Donna Huanca: RUA MINX “POP UP SHOP”

Philomena Gabriel Contemporary, Houston

Lynne McCabe

Quechua Couture performing at Philomena Gabriel Contemporary, Houston on April 7, 2011.

Donna Huanca and Roy Minten, Unearthing (Salinas), 2011; lambda archival photo print; 16 x 24 inches; edition of 10; courtesy the artist and Philomena Gabriel Contemporary, Houston

The cultural landscape of Houston has changed since I left the city for San Francisco in 2008. We now have hipsters, “critical mass” that is actually a mass, a lesbian mayor and commercial galleries showing experimental sound performances by young women artists of color. The women in question, Donna Huanca and Maria Chavez, both from Houston, performed as the collaborative Quechua Couture at the opening reception for Huanca's exhibition RUA MINX “POP UP SHOP” at Philomena Gabriel Contemporary Gallery on April 7.

As visitors entered the gallery they were greeted immediately by Quechua Couture sitting behind a desk topped with a turntable and computer, and speakers and amplifiers on the floor below. Huanca and Chavez presented a brilliant show of avant-garde turntablism and amplified utterances. Over the course of 15 minutes the two artists built a multilayered aural landscape using what Huanca describes as sound sources that have a “Peruvian-Bolivian genetic memory” in combination with seemingly random spoken words. The soundscape challenged any preconceptions about the artists’ shared Inca heritage, denying its reduction to an easily digestible or “ethnic” sound.

Throughout the single-room gallery Huanca created a complex installation-environment. Silk and cotton wearable sculptures hang from stark bark-striped branches suspended from the ceiling. On the walls she interspersed a series of lush and arresting 16-x-24-inch unframed photographs with intimate framed collages. Shelves and pedestals, in various heights and volumes, alter the topography of the space. The forms hug the perimeter of the room, each cradling Huanca's improbable yet intensely desirable shoe-sculptures and decorative body adornments including leather and silk neckpieces and two shiny rings made from fool’s gold (pyrite). One shoe-sculpture, La Mosala (2009), foregrounds Huanca’s “mash up” aesthetic by combining natural or folk-art elements—stacked blocks of wood and bright woven fabrics—with industrial foam and a heel of wire mesh.

Donna Huanca, La Mosala, 2009; leather, wood, synthehics; courtesy the artist and Philomena Gabriel Contemporary, Houston

The work installed on the back wall of the gallery is striking for its comparative restraint. A series of sculptures: a white fur pelt daubed sparsely with neon-green paint, a diamond-shaped form of tightly knotted scratchy looking wool, leather laces bound together balancing precariously on a bare white branch and flesh-colored suede shorts dipped in white paint, all immediately evoke flesh and intimate parts of the human form.

In her work Huanca frequently draws upon autobiographical narratives, such as her youth in Chicago and her father’s insistence that there was “no need” for her to speak English, as her family would soon be returning to Bolivia. However, her family never returned; they merely visited as “tourists.” Huanca explores this idea of return in her recent photo series Unearthing, a nomadic performance made in collaboration with photographer Roy Minten in Peru from February through March 2011. Minten photographed Huanca attempting to reinsert herself—and by extension her family—back into her ancestral landscape. One particularly striking image, Unearthing (Salinas) (2011) shows Huanca sheathed in gold lamé, an indeterminable form dazzling in the sun in the tiered farmland of Peru. The perceptibly hot sun and the contorted position of Huanca’s body make palpable the psychical, if not emotionally challenging nature of this work.

Whether sheathing herself to obscure her own body or adorning naked models with decoration as totems—like Ekeko, the Andean god of abundance—Huanca’s objects, at once garments, sculptures and shelters, slide between cultural contexts to evoke multiple meanings and uses. This multiplicity, also evident in her performance with Chavez, functions like a mirror, reflecting back viewers’ own history and expectations while reminding one how the objects may evoke other references for someone else.

My first impression of RUA MINX “POP UP SHOP” was that, despite obvious nods to commodity-fetishism, it was not the kind of work I would have normally expected to find in a Houston commercial gallery. Its punk sensibility seems more suited to an artist-run or alternative space, but maybe this is all part of the Houston I have been encountering since my return: bold, hip and exuberant.

Lynne McCabe is an artist and writer originally from Glasgow, Scotland. She lives and works in Houston.

This exhibition was on view April 7–16, 2011.

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