David Zamora Casas is a painter, community activist, curator, and installation and performance artist living in San Antonio, Texas. For the past fifteen years, Casas has constructed altars that integrate traditional Latino themes with an eclectic consideration of modern-day experiences. He organized the first lesbian and gay art show in Texas, entitled «Equal rights for whom?» in 1989 at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center and is an AIDS activist. He has taken his life as a Latino, an activist, and a gay man and put it into his artwork, engaging his audience in conversations about difficult issues during his performances. According to Casas, «My work has always been connected to oral history, traditions, culture, and personal concerns relating to time and space. Using the allure of bright colors and a pantheon of autobiographical representations of fantasy, reality, life and death, sexuality and religion, I create work that reflects issues of consequence. My fortunate blessing is to be able to put my passion and ideas on a canvas that promotes interaction with multiple communities.»
ADC: David, can you talk with me about some of the ideas and concepts within your current body of work?
DZC: My current body of work is entitled La Poesia de Arte (The Poetry of Art). I started writing a text about the issue of AIDS to accompany the paintings last November. I made the piece called El Corazon Explotando Lagrimas de Sangre, which is “The Heart Exploding Tears of Blood,” while I was mourning for a friend who had been told by his doctor that he had HIV and was going to die. Well, it turned out that his charts had been mixed up, but before we found out about the mistake, I went through this heavy mourning because I thought I was going to lose my friend. Then I realized how selfish I had been, so I wanted to portray that. I wanted to capture it in a painting and accompany the painting with written text that would remind us of how selfish we sometimes are, try to let other people in on my experience so that it might be a helpful, growing experience for them, as it was for me.
ADC: Are you always thinking of your audience when you are making your paintings?
DZC: Yes — after my nephew was born six years ago, I reached a new level of awareness. Instead of being so much “in people’s faces” and demanding that people see things my way, I learned it is better not to alienate. Since then, I have done workshops at schools with the Urban Smarts Program, which is for at-risk youths — Paige Middle School, Brackenridge Middle School — and I am always careful now to try not to alienate people. I want them to really hear what I am saying and understand my perspective, and maybe say, “Well, it is not right for me, but look, I respect you because of the manner in which you are presenting yourself.” By putting all the cards on the table and saying this is me, I say, “Please accept and understand me and do not just tolerate me.”
ADC: Do you find, and do you think your audiences find your work to be less proactive because you are approaching your statements from a more generous perspective?
DZC: No, I find myself self-censoring, as I have with the Jesus Christ painting in my studio. I was going to have him totally nude, but instead I put on a small, transparent veil so that you can see his genitalia, but he is not nude.
ADC: When you began painting and performing, was it with a goal of participating in a political activity or was it a means of creative self-expression?
DZC: It was definitely at first a means of self-expression. It was for love—for a boyfriend—that I first began to write. But within that expression I found a voice, that voice was my gay voice, and so I did become politically involved, and after coming out I found my Latino voice. In my experience, I have learned to continually erase the systematic prejudice and stereotypes that have been handed down to me from my parents and them by their parents. We have been victimized—I don’t like to use that word, but sometimes it is the only word you can use. I want my work to sever negative stereotypes that we have and will continue to have until we first learn to educate ourselves and our children about who we are. Accept and live one another regardless of race, skin color and sexual orientation.
ADC: Does the opportunity you have to show this new work at Artpace along with other artists that are from here or elsewhere in the U.S. and abroad provide anything unique to your work?
DZC: Yes, what it does for me is increase my sense of self-esteem. But primarily the opportunity you refer to has made it possible for me to buy the material I need—paint brushes and lace are expensive. It has also allowed me to have the equipment and accessibility to materials that I choose to use. It is freeing and liberating my creative process. I feel this is part of the reason that I am able to make such a large body of work in such a short amount of time. It has also encouraged me to try things I have never tried before, like using models.
ADC: This seems to be a really fruitful time for you. What else can you tell me about the ideas that you are working on in your painting right now?
DZC: I use my work as an opportunity to talk about things that bother me—like hate crimes and violence—to vent them out. One piece talks about hate crimes, about how people have been mutilated, dismembered and beaten without compassion, and I talk about that in Spanish, because I love the language. When pronouncing words it is as if the language has teeth. I am trying to create beautiful works for the exhibition even though the topics are disturbing.
ADC: Yes, you have spoken in some of your writings about a search for beauty. Are you committed to that as an ideal?
DZC: When I first started painting ten years ago, everything was kind of ugly, distorted, but now that I have learned how to control the brush and have improved my technique, I want to make beautiful things. I’m learning to be more subtle; I give myself room for improvisation, but not without a structure.
ADC: What are the inspirations for your work?
DZC: I learn about composition and technique from books and from the trail and error of practice in the studio. I learn a lot from going to talks, to lectures, like the conference I attended of the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture. That conference really lifted me up, threw me in the air, bashed me around and then, after I regained my senses, I realized that it was one of the most profound experiences I would ever have. It really shaped my intentions about painting—I want to speak to the Chicanos, to the Mexican-American children that, like me, were not exposed to ethnic pride and the beauty of the language, the beauty of the traditional dress. And I learn from my friends, many of them strong women, several are like my teachers, because as you know, I have no formal training in painting or singing or any of the things I do.
ADC: As a painter who is also a performance artist, a writer, as well as many other roles you take on in your art, you seem to have an awareness of yourself as a public person, as a person with a role to play in the community, in addition to your own private journey. Where did that public persona evolve from?
DZC: I think it evolved through my discovery of my gay voice. And my coming out came through a lot of sacrifice. I wanted my voice to be the “first voice” that said, “I am a Chicano, this is what Chicano art is; I am gay, this is what gay art is.” All these perspectives, not limited to any specific one. This is my reality, my identity, my art.