Mexican-Korean Painter Monica Kim Garza Creates A Safe World For Big-Bodied Women Of Color

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The first time I saw a painting by Monica Kim Garza, I said to myself, “That’s me.” It was an image of a brown skinned woman, nearly naked and barefoot with dark hair, nalgas out, perched on a palm tree straight chillin’. She looked beautiful, refreshed, and peaceful. The art that Monica Kim Garza creates centers images of nude or nearly nude, full figured women in a number of different settings, from the beach, to the kitchen, to the bedroom. Her art, however disallowed from the mainstream, is needed in a climate where more and more women of color are demonized for simply wanting to own their bodies.

Born to a Mexican father and Korean mother in New Mexico, Garza spent her childhood and teen years in Central Georgia. “I’d say we grew up in a Mexican/Korean styled way” explains Garza, “which can be hard to imagine… but that’s how we grew up because of our parents.”

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It’s not hard to pick up on the Korean and Mexican cultural identifiers that Garza incorporates into her work. It is not uncommon for Garza to paint an image of a nude woman lounging on her bed with La Virgen de Guadalupe hanging above her, or an image of two topless chestnut-colored women on the kitchen floor making kimchi. Garza frequently pairs Spanish words and their Korean translations side by side in her work, highlighting the duality of her own identity. Many of her girls wear cultural markers that many Latinas, black American women, and other women of color have long worn as bodily adornments such as delicate gold chains and bracelets or long colorful nails resting on the tips of their fingers.

Although Garza’s own ethnic and cultural identities are evident in her work, her subjects are somewhat racially ambiguous, allowing room for women of many different ethnic and racial locations to see themselves and their bodies validated in her paintings.

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“I’ve been told by some friends that they don’t see race, just women. And other people have told me [they see] black, Asian, Latina, Native American,” Garza explains. “I’m happy that anyone of any race can see themselves in my paintings regardless of whatever culture/ethnicity may or may not be apparent.” Most importantly, Garza says of her work, “I mostly envision myself though, because I see myself every day and I just can’t imagine painting something or someone that I don’t identify with.”

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Garza draws a great deal of artistic inspiration from a number of different female artists, writers, and thinkers. Among the women that have influenced her art and identity formation, Garza includes Frida Kahlo, the queen of self-portraiture herself. “There is a kind of visceral tone to her work,” Garza explains, “and when I first started painting I was mostly interested in technique, such as Caravaggio or Courbet, but Frida had this almost tangible emotion coming out of her paintings. That really inspired me to just paint who I am in deeper ways.”

Garza’s other inspirations include the art of Eva Hesse and the writings of Sylvia Plath and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Garza also finds inspiration from artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jennifer Lopez, and Salma Hayek—saying of these giants “they inspire me to be sensual. Maybe none of these women seem apparent in my work, but they inspire me as a woman, which had led me to make the art that I do.” Garza also names her mother as one of the most important influences in her life and in her art: “we weren’t close growing up, but we have grown closer as I’ve approached womanhood. She’s taught me good work ethic, the importance of education and to always learn no matter what, as well as a good fashion sense. Without her, I wouldn’t be me. Without her, I probably would have never discovered my passion for art.” Her father has also played a major role in her development as a woman and as an artist, “although he isn’t a female, my father has always been like a father and mother to me.”

Garza has not always painted nude figures; it was exposure to Pan-American Indigenous art that took her nude drawings from sketchbook to canvas. Garza began painting nudes in 2008, drawing inspiration from Native American as well as Incan art and culture.

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“I just started with drawings,” she explains. “But I never made them into paintings. I was mostly inspired by Native Americans. My dad loves the culture, as he is Mexican. And we went to Arizona – to the Grand Canyon, reservations, etc. – a couple times as I was a kid. It was inspirational. Then, I went to Peru for three months in 2008 I think. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people and food. They have a rich culture and history with the Incas. And I started to focus on the naked figure even more. Everything just evolved naturally.” The women that Garza paints are both heavy and soft, taking up space in their own universe while also embodying a delicateness that is socially associated with thin Anglo women and rarely afforded to women of color or big bodied women.

Not only does Garza celebrate nude women of color and their lonjas in all their glory, she paints women both in motion and at rest. A Monica Kim Garza painting might feature a woman exercising, surfing, bike riding, skateboarding, or lounging, stretching, eating, and drinking. It’s like Garza has taken all of our self-care goals and turned them into art. Indeed, self-care and relaxation are important themes for Garza, as they re-occur throughout her body of work.

I just wanted to be like Frida

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“I love resting and relaxing. I make time to lay down and have this down time,” she nods. “It’s important. I can’t be on go the whole day, every day. I think time alone, in bed or wherever is good to reflect on life and be you.” The women in Garza’s paintings are taking care of themselves, are comfortable, and are not laboring for survival. In a capitalist society built on the backs of unpaid and underpaid women and girls of color, Garza’s paintings of brown skinned women at rest serve as powerful and poignant counter-narratives to the abuse that women of color have historically endured in the midst of colonization, global systemic racism, and patriarchy.

What I love most about Garza’s body of work is that she has created a world, a new dimension where women like me can lounge, eat, exercise, ride bikes, dance, and eat tacos with no clothes on, enjoying the sun and our own bodies without harassment, abuse, shame, or the threat of violence. The way that Garza seamlessly pairs images of nude or topless brown skinned women with iconic cultural and religious imagery like La Virgen is extremely powerful. Nudity or a perceived lack of modesty in many Latino communities is seen as sinful, dirty, and deviant, especially for Latina women. This demonization of the female body has deep roots in the colonization of our tierras, a process that has resulted in the degradation of women and girls in many of our families, churches, and community spaces.

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To be a Latina means that one is often subjected to familial or public shaming for our bodies, self-expression, and sexualities. I love to be naked. If I could walk around with no clothes on without the threat of violence or shame, I would. Garza’s paintings allow me to mentally live out that desire to be free on my own terms and in my own body. In Garza’s world, women can enjoy their bodies, their lonjas, and their nalgas, in the sun, by the water, eating tacos, and chismeando with homegirls—if only! The women that Garza paints are free, free in a way that is not possible for many of us in our daily lived experiences. There is a great sense of safety and serenity in her paintings. The women she paints are safe, multi-dimensional, fed, well hydrated, and their skin looks like it’s been moisturized with the best raw coconut oil in the world.

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In addition to her paintings, sculptures, and mixed media work, Garza has also collaborated with 5BORONYC on a number of skateboards that feature her paintings. Looking toward the future, Garza is focusing on her art and her next moves: “I’m mostly focusing on building my art brand myself, and getting more gallery time, but also really open to all opportunities. I don’t want to lose my passion for art though, so that is my first priority, and I hope the rest will fall into place.” —Mala Muñoz

You can take a gander at Garza’s work on her Instagram and online portfolio.

Thinking about sustainability

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