Artist Gerardo Navarro Gómez lives in lush, tranquil and delightfully simple surroundings with his mother and three sisters. One would not expect to encounter art ranging from the mildly erotic to pieces that test the sensibilities of the most liberal among us. But yes, accompanying paintings which express religious imagery and childlike carefree scenes, are those of quite another theme, carefully tucked away from view.
The women in the Navarro Gómez family weave cotton textiles on their back strap looms, while Gerardo is busy painting all manner of contorted body parts spewing the lifeblood of humankind. On this day they all, matriarch included, lightly laugh and joke in response to this writer’s pointed and arguably embarrassing questions, sloughing it all off. No subject is deemed taboo, nor provokes shame. Perhaps the Eden-like environment is the key to the harmony between such seemingly different forms of creativity in one family. Gerardo, a bachelor, lives in the very Catholic and rural world of Santo Tomás Jalieza, sharing daily chores as well as workspace with three spinster sisters and their mother.
Santo Tomás Jalieza is a small town about a 35 minute drive from the South Central Mexican city of Oaxaca. Oaxaca is tucked away in a series of central valleys in the state of the same name, surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range. The region is a popular destination for travelers seeking a cultural vacation – rich in pre-Hispanic ruins, impressive Dominican churches dating to the 1500s, and museums and galleries. The area is also known for its gastronomic greatness, with arguably the best cuisine in all of Mexico – and of course its broad diversity of quaint craft villages, including Santa Tomás Jalieza.
Residents of Santo Tomás have been weaving cotton textiles for generations, more recently for primarily the tourist trade – tablecloths and bedspreads, table runners and placemats, napkins, purses, leather-trimmed belts, change purses, eyeglass cases, embroidered blouses, and more. In the case of the Navarro Gómez family, proficiency in this cottage industry dates back only a couple of generations, since Gerardo’s parents didn’t move to the town until they married. They then made it a priority to learn to weave, and with the assistance of relatives in the village, teach their children.
Through ranching and agriculture the inhabitants of Santo Tomás remain to a large extent self-sufficient, relying if not on sheep, goats or cows, then certainly upon chickens – and of course subsistence crops such as corn and beans, supplemented by squash. The vagaries of tourism in Oaxaca require it.
Navarro grew up rejecting formal education, whether by design or circumstance: “I never did finish public school. I didn’t think I was learning anything, and in fact spent about four years languishing in first grade. Finally, when I was 14 I packed it in for good.”
But there was one teacher, Maestra Lupita, who did impact his future: “She was the only one, I now realize, who saw something in me that was different from the rest. She gave me crayons and a drawing book, and left me to work. I never asked her why she centered me out, and she never offered an explanation. She just left me alone most of the time, to draw.”
After school Navarro would tend his father’s goats, while sometimes doing a bit of leatherwork, and regularly jotting down his thoughts, even making little verses. Twice the government sent instructors to the village, initially to teach about working with animal skins, and then to show the townspeople how to combine textiles and leather to make purses and belts. Gerardo became proficient at making leather belts decorated with narrow strips of cotton textile produced by his sisters and mother on their looms.
But once again, he rejected convention: “I didn’t like doing that kind of work. I always felt under pressure and like I wasn’t really creating anything. I had no freedom. For someone to say, ‘I need 20 belts just like this in two weeks,’ just reinforced that I had to do something else and remove myself from the lifestyle of those around me.”
While Navarro enjoyed the freedom of tending the herd – his father even bought him two cows when he was 21 – he became very ill, and was hospitalized. When he eventually recovered he found that he could no longer tend the livestock. His body’s defenses never returned to their former level of functioning, and thus he lacked the energy and fortitude required for herding.
In January, 1994, he left for California, intent upon beginning a new life: “I wanted to leave behind everything from my past, so I even burned all of my little writings from those afternoons out in the fields.” He returned in May, having found the Los Angeles lifestyle even worse; people were always rushing around and seemed to be under an undue amount of pressure.
Within three months of Navarro’s return, his life had indeed changed, dramatically.
Over the years the women – mother Mariana and daughters Margarita, Inés and Crispina – developed a reputation for fashioning cotton textiles of extremely high quality, by and large setting them apart from most others in town. Crispina in particular found a niche for herself, weaving fine thread into the most intricate of designs. Her notoriety spread to such an extent that she began to receive praise from craft aficionados even outside of Mexico. She’s been in the company of four Mexican presidents, most recently visiting former President Vicente Fox at his ranch.
The family had become accustomed to hosting dignitaries at their modest, yet spacious and immaculately kept homestead. Frequently artists would attend at their home to buy handicrafts, and to just chat and spend a couple of hours with the family. And who wouldn’t be so drawn to the family, residing within one of the most welcoming environments imaginable.
Acclaimed Oaxacan artist Juan Alcázar and his wife Justina Fuentes, a talented painter in her own right, was one such couple. Of course Navarro knew nothing of Maestro Alcázar at the time, other than that he was a man from the city who appreciated quality textiles. One day in early August, 1994, a visitor of German extraction, Helmut Kohl, came by to mire Crispina’s artistry. He noted Navarro’s fine leatherwork, and suggested that he might want to consider taking art classes with a friend, Juan Alcázar. Of course it was the same Juan Alcázar with whom Navarro had been acquainted for some 15 years, never knowing that Alcázar was an up-and-coming master of contemporary Mexican art. Within days Navarro was in Oaxaca to meet with Alcázar; on the 15th of the month he began being mentored by Alcázar and Fuentes
Over the next four-and-a-half years, day in and day out, from nine to six, Navarro would visit the Alcázar / Fuentes workshop, Taller Libre de Gráfica Oaxaqueña, working initially with pencil, then ink, and eventually watercolors. While others were in groups taking courses and otherwise learning to be artists, Gerardo would be off in a corner, his back to them, working away independently.
“Don’t even look at art books until you’ve been painting for ten years,” Alcázar counseled; no matter, since Navarro had not previously cracked a book, and never had any intention of doing so. In fact to this day, Navarro maintains, he has never looked in an art book, nor read about theory or technique, and is oblivious to the art of Chagall and Picasso – aside from the fact that some of his patrons have likened his work to that of such Grand Masters.
Navarro has never taken an art class, and even though he credits Alcázar and Fuentes with the development of his work and his success, they did not really “teach,” in the everyday sense of the term: “I’ve never been able to tolerate a classroom environment, and in fact have never studied or worked in a group. I think it probably dates back to my years in the fields. My father always warned me against socializing with others who were tending their own herds, for fear that I would become distracted. Of course I received guidance from Juan and Justina, but no, there were no lessons.”
Navarro had his first exhibition in 1995, after Kohl had advised him that he wanted to display his work in a gallery in Ajijic. Gerardo had no idea what to expect. When he accompanied Kohl to the framer the day before the inauguration of the exhibition, he was taken aback at how different his work then looked. But Kohl kept him grounded: “If you sell one piece you’ll be lucky; with two sales consider yourself a master; and never expect to sell three.” He learned that a gold star beside a piece meant it was sold. By 6 pm that first evening of the show, 15 of 16 pieces had gold stars.
None of those initial works offered for sale was erotica, though from the outset Navarro had been creating art with sexual content. He’s always feared exhibiting such pieces, even in his own workshop: “I still keep the erotica apart from the rest of my work, in a separate plastic sleeve, face down. I won’t show them unless people ask to see them; and besides, sometimes children come to our home, so I have to be careful. Even my larger works are on the floor facing inward.” He points to a large framed piece hidden behind another.
Narvarro has been painting more erotic art in recent years. But he has never simply decided “I’m going to do erotica starting today.” In fact he doesn’t start out with a particular idea when he begins working, erotica or mainstream. The brush just takes him where it wants to go: “My mind seems to flow like a river; and so I just follow it, and if it keeps flowing after I’m finished a piece, then a sequence of pieces will emerge.”
Many of Navarro’s pieces include prose or poetry relating to the image represented. Sometimes words come to him when he begins a piece, thereby inspiring content, and other times what he writes comes about once a work has been completed. He embarrassingly acknowledges: “I know that because I’m not educated, there are always errors in spelling and grammar.” Such works remind of the Mexican votive painting style, or ex – voto tradition.
In Navarrós lighthearted La rubia negra (2006), the message is clearly conveyed without the use of prose: a lover’s teary upset and her boyfriend’s rejecting dismay upon his realization that she’s not a natural blonde. The title’s double entendre alone is sufficient poetic rhyme; the work’s familiar imagery serves to dispense with the need for more explicit eroticism.
In 1996, Fuentes told Navarro it was time to try working with oils. She gave him a canvas and frame, and told him to buy a couple of tubes of paint. After he sold his first oil, he went out and spent 1,000 pesos on as many tubes of paint as the money would buy. Everyone laughed, never having heard of anyone spending all their money on so much paint. But he was filled with excitement and ambition, so much so that within the next four months he had created 18 oils, exhibiting them for the first time in 1997. Oils are amongst the erotica in his workshop, on the floor, facing the wall.
“You just never know what people’s reactions will be, or how receptive they’ll be to that kind of art. A while ago a woman from the city bought one of my eroticas, a mermaid having oral sex with a mortal. She took it home and her husband wouldn’t let her hang it in their house. So they came back together, and exchanged it for a painting of a couple making love, with a crucifix on the wall above them, and an angel passing over, covering Jesus’ eyes.”
Navarro doesn’t perceive inconsistency between being Catholic and producing erotica, but then again he attends church infrequently: “I have my faith, and I believe in Jesus.” He continues: “What initially turned me off going to galleries to see other art or even my own, was when there was an exhibit of my work in one room, and religious art in another. The crowds were looking at my display, and hardly anyone was staying to look at the religious art. Someone came up to me and said ‘you’re the devil.’ My response was simple; at night we all lie down and spread our legs, so what’s wrong with that kind of portrayal in my art.”
For his oils and watercolors Navarro works in the most brilliant of colors. And with his ink drawings he uses sepia tones. Curiously, it’s more in his pieces done in shades of blacks and browns where he appears to let loose and enable bizarre sexual metaphors to predominate.
“I’m not interested in exhibiting my work in other countries,” Navarro readily indicates, then explaining his reasoning: “People come from far away to see me, not just my art. So what happens if I’m not here? It’s not fair to those who admire what I do, if they come by or contact me to make sure I’ll be around, and I’m away.”
The sisters echo the identical sentiment. They’ve only traveled out of the country to exhibit on two occasions. And when it comes to fiestas and other family obligations in Santo Tomás or Oaxaca, generally one family member will remain at home at all times. Being available for those who appreciate their artistry is a priority.
The division of labor in the Navarro Gómez household is wholly consistent with Gerardo’s personal worldview as represented in his art. Each family member has morning household tasks; sweeping the exterior hardened earth or the interior concrete floors, making tortillas, cooking meals, tending to the animals. And most are subject to weekly rotation. Gerardo does not begin his artistic day until all the rest of the work has been completed. And so equality between the sexes in the household spills over to his erotica – one sex does not dominate the other, and women appear to be just as active participants as men in the eroticism portrayed.
Much of Gerardo Navarro’s erotica speaks to his personal philosophy regarding monogamy and marriage. He has not been in a long-term relationship since beginning his career as an artist some fifteen years ago. He sees marriage as a compromise he’s not prepared to make. “Marriage is like a grave,” he maintains, then continues: “It kills love. In the world I know, the men aren’t around all that much. They’re off in the US under the guise of earning for their families, with the women and children left at home to fend for themselves. What do the women do?” Silence ensues, leading one to imagine what actually transpires behind closed doors in Santo Tomás Jalieza. Gerardo Navarro Gómez then returns to painting one of his favorite themes – the apple tree in the Book of Genesis, with Eve firmly in control.
Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.