Queer Artist Coco Riot Talks Myths, Minotaurs
By Lizzy Hill
At first glance, Coco Guzman’s drawings and papier-mâché sculptures of colorful beasts wouldn’t seem out of place in a children’s nursery. But if you look a little closer — past their bright, cheerful palettes and storybook-like aesthetic — you’ll find something else entirely. Guzman is wrestling with incredibly charged topics, ranging from the cultural trauma that still lingers in Spain after the years of General Franco’s dictatorship, to gender-based discrimination against LGBTQ people today.
Coco Guzman — AKA Coco Riot — is a Spanish-born queer artist based in Canada who uses play as a tactic to fight back against systematic oppression. Guzman believes that unearthing the buried histories of the past is key to discovering our “secret present,” and in the power of play to transform the world we live in. And after stepping into the artist’s fantastic, imaginary story worlds, where boundaries slip away as characters weave their own colorful destinies, it’s easy to fall under Guzman’s spell, catching their contagious sense of hope for a better future.
The Establishment chatted with Coco about their unique fusion of activism, art-making, and the palpable power of myths.
Lizzy: I was really struck by the way you use these very happy, Crayola colors to illustrate a very dark narrative in your Los Fantasmas series — that of the 200,000 or more people we now know were buried in mass graves during the Spanish Civil War and General Franco’s dictatorship. Why did you choose to illustrate such a tragic story with such irrepressibly playful colors?
Coco: The first reason is because I want people to come closer. The drawings are very small, very detailed, and I want you to come closer and have that intimacy with the story. So I think that if I used dark colors or colors that symbolize a tragedy, most people would be less inclined to come closer and look.
And I want you to think, ‘Oh this looks like a fun story, let’s see what’s happening,’ right? So I use these bright colors as the door — the entrance to the story. And the second reason is that yes, it’s a tragic story, but I also feel there’s a story of hope in the fact that now there’ve been so many struggles and social movements born here in Spain. So it’s not all about tragedy. It’s also about hope; even in a place with this really intense history and this genocide that was permitted, we can still laugh, we can still make jokes, we can still have fun.
Lizzy: I like the fact that as an artist and an activist you’re using play as a tactic to creatively fight back against authorities. For instance, your own experiences as a trans person forced to navigate the heteronormative world of public bathrooms were probably incredibly frustrating, yet you responded to the absurdity of people trying to enforce strictly gendered rules on who can and cannot use public toilets by creating your own playful bathroom signs with your project Genderpoo. What inspired you to create the very first sign, the mermaid?
Coco: I think I use play and I use fun to make people come closer and also because the audience who I’m talking to is my peers, so they already know the problems. We already know what’s wrong with the world, so it’s more, for me, a way of, like, making a tribute to my friends. That’s why I take that approach of playfulness.
So the mermaid, as you were saying, [reflects] my experience of trying to go to public washrooms all the time and being told I was in the wrong washroom — it just gets tiring to always argue or always be frustrated or always get angry or be scared, etcetera, so one day I just decided to do my own washroom sign.
I was like: ‘I feel like a mermaid with a mustache, because I have a mustache and also because I love the water, I love the sea.’ I really like that tension that it created. It’s just funny. It’s just a mermaid with a mustache, but because the mermaid has a mustache it changes everything, you know.
It’s very interesting, actually — when they see the sign so many people say, ‘Oh it’s a man-mermaid with breasts.’ It’s like the mustache becomes the center of attention and the center of gender. Somehow [the mermaid’s female body] just gets erased by the mustache.
Lizzy: You seem to always be drawn to everyday materials; things you’d find in most peoples’ homes, like markers, newspaper, and papier-mâché. Why do you choose to work with common materials as opposed to, say, oil paints?
Coco: For me, that process is so important. Like, who can afford to buy these very expensive materials? I cannot afford to buy very expensive materials! I like drawing with anything I have because I like that it’s cheap, that it’s accessible, that I can travel with it, I can go to a library with it. I don’t need to have anything special, and I think that makes things much more accessible — I don’t mean just accessible for me as the art maker but also accessible for the people who are looking at the piece.
Lizzy: You’re going to be showing your big immersive installation, “The Demonstration,” in Montreal in 2016. In the work in that show, you draw a lot of Greek mythology — why did you choose to focus on the minotaur character?
Coco: The reason for the minotaur is because I like monsters a lot. I like drawing monsters because I think as queer people, we’ve always been represented as monsters, and for me it’s important to be proud — to be proud of that monstrosity, to kind of like revindicate that difference. And the minotaur factor, it’s just an interesting story for me, the story of this monster that’s half bull/half man and is going into a labyrinth and it cannot escape from it. The only way of escaping is by a hero coming and killing him.
For me this is a whole metaphor of society and how society treats those who are different. So I decided to play with the minotaur and turn it into this female minotaur — which is not part of the story; the minotaur’s always male — and also have her freeing herself from the labyrinth and being the one guiding this whole demonstration of other figures who are walking toward the end of the labyrinth. They are following a golden kite. We were talking about playfulness, and for me, the kite, that’s what it represents: liberation through playing, liberation through being a child, or liberation through letting yourself go with the wind. So it’s not going to be our brain or our intellect that’s going to free us. It’s going to be our emotions and our capacity to have fun together.