Aesthetic as Activism: A Series
Nia Hampton | Monday February 13th 2017
Aesthetic as Activism: A Series By Nia Hampton
In the late 60’s, a widely used slogan in the feminist movement was, “the personal is political.” And this past year, we’ve seen an overall increase in political awareness around the world. Everyday our favorite brands are vocalizing their support for a certain cause. Our favorite fashion institutions are taking a stand against injustice. We here at All the Pretty Birds are getting in on what we hope is more than just a trend. For a long time, Aesthetic was seen as something frivolous or only necessary in the world of art. But as the study of identity politics gains more traction, we’re realizing, you actually ARE what you wear. I’ve decided to talk to some very powerful people in their own right. Activists who use their mediums of art to fight for their personal cause, and find out not only what’s in their closet, but why?
This month’s feature is Sonia Guiñansaca a dope ass poet, fierce cultural organizer and radical femme. Sonia is a sight to see in her loud colors, bold glasses and glittery nails. I’m so honored that she took the time to tell us how she uses her aesthetic as activism.
What does aesthetic mean to you?
The first time I heard the word intentionally, it was in the like bougie visual art spaces. You know like white art spaces-it was a very robotic word. But for me now, I’ve been intentional in-not reclaiming it-but using the language, along with other words like “presentation” or “adornment” to kind of describe not so much how I’m packaged but how I chose to move around the world and society. So that could mean the color of my hair to the texture of clothing layers that I want to use, to the lipstick, to the backpack I use and what kind of attention I’ll receive. [So I think it means] Very intentional presentation, defining my own self, defining how I want to be looked at, or not looked at, it comes from within, rather than an outward gaze.
What looks are yo going for right now?
Right now, I’m into- it’s cold- so that influences so much of my outfits rights now. In this weather, I’m going for my tights. Black tights are always good. I have a love and hate relationship with jeans. You gotta find the right ones. But tights. Black thick tights are your best friends. I’m going with chunky boots because it’s winter. And also, I like the hard step, when I’m listening to Beyoncé and walking through the train station and making that noise.
Right now, I’m in a lot of denim button ups, crew necks or floral blouses. For some reason I’m in this dichotomy right now, butch lesbian shit with like floral spring time. But that’s my go-to outfit, I haven’t been doing much this year. What I had been doing was a lot of layers of jewelry. Sometimes people think that they’re one piece but they’re not.
I started being intentional about my aesthetic during my organizing times. Wearing high-waisted skirts and rocking political shirts…this is like 2008-2011. In a lot of social justice spaces, they impose a “very masculine” wardrobe of just your shirt, jeans and Converse or this “suited up” look- no shade to that-but this was aligned with a “gender neutral” appearance centered on masculine or suited up as synonymous to resistance and activism that left no room to be femme or for any adornment or self expression. This very monotone understanding of what social justice looks like, “wear your brown beret”, “don’t take five minutes to do your eyeliner”, “real activists don’t wear make up” was very harmful to many queer and gender nonconforming folks. In social justice spaces, folks were policed on our ways of being, dressing, and existing. I became very self-conscious about how I looked and how it may or may not be accepted, that at times I assimilated. By being in spaces with other femmes, and queer/trans/gender non-conforming folks, I’ve become empowered and supported in the ways I want to dress, and exist. My motto for this year is: “I’m going to be my authentic self this year, whatever that means or looks like”. In the past, I didn’t have the support and I also felt really constrained in social justice movements to conspire to a specific form of what a progressive person looks like. And that for me, many times was like, “You need to remove any desire to have ritual for yourself. You have to be about the people and that means no eyeliner and don’t be thinking about your lipstick.” There’s this look of struggle that I was trying to play against in 2008 with my high-waisted skirt and putting up my hair. I was on some undocumented, Amy Winehouse hair goals. Lol I don’t know what I was doing back then, but it was my way of rebelling to this formalized culture of dressing like “nah- I’m not fully digesting what ya’ll telling me about how to dress myself”.
It was also about being undocumented back then, it was a very delicate balance of trying to be myself but also trying to uphold the good immigrant narrative, the only narrative pushed out during that time. That meant it was about wearing your suits, dressing in your button ups, letting go of any signifiers that you were a complex human being. It wasn’t like we were trying to be dapper. Rather it was corporate, or what is considered “good immigrant,” supposedly put together and clean. So my fashion was kind of like rebelling against that. Afterwards, after burning out, I realized that my movement regardless of how I dress will and was never ready to take care of me or uplift me because we we’re not centering liberation in all forms beyond policy. Consequently, I walked away from it all. That’s when I started going for loud colors, I was able to rebel through hair tones and make up, just really play with colors on my own terms and with pure joy.
So naturally, what that meant for me was also playing and exploring with my gender. Figuring out my gender, which I still am doing, is a constant life process. I’m currently exploring and navigating my Papi Femme , and being gender nonconforming -and what these things mean to me, and the way I am defining them. There are times when I don’t know what pronouns I want to use, but that’s my goal now in 2017. How can I be my authentic self, redefine gender roles and what does that look like for a fatter person like myself? What does it mean for us to navigate the world when our bodies sometime dictate the way we’re desired in society, the way we’re given jobs, the way we’re looked upon in regards to producing labor? And so I think specifically for fat femmes there’s this, like, assumption that in order for us to be desired we have to go the extra mile. Like, God forbid, we ever look not put together. We have to go extra with our makeup, our eyebrows have to be on-point, and sometimes I question how much is that a need, like out of our gut, that we want to do that. [How much of it is] our own ritual or how much of that is us trying to navigate and survive the world and also how much of that is pushed on us? There is no clear, linear answer. I do know this, my way of adornment, dressing, and makeup is a way of survival and healing, and a sacred ritual. I think right now I’m navigating how much of me being put together is to not uphold the imposed expectations of fat bodies in a thin centered world. That’s why everything is intentional for me– how I do my eyebrows, what color I paint my nails, where I go shopping, and the types of shoes I wear. It’s about being intentional in reclaiming how I want to move around the world in the most authentic ways possible that are aligned with the vision and love I have for my body- always an active choice. I am also actively choosing to surround myself with the likes of other fat femmes and they are my references of the genders I am, they are inspirations and aspirations, they are daily reminders on my IG timeline on how glorious I can exist, and how to become more myself every day. From brujas, to yogi’s, to activists, to academics, to artists – fat femmes have been instrumental in my own growth and a reference on what I am always “becoming”.
What does activism mean to you?
It’s the way that you can move towards liberation and the form that you want to do it in. For me, it’s a lot of culture work. It’s the way you survive on the daily. Being a queer person of color in the United States, a poet, being a migrant person, even surviving day-to-day, that’s activism. It doesn’t have to be a PhD dissertation or even “taking it to the streets” and “dropping a banner” or getting arrested. That’s also privilege, taking it to the streets and getting arrested. Right now my health has shifted, through burning out I have acquired pain in my lower back and arms and my feet. So the ways I’m able to embody activism today, is totally different from when I first started. Activism is what you can embody in the fight for liberation in your own form. Not everyone can go and shut down a train station and that shouldn’t be the only way. We can create more options, we can show up to activism in different ways. I do it through cultural work, I believe in the power of arts, culture, artist and cultural workers and their critical role in social change.
What are some internal/external changes you’d like to see in life this year? What changes are you making personally and what changes would you like to see in the world?
Internally, I’m focusing on building home and building chosen family because I realized that nobody else is going to take care of us- the system will not take care of us. Our movements during times of scarcity, ache, and fear are fucked up, they become problematic, people begin embodying the same toxic habits as what we’re fighting against. And we end up alone and disposable. So I’m being really intentional about building with people and just taking care of ourselves and each other beyond transnational non profit practices-meaning you only exist to me because we are working on a policy bill together and afterwards I really don’t care about you. No, it shouldn’t be that way. I’m hoping we can shift that type of disposable culture.
Right now, with Trump’s presidency, as someone who is accountable to migrant communities, I’m about bringing in a range of narratives that show the complexities of migrant communities because humanizing us and fighting for justice has to be about showing the full spectrum of who we are and how we exist. Otherwise, we are constantly fighting for one type of immigrant and the rest left behind. Also, as a femme and a migrant person, it’s about me creating and really focusing on my craft. The labor of facilitating, and holding space for community always falls on femmes/women of color, leaving no room or not enough space for us to focus on our own craft. That’s why I’m working to create pipelines to support other migrant queer, gender nonconforming and femmes of color artists like myself because the policy folks, they’ll be okay, they will have the funding. But no one is really looking out for artists and cultural workers and their creations.
When it comes to migrant and undocumented folks, there’s never a lot of funding for them and if there is, there’s a specific narrative of art that they’re looking for. Therefore, my goal this year is to radically shift the art that is generated. And it starts with me. I’m focused on building pipelines for artists of color, specifically migrant and queer, nationally. I’ve always been holding spaces or facilitating spaces for artists of color, and if that’s my goal- I have to have my shit together. I can’t be like “yo, we’re gonna support artists” and not have my own discipline and artistry together. Next year could easily come and I wouldn’t have created anything. This time I’m being unapologetic, my poetry comes first.
What’s your makeup/haircare/skincare/self care ritual looking like?
Coconut oil and Aveeno lotion. Every night I wash my face with non-scented baby wipes and then I wipe my face with coconut oil which helps take off the chemicals. Also, my partner has asthma, so I can’t wear a lot of scented make ups or things with chemicals. So a lot of the rituals, in terms of perfumes, lotions, shampoos, or even makeup removal has to be really intentional because I have to think about my partner, as it impacts his health. So I’ve had to be really critical in finding products that are not highly scented. A lot of what I’m wearing is non-scented or oatmeal based, things you can find in Duane Reades next to the Burt’s Bees section. I’m learning that a lot of the things we put on our bodies, are very bad for your body and skin and cancerous. It’s cute, but how much of it is harmful or toxic to my body? And also, how does it impact another person’s health?
Makeup wise, I’m sticking to my MAC, I haven’t been able to find anything that stays on the lip and doesn’t smudge. That is my guilty pleasure. I like Kat Von D eyeliner, and my bare mineral powder, and my Anastasia eyebrows kit. A lot of the things I’ve found have been through my younger sister, she’s all about makeup, so she researches everything for me. That’s my routine. I just got into highlighter, it’s amazing! I’m walking around like, a model! I’m shining bright like a fucking diamond.
For a long time, I didn’t want to be perceived as too “girly”, but now I’m like “Nah, I want that glitter on my nails, I’m shining up my cheeks.” A lot of my regiments right now include everything I was going against when I was younger. As a feminist, I had this notion that I was not going to wear makeup- and now I’m looking into cute aprons and those little slippers with feathers on them. I’m also seeing in pop culture, intentional deconstruction of what is “feminine”, like in Rihanna’s video BBHMM, it can be modern and cute. It’s not just for suburban white moms. I started reading Roxane Gay’s “Bad Feminist” and it’s like, “yeah, I’m going to be contradicting you know?” [It’s about finding] Where do I authentically feel happy? And that can shift. But for now, I’m good with my glitter.
What are your Muses/Inspiration at the moment?
Muses at the moment are Solange, my partner Kay Ulanday Barrett (whose clothes I borrow on the daily), Cardi B, and Jessica Torres (a fat positive fashion blogger). There was this Brooklyn boihood party, and we’re both going, so I borrowed one of their shirts. It’s a tan button up but I tied it at the waist. I show up and I’m laughing cuz you see a bunch of masculine presenting folks wearing it as a button up. It’s like ten people wearing the same shirt, including me, but I’m wearing it in a different style. And we’re all looking at each other like, who would have thought, there’s this button up that can be worn in like 15 different ways and by a range of genders! My partner right now has been very into the dapper style and I think that’s the look that I’m going for this year. And very sexy, very cute daring papi femme shit. I haven’t been able to do too much low cut shit cause it’s cold right now, but the summer, I’m wyling out. My pronoun for the summer is going to be Hoe/Hoes.
What creative projects are you working on right now?
My poetry. I didn’t even want to put out my mini chapbook this past Fall. I was like, “it’s not ready!” But everyone was like, “Yo, that’s okay, it’s your first– you’ll have many more”. But I’m like, people are going to judge me. But it’s a project I’ve been working on for a while. Basically, a chapbook is a smaller version of your manuscript. This past October I put out a smaller version of a chapbook, Nostalgia & Borders, I literally had my best friend and undocumented queer artist, Rommy Torrico, tell me, “That’s it Sonia!” He designed the layout and cover, and helped me assemble it by hand, and later put it up on my website and ships them. My mini chapbook “Nostalgia and Borders” is a mixture of works about being undocumented, there’s an ode to femmes of color and a poem talking about the complex relationship with my mom. At this point, this first mini chapbook has been doing really well. I sold out!!! I independently published it and was well received. The way I understood self publishing is that it is a beautiful arduous task and people self publish their chapbooks. If you want, your full manuscript book can be done through a publisher. But over time, in these literary spaces, [it started to become a thing where] you have to get your chapbooks published “professionally”. And now, when I mention it to people, they’re like “Oh, your chapbook, who published it?” And I’m like, “Oh, I self publish” And there’s that, “Oh.” And that’s what I’m trying to shake-this uppity shit where people in literary spaces look down at your writing because you self-publish and it’s like first, it’s supposed to be about craft and autonomy, if anything, give me props cause I’m putting everything together. The other part is the shaming of it. Like, maybe I wouldn’t have to self-publish if there were more channels of access and support for migrant writers and writers of color, and there aren’t. So shame on you, don’t try to shame me. Rather let’s talk about the system that’s not supporting migrant writers. Shame the fucking publishers and how about uplift independent self published writers.
For my fuller chapbook, that I’m going to launch in the Summer, I’m thinking of having more love poems. I don’t write a lot of love poems, I write about achy and brutally heartbreaking first person poems of being a migrant and the longing for home. I’ve always made room for these kind of poems but never for love poems, and now I am in a place where I crave a place beyond the ache, a place of healing and hope. All of us are reading horrible and terrifying news (the Muslim Ban, the border, insert here all the things under Trump), and I know our bodies, our hearts, our spirits, and our communities need more than that. My chosen fam deserve laughter, warmth, and love, they deserve to be written beautiful love letters and not just eulogies. So for the next one, I’ll have love poems and more queer shit and talk a lot more on figuring out my gender.
I am also the 2017 Artist in Residency at The Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics and so I am putting together a series of events, panels, workshops, and readings showcasing and centering the many ways migrant queer trans artists of color are creating, resisting, and existing. Through this residency and during this Trump era I am also being intentional about creating a space to build a cultural front of artists and cultural workers actively collaborating and engaging with larger movements. So much has happened since Trump became POTUS, so I am also reflecting and re-brainstorming projects for this year that are in dialogue with the political and cultural climate we are in.
Graphic By Sophia-Gach Rasool.