Decades before today’s body positivity movement took hold, artist Laura Aguilar documented the bodies of women, highlighting overweight people, lesbians, Latinas and the disabled. Though the artist’s work has been exhibited extensively, it was not until last year, thanks to her first retrospective, that her work came to be known by the public eye.
After a long battle with diabetes and renal failure, the artist died peacefully this past Wednesday at a nursing home in Long Beach, Calif. She was 58.
Growing up in San Gabriel, Calif., Aguilar was raised in a turbulent home. While her parents had a strained relationship, she suffered from depression and auditory dyslexia, making it difficult for her to communicate. According to the Los Angeles Times, people assumed she was disabled or could not speak English. It was not until she was 26 that she learned she was indeed dyslexic.
As a teenager, Aguilar served as her brother’s darkroom assistant, helping him process his photographs of beach scenes and girls playing volleyball. It was in high school that she signed up for a photography class and discovered the power of the camera as a vehicle for documenting the world around her and her own self-expression. During her undergraduate studies at East Los Angeles College, Aguilar worked on the school newspaper, taking photos of sports while also snapping for her own pleasure.
Feeling inspired by a college course in the mid-1980s, Aguilar turned her lens toward the Chicano, queer community of Los Angeles. In a time when marginalized people had no voice, the artist began creating spaces for them to share their stories through portraiture.
Aguilar used her camera to shine a light on eminent Latina lesbians at a time when the gay rights movement was largely focused on white men. In these images, women are seen looking directly into the camera while the photographs were mounted on paper with captions that showcase quotes about these women’s lived realities. Inscriptions are common throughout the body of Aguilar’s work as she made a point to give her subjects a platform for speaking about their own identities.
Later, in the 1990s, she began documenting the experiences of working-class lesbians. While her “Latina Lesbians” series had documented the lives of middle to upper class activists, lawyers and artists who were largely well-educated, her “Plush Pony” series served to counterbalance that narrative by recording the visual codes of anonymous women from the lower echelon.
From there, she started creating more conceptual art, often posing herself as the subject. In her triptych, “Three Eagles Flying,” the artist appears nude, tied up with rope, positioned between the Mexican and American flags. In this visually arresting work of art, Aguilar emerges as a woman caught between two cultures.
Inspired by the work of photographer Judy Dater, who created nude self-portraits in natural environments, Aguilar went onto create a series of nude self-portraits set against Southwestern landscapes. In these images, Aguilar draped her plump figure across beds of rocks and curled herself into varying fetal positions, highlighting the juxtaposition of her fleshy body against idyllic, rigid backgrounds.
The strength of Aguilar’s work lies in the ways in which it interrogated and preserved the experiences of the underrepresented, freezing slices of their lives while creating a personal yet profoundly political documentation that stands the test of time. Moreover, her photography was ahead of its time.
To hear more about the impact of Aguilar’s art, we spoke with a group of creatives about the ways she impacted their own work. Adee Roberson is an artist based in Los Angeles; Annie Rose Malamet is a interdisciplinary media artist and curator based in Brooklyn; Chloe Shepphard is a photographer based in London; Melba Martinez is a community organizer and artist based in Los Angeles; Shoog McDaniel is a photographer and artist living in Gainesville, Fla.
What impact has Laura Aguilar’s art had on your own work?
Adee Roberson: When I see Laura Aguilar’s work I feel compelled to take more risks in my own work. Seeing someone else with a large body doing self portraiture is not only healing it is necessary to shift the canon. Moreover, class is not something people want to address in the art world, so when I see another artist do it honestly, I feel relieved and hopeful.
Annie Rose Malamet: When I first saw Aguilar’s work I was extremely moved as young, fat, lesbian woman. I don’t think I’d ever seen a fat body depicted as something beautiful and natural. As a lesbian, I was always self-conscious that I could never be as androgynous as I wanted to be because I was fat, but Aguilar’s work contradicted those ignorant thoughts I had internalized. Every fat artist who makes work about the fat body is in conversation with Aguilar, whether they know it or not. She is that influential.
Chloe Sheppard: Over the last year I have become a lot more confident showing my own body in my photography, and I think it’s because of photographers like Laura. When I saw myself reflected in her work, I realized that maybe it is okay for me to photograph this body I inhabit, even if I hate it most of the time. Laura’s work was a catalyst in me turning the lens onto myself, and I hope that someday my self-portraits could do that for another fat person.
Melba Martinez: Her work has paved the way for my work as a queer, fat Chicana. I was so inspired to see her glorious naked body that I felt the immediate need to be naked so I took my top off and asked my friend to take a picture of me there. In the last few years, I’ve done a few nude or barely clothed shoots that have helped me gain confidence and claim my body.
Shoog McDaniel: After viewing her retrospective in Los Angeles, I walked away with a new sense of belonging. I felt like my work had a place, and that we were having a sort of cosmic conversation about bodies and fatness through art. The way that she would seek out natural elements of the environment to mirror her own body provided a framework for me to explore nature with multiple fat bodies, both in harmony and juxtaposition with their surroundings.
How did Aguilar pave the way for increased visibility for marginalized people?
Adee Roberson: What immediately comes to mind for me is her “Plush Pony” photos. These type of archives increase visibility because it lets people know: We were here before and will always be here.
Annie Rose Malamet: Fat acceptance has been a conversation in radical spaces since the ’70s but has only really recently gained traction. There were artists making work using the fat body before Aguilar (like Lucian Freud), but very few fat identified artists making work about their own experiences being fat. Aguilar also existed on the intersections of lesbian sexuality, Latinx identity, and fatness. She was discussing all of these in tandem, they were not separate ideas in her work, which in and of itself was also radical. Her work exemplifies the intersectional struggle of marginalized people.
Chloe Sheppard: Her work has always focused on highlighting marginalized groups, she gave them a place to exist proudly on their own terms and consistently platformed them. Laura’s work is so powerful and empathetic, the groups of people that she represented within it are consistently dehumanized in the mainstream but she always worked to change that and show their true stories.
Melba Martinez: Aguilar’s work paved the way for increased visibility for people who are marginalized by creating a platform for folks who were not seen before. Specifically her series of family portrait style photographs at The Plush Pony which highlight chosen family for queer working class people of color in East Los Angeles.
Shoog McDaniel: Laura’s work highlighted the beauty of underrepresented communities. The portraiture she did of Chicanx lesbians in the ’80s is stunning, and so important, because who else was taking photos and recording these histories then?
What legacy do you think she will leave for the current or next generation of artists?
Adee Roberson: A legacy of strength in vulnerability.
Annie Rose Malamet: I believe that as more and more fat queer people are exposed to her work, that her oeuvre will enjoy a renaissance. It feels very prescient to our current climate of body acceptance.
Chloe Sheppard: Laura’s work has helped a lot of artists realize that their backgrounds and identities are valid, and that they should not be afraid to represent that. My favorite quote from her is “I’m trying to convince myself I’m not what I always thought of myself: ‘I’m ugly, I’m fat, I’m not worth living’. I am these things too: I am a kind person, a funny person, a compassionate person. In the photographs I’m beautiful. I’m kind to myself.” It reiterates that we are far more than what we are on the surface, just like her work does. Her photographs will continue to inspire artists to spotlight what they feel deserves to be seen, no matter how far from convention.
Melba Martinez: She leaves a legacy of vulnerability and honesty for next generation artist. Her art is a way of healing for both her and the audience and I know that her work will continue to heal many queer, POC, fat folks for generations to come.
Shoog McDaniel: I don’t know the extent of her reach, but I am committed to keeping her work and life alive by speaking about her as one of my inspirations and forbearers. She proved through her work that representation really does matter, and that bodies like mine are beautiful and meant to be shared and celebrated.