, I found a kindred spirit and we decided to share our collections. Since then, not a week passes without us making substantial changes and shifting the items of our museum of border gore.

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Balitrónica’s collection of Pegasus and My Little Ponies with photos of young Gomez-Peña. (Photo by Tristan Crane. In Queer Collection, 2017).

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Demons with erect nipples and penis. (Photo by Tristan Crane. In Queer Collection, 2017.)

ZR: Is the collecting social? How do you go about acquiring your objects?

GP: Throughout my life as a performance artist, colleagues and followers on the road have given me objects, artifacts and gifts that resonate with my particular Chicano-queer aesthetic. There are also the objects that Balitrónica and I find on the road (or should we say, objects that find us) while touring throughout the Americas and Europe.

ZR: Could you describe a few of these objects that stand out for you? Do certain objects carry more power or have more of a voice than others? For what reasons?

BG: Recently, we were in Haiti and a voodoo priest/artist friend of ours gave me a bisexual double headed devil figurine that’s about 2 feet tall. He somehow “knew” it was part of our aesthetic and insisted that we have it. Last week in Venice, Italy, we found a pair of underwear with the Mexican flag print, the Eagle in the center had been replaced by the genitals of [Michelangelo's] “David.” Our performance archaeological journey never ends.

GP: In Mexico City we have a collection of erotic masks depicting grotesque devils with enormous genitalia engaged in sexual acts. These masks from the state of Guerrero are very rare. Every time I have to cross the border with one of them, the US Border Patrol flips out.

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Gómez-Peña and Balitrónica’s alter to sex workers. (Photo by Tristan Crane. In Queer Collection, 2017.)

ZR: Have you ever felt like an altar was complete?

BG: Never. I’m always adding and subtracting from my altars. I don’t think they’re ever “complete” and I don’t aim for them to be.

GP: In a sense, our home as an ever-changing installation/altar, reveals the geographical and spiritual complexity of our lives and, therefore, it must always be in flux; an open-ended system.

ZR: What traits are appealing to you in each object? What makes an appealing piece of racist art?

GP: We are interested in racialized and gender complex artifacts that defy the pop mainstream. Many of these objects were either created in the streets of Latin American cities as part of the so-called “informal economy”; others were created or intervened consciously by artists or by ourselves. In both cases, the objects become a politicized version of their original source. For example, our collection of transgender and queer Barbies and action figures.

ZR: Do the objects you collect make it into your work? Your performances?

GP: I’d say half of them have been utilized in either a performance, an installation or a film. As a performance artist, I’ve always utilized objects that become prosthetic extensions of our performative and cultural identities. Currently, we have dozens of these objects on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City as part of my

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Detail of transgender and queer Barbies and action figures. (Photo by Tristan Crane. In Queer Collection, 2017.)

retrospective. For example, I have a “sacred megaphone” which was intervened by a graffiti artist who wrote one of my poems onto the megaphone. Same with a coffin in which I staged my own death (I have performed this action multiple times; this is yet, another version). 

The same graffiti artist graffitied my coffin on display in the museum. What fascinates me is the question of authorship. If Balitrónica uses a gaudy Mariachi hat to complete her image of the Zentai suited Phantom Mariachi, who is the real author?  

ZR: In a situation like the Phantom Mariachi, would you say that there are various levels of authorship? How do you define authorship?

BG: Well, within La Pocha Nostra, as a troupe, we individually create images and performance personas, but we don’t “own” any of them, per se. For instance, if Saul (our co-director) wants to perform the Phantom Mariachi in a city when I’m not present that’s totally fine. There have also been many bodies that have performed the “mapa-corpo” performance with Pocha (a body intervened with 43 flag/needles), but I am the main performer performing it at the moment. I embody it, but I don’t own it by any means.

ZR: Do your objects have specific relationships to each other?

GP: We tend to exhibit them thematically in groupings and there is a clear syntax in the way they are arranged. They are like small chapters in a book: orientalism gone wrong, racist depictions of Native and African Americans, redneck pop art, pagan gods and goddesses, Mexican witchcraft, KKK paraphernalia, caricatures of authoritarian politicians, etc.

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Detail of racist depictions of Native and African Americans, redneck pop art, pagan gods and goddesses. (Photo by Tristan Crane. In Queer Collection, 2017.)

ZR: Do you believe these objects hold their own histories?

GP: Not only do they hold their own histories prior to our acquisition, but they also hold the history of how we obtained them, and how they relate to our own contemporary artwork. Many of these objects, the most powerful ones, have to be exorcised when we bring them home.  

ZR: Do you feel that the way you interact with the objects and the way the objects in your home interact with one another turn them into a sort-of language or form of communication?

GP: Yes, it’s like an encyclopedia of the bizarre, of the outer limits of Western civilization. Each chapter has its own vocabulary and syntax. The total exhibit may hold clues about post-colonial relations between cultures and communities.

ZR: Do you think of this encyclopedia of the bizarre as a useful pedagogical tool?

GP: Certainly. When I explain our objects to the friends and colleagues who visit our home, I inevitably have to address matters of racism, sexism, and homophobia in various cultures and subcultures; power relations between North and South; cultural projections of sorts. The discussions that emerge from these informal guided tours are fascinating.  

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Zoe Rosenblum is a writer and letterpress printer living in Oakland, Ca. She works as the studio manager at The Key Printing & Binding and holds an MFA in English from Mills College in Oakland. Her work has appeared in Engaging Archives and Nowhere magazines and focuses on identity, food politics and mental health. She is the creative director and interviewer for Queer Collections (@queercollections).

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Tristan Crane is a queer photographer who lives in Oakland with their partner, a codependent cat, and too many plants. Tristan holds a degree in fine art photography from San Francisco State, and currently works as a freelance documentary and wedding photographer specializing in queer and alternative ceremonies. Their other documentary projects include 'Here', an ongoing portrait and interview series featuring transgender and gender non-conforming folk from all walks of life. Visit Tristancrane.com. (@tristancrane)