Laura Aguilar (1959 – 2018) was a Mexican American photographer and a key part of Chicana (an American woman or girl of Mexican origin) art history. A pioneer of intersectional feminism – which aims to separate itself from white feminism by acknowledging women’s differing experiences and identities – her practice is deeply connected to her personal experiences as a working class, queer woman of colour, and as a larger person. Aguilar was born in San Gabriel, California in 1959 and died in Long Beach in 2018, aged just 58. Aguilar suffered from auditory dyslexia and her artistic practice was mostly self-taught. Her work has appeared in over 50 exhibitions internationally and is included in many major institutions and museums including LACMA in Los Angeles, the Whitney Museum in New York, Tate Modern in London and the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York.
In 2023, the V&A Parasol Foundation Women in Photography project acquired several of Aguilar’s artworks, many of which draw on performative self-portraits and site-specific techniques. To celebrate the acquisition, we asked Christopher Velasco and Sybil Venegas, Co-Trustees of the Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016, to comment on Aguilar’s work and her legacy to the history of photography.
Laura Aguilar was, in my opinion, one of the most important artists of her generation, and yet her work was largely ignored by institutions until recently. Why do you think her work went unacknowledged for so long, and why do you think there has been renewed interest in her remarkable work?
Laura’s work, simply put, was ahead of its time. While her work was exhibited in the US and internationally and at times collected by private collectors and friends, few significant institutions acquired her work. She was the subject of many scholarly works and essays during her lifetime, but her work was not on the mainstream radar. Institutional racism, homophobia, the un-critiqued male gaze, and the objectification of the female body all contributed to the lack of interest in her work.
I read that Laura was mainly self-taught, though inspired by her brother and his interest in photography and darkroom processes. Did she have any specific artistic influences or any practitioners whom she admired?
Yes, her brother introduced her to photography. He had a small darkroom in their home, and as a young girl, Laura was inspired to learn photography. Although she never obtained a formal education in photography, she was curious about art, art history, and the artistic process. She was constantly reading, researching, and asking questions, and over the years, she developed and maintained many friendships with other photographers and artists. Ultimately, Laura was a History of Photography student and a modernist photographer at heart. Her important influences included Judy Dater, Tina Moditti, Lola Bravo, Imogen Cunningham, the F/64 Group, Edward Weston, and Ruth Bernhard. Later influences were Duane Michals, Jim Goldberg, and Joyce Tennison.
Aguilar’s work is so unapologetically political, spanning critiques of race, class, sexuality, femininity, neurodiversity, and issues that we might now define as ‘intersectional feminism’. How did Laura feel about the ‘labelling’ of her work?
Laura never labeled her work as anything but her truth. She knew her work was powerful and provocative and also knew that scholars and curators would put their own interpretations and ideas onto it. She always wanted to ensure people saw the work as about finding freedom in oneself. Laura innately understood intersectionality and the feminist perspective as well as the politics of cultural identity; however, she never would use those terms to describe her work.
The body and the landscape, specifically the American landscape, are key features in Aguilar’s work and a keystone of the works acquired by the V&A. Can you tell us why these elements formed such a significant part of her practice?
The nudes in nature are the most recognizable works in Laura’s career and the most collected by institutions. Laura loved nature and felt free in the natural landscape. She was at home in nature, especially in the rocky woodlands and deserts of the American Southwest. Much of her work was inspired by the spiritual presence of her ancestral lineage, particularly her native Californio roots from the San Gabriel River Basin in Southern California.
Aguilar’s work is held by some of the most important and influential global Collections, from MoMA and The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles to the Tate and now, proudly, the V&A. Why do you believe it is important for institutions to collect and preserve this kind of work?
Museums and many institutions in the post-pandemic world have had to evolve with the local demographic and global transformations of the 21st century. As many artists in the last century created the intersectional discourse for our current world, Laura’s work resonates with our present moment as testimonials for an evolving society.
What is the purpose of the Laura Aguilar Estate? Can you tell us how this was created and what its ambitions are for Aguilar’s legacy?
The Laura Aguilar Trust of 2016 was created by Laura prior to her passing in 2018. Since then, the trust has managed Laura’s photographic archive, assisted museums and private collections with acquisitions of her work, and supported exhibitions and scholarly publications. For the Laura Aguilar Trust, maintaining Laura’s legacy as one of the most significant photographers of the 21st century is its primary concern and objective.