Visual Culture

Why a Young Chicana Artist Is Posting Images of Her Community to LACMA’s Instagram

Janelle Zara
Sep 5, 2017 9:10PM

Los Angeles County Museum of Art director Michael Govan first came across the work of Guadalupe Rosales, the museum’s first Instagram artist-in-residence, last year at a Vincent Price Art Museum exhibition.

A monitor had been playing a silent loop of screenshots from her Instagram account Veteranas and Rucas, a collection of painstakingly crowdsourced photographs of Southern California Latina youth culture: images from the ’90s and earlier that depict young women posing at proms and raves and in their childhood bedrooms; sorting through their vinyl collections; or leaning, bikini-clad, against lowrider cars. Each image remained on screen long enough for viewers to scan the comments section, where her followers could be seen engaging in passionate dialogue and nostalgia around the images.

“By [drawing] that many followers, what she had created was essentially a space—one that could be a gallery,” says Govan. “I said to [Vincent Price Art Museum director] Pilar Tompkins Rivas, do you think she would be interested in doing something with us? And that evolved into an Instagram residency.”  

LACMA approached Rosales with little in terms of a game plan; its last social media takeover was in 2010, when artists including the Rodarte sisters and actor Rainn Wilson, best known for his role as Dwight on The Office, took over the museum’s Twitter account. While the success of this initiative was unclear (“I had a trustee call me and say someone’s hacked your Twitter,” says Govan), LACMA’s experimentations with the internet have evolved considerably since—in step with numerous other institutions across the art world.

“I’ve noticed that in the last three or four years, it’s become increasingly important to think critically about social media as a platform for engaging communities,” says Tompkins Rivas. “When you think about content curatorially, you also think about the educational programming to interpret this for the public; social media straddles the expanse between marketing plan and educational program.”

Rosales, 37, grew up in Boyle Heights, a Chicano-majority neighborhood east of Downtown L.A. that, before the current influx of high-powered galleries to the area (and subsequent protests against the threat of displacement in the community), had “no outlets to the art world.” In the early aughts, Rosales moved to New York and built her artistic practice there with the queer feminist collective LTTR. Despite having no high school diploma or undergraduate degree, she attended the MFA program at School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) on a full scholarship.

“I have a really complicated relationship with the school system and institutions,” says Rosales. “I never went to LACMA until five years ago.” Institutional misrepresentation of her community has been a persistent theme throughout her life—as a child, she found there was a notable lack of diversity in her elementary school curriculum, and as an adult in the New York art world, her name would often prompt assumptions that she was a folk artist. A teenage photographer once told her about his high school art teacher, who deemed his portrait of a tattooed cousin “unacceptable” for its indication of gang culture.  

“This was someone silencing another person’s history,” says Rosales. “This is a problem. I want people to understand that there’s only a certain amount of information that gets fed to us through television, the radio, or museums.”

She launched Veteranas and Rucas (Chicano slang for veterans and girlfriends) in 2015 while she was still enrolled in her MFA program. Instagram provided an opportunity to build a digital archive, not only as a correction to institutional misrepresentation—if not a total lack of representation—but as a space for the safekeeping and transmission of a community history she sorely missed.

“I was desperate to see work that I could connect to,” Rosales says. “Before I started this project, if I typed ‘chicana Los Angeles,’ all I would see is cholas, which is not all we are. My practice has been dismantling that idea, and encouraging people to speak.”

She followed Veteranas and Rucas with Map Pointz, a similarly crowdsourced account devoted to images from L.A.’s underground rave scene of the ’90s. In 2016, after graduating from SAIC, she returned to L.A.—and she took over the LACMA Instagram account on July 5th this year. Initially slated to last six weeks, it’s now been extended through mid-September.

“What’s interesting is that she blurred the lines between the institution and Los Angeles,” says Govan. Interlaced with the expected snapshots from LACMA exhibitions are images of the world outside the museum walls: artworks from other institutions, as well as little-known sites around the city. One of Rosales’s posts relays the short history of an altar outside a Boyle Heights housing project; it sits below a 1974 neon-hued mural of the Virgin de Guadalupe by artist Armando Cabrera.

Other posts document studio visits with various L.A. artists, including Carolina Caycedo and Star Montana. The residency has provided her with an opportunity to bridge the chasm between the art world and communities it has historically excluded—or displaced.

“I’m not just talking about art, I’m talking about a culture and a history that has been silenced for a long time, and is now in danger of being erased,” says Rosales, who also posts crossover content from her archives to the LACMA feed: a young man in the L.A. suburbs adjusting his bowtie before prom, or four women in baggy jeans posing on the recently demolished 6th Street Bridge, downtown.

Much of the response from LACMA’s audience has been positive, and yet the specter of misrepresentation prevails; below the picture of the four women on 6th Street Bridge, a comment reads, “People should get over their trauma to validate the rave (drug) and gang scene of the ’90s so you can call it art.…If any of them made it out alive and some sense of self-worth they would tell you it’s not something to glorify or put on a pedestal.”  

Rosales has also received messages that similarly accuse LACMA of glorifying gang violence. “I’ve never posted pictures of cholos,” says Rosales, “but it is crazy that the moment you start talking about gang violence, you’re glorifying it. I was feeling uncomfortable exposing myself in this way, to a larger platform, and to an art audience.”

But rather than retreat or stifle this discourse, Rosales and Govan decided to let comments like these remain (provided they do not cross a line to become hate speech). Not only have commenters with positive feedback rallied against the negative in greater numbers, Govan also recognized the value of opening up channels of communication in an establishment institution such as LACMA.

“In previous decades, the museum has not had a two-way conversation with its audience,” he says. “This is all new. But if you’re looking to what the future holds, if you’re looking to find what’s possible, you look to artists. They see farther in all directions than anyone.”

Janelle Zara