La Rubia Negra: The Erotic Art of Gerardo Navarro

January 20200

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Artist Gerardo Navarro Gómez lives in a lush, tranquil setting 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 amongst us.  But, yes, accompanying paintings that express religious imagery and childlike carefree scenes are those of quite another theme, carefully hidden from view. 

The women in the Navarro Gómez family weave cotton textiles on their backstrap looms, while Gerardo is busy painting all manner of contorted body parts, at times spewing the lifeblood of humankind.  They all, matriarch included, lightly laugh, joke and slough it off in response to my pointed and arguably embarrassing questions.  No subject is taboo, nor provokes shame.  Perhaps the Eden-like environment is the key to the harmony between such different forms of creativity in one family.  The family lives in the Catholic rural world of Santo Tomás Jalieza, about 40 minutes south Oaxaca City.

Residents have been weaving cotton textiles for umpteen generations, more recently primarily for the tourist trade – table runners and placemats, napkins, purses, leather-trimmed belts, change purses, eyeglass cases and more.  In the case of the Navarro Gómez family, the trade dates back only a couple of generations.  Inhabitants remain to a large extent self-sufficient through ranching and agriculture, relying if not on sheep, goats or cows, then certainly upon chickens and turkeys – and subsistence crops such as corn, beans and squash.  The vagaries of Oaxacan tourism require it.

Navarro grew up rejecting formal education:  “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 one teacher did impact his future.  “She was the only one who saw something in me different from the others.  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.”

In January 1994, he left for California, intent on a new life:  “I wanted to leave behind everything from my past, so I even burned all of my little writings from those afternoons 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. His mother Mariana and sisters Margarita, Inés and Crispina, had developed a reputation for fashioning textiles of extremely high quality, setting them apart from most other townspeople.  Crispina in particular found herself a niche, 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 outside Mexico.  She’s been in the company of four Mexican presidents, and even visited former President Vicente Fox at his ranch. The family had become accustomed to hosting dignitaries at their modest, yet spacious and immaculately kept, home. Frequently artists would attend to buy handicrafts, and to just chat.  And who wouldn’t be so drawn to the family, residing in one of the most welcoming environments imaginable.   

The late Juan Alcázar, acclaimed Oaxacan artist, and his wife Justina Fuentes, a talented painter in her own right, were one such couple.  Of course, Navarro knew nothing of them at the time, other than that they were city folk who appreciated quality textiles.  One day in early August 1994, a visitor of German extraction, Helmut Kohl, came by to admire 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.  

Over the next several years, daily from nine to six, Navarro would visit the Alcázar / Fuentes workshop, initially working with pencil, then ink, and eventually watercolors.  While others were in groups taking courses while 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, 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 theirs.

Navarro first exhibited 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 exhibit’s inauguration, 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 was erotica, though from the outset Navarro had been creating art with sexual content.  He’s always feared exhibiting such pieces, even at home: “I still keep it apart from the rest of my work, in a separate plastic sleeve, face down.  I won’t show them unless people ask; 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 painting hidden behind another. 

Narvarro has recently been painting more erotica. But he never decides “I’m going to do erotica starting today.” He doesn’t start out with a particular idea – 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 with a piece, then a sequence of pieces will emerge.”

Many of Navarro’s works 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 acknowledges with embarrassment, “I know that because I’m not educated, there are always errors in spelling and grammar.”  Such works remind the viewer of the Mexican votive painting tradition (often referred to as ex voto, to reflect thanks and devotion for a divine favor or benefit). “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, 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 theirs.

Navarro first exhibited 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 exhibit’s inauguration, 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 was erotica, though from the outset Navarro had been creating art with sexual content.  He’s always feared exhibiting such pieces, even at home: “I still keep it apart from the rest of my work, in a separate plastic sleeve, face down.  I won’t show them unless people ask; 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 painting hidden behind another. 

Narvarro has recently been painting more erotica. But he never decides “I’m going to do erotica starting today.” He doesn’t start out with a particular idea – 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 with a piece, then a sequence of pieces will emerge.”

Many of Navarro’s works 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 acknowledges with embarrassment, “I know that because I’m not educated, there are always errors in spelling and grammar.”  Such works remind the viewer of the Mexican votive painting tradition (often referred to as ex voto, to reflect thanks and devotion for a divine favor or benefit).

In Navarro’s lighthearted La rubia negra (the black blonde, 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; another translation is “the gloomy blonde.”  The imagery dispenses with the need for written explanation. 

In 1996, Fuentes told Navarro it was time to try working with oils.  She gave him a canvas 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 tucked away in his workshop. 

“You 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, occurred once 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 lets loose and enables bizarre sexual metaphors to predominate. 

“I’m not interested in exhibiting in other countries,” Navarro states. “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 that sentiment. They infrequently travel out of the country to exhibit.  And for local fiestas and family obligations, generally one family member remains at home.  Being available for those who appreciate their work is a priority.  

The division of labor in the Navarro Gómez household is 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 the animals.  Most are subject to weekly rotation.  Gerardo begins his artistic day only after everything else 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.  He has not been in a long-term relationship since beginning his career as an artist some 25 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, 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.

One of Gerardo’s non-erotic oils graces the cover of Alvin’s book, Mezcal in the Global Spirits Market:  Unrivalled Complexity, Innumerable Nuances (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).  

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