Burque Unite: Gerald Lovato

The Orpheum Community Hub thumped with the surround stereo sound of an ominous heartbeat, intensifying as onlookers waited to see what would happen next. Finally, in white shorts and a teeth guard, artist Gerald Lovato entered the gallery dressed for a fight; the only thing missing were his gloves.

In the center of the room hung a punching bag covered with Lovato’s handwriting that covered nearly the entire surface. These writings read as a stream-of-consciousness journal, narrating the artist’s traumas. The cylindrical shape of the object partly obscured the words, and the tightly packed rows of print reminded me of cuneiform script, specifically the ancient stele known as the Code of Hammurabi, which recorded ideas of justice and punishment as dictated by the god Shamash to the Babylonian King Hammurabi. Lovato’s text is not a recorded supernatural narration to man; instead, the text descends from the artist’s personal demons, flashbacks, and moments he cannot forget. The punishments are not prescribed by a deity but by the artist’s conscience and unhealed wounds.

Gerald Lovato’s performance, The Fight for Change, which he refers to as “the fight of his life,”[1] anchors Burque Unite, his honors thesis exhibition,[2] encapsulating the artwork he created while earning his bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of New Mexico (UNM).In addition to the performance, the exhibition included paintings, photography, sculptures, sound, installation, and a day of public programming.

Burque Unite centers on Lovato’s lived experience in Albuquerque, New Mexico, growing up in the International District, often referred to as “the war zone” because of the area’s extreme poverty, violent crime, and drug and gang activity. Lovato was raised in a family of addicts, and his life was full of hardships and loss. And after a near-death experience when he was stabbed, he turned to martial arts and became a prized and internationally successful fighter. Fighting was his first way of coping with the mental ills, drugs, and death that surrounded him. Art is his second career and his new avenue for catharsis.

By virtue of the medium, Lovato’s The Fight for Change recalls the work of contemporary artist Jeffrey Gibson (Choctaw/Cherokee), who, after working through his aggressions with a therapist and physical trainer, made a series of punching bags with highly detailed beadwork—designs that form large, legible text—inspired by Native American fashions.[3] From his experience using physical release for healing, Gibson chose to create something beautiful and culturally specific in its aftermath.

In The Fight for Change, Lovato positions himself as both the punisher and the punished, contending with his most formidable opponent—himself. Each swing at the bag splat blood across the gallery, and each blow from his battered fists further obscured the text with blood-soaked marks. Self-harm has been a staple of performance art as seen in the work of Marina Abramović, Regina José Galindo, José Villalobos, and Cassils, to name a few, with the latter having a direct connection to a physical fight and bodybuilding.[4] The body becomes the medium just as oil, acrylic, or tempera on the canvas. The smashing of flesh and drawing of blood is something that can evoke an immediate empathetic response from the viewer, and the destruction and release of rage are a creative liberation from suffering for the artist.

During the performance, Lovato brought the audience’s attention to his painting series titled Loss. He approached, addressed, and embraced each of the six portraits, hung on the wall in the order of each sitter’s passing. He told the story of his loved ones by speaking to them directly. Through listening to these private conversations, audience members heard the names and learned the individual stories of their deaths: suicide, accidental overdose, homicide, gun violence, suicide, and homicide, all occurring between 2009 and 2022. Many people in attendance personally knew those depicted in the series, and nearly the whole room sobbed alongside Lovato. It was a space of collective mourning.

After addressing the succession of paintings, he returned to the bag once more, beating it until it fell to the ground. He then proceeded to annihilate the bag, until pulp spilled onto the floor. Lovato concluded by touching his forehead with bloody fists and then raising his arms into the air as if into a victorious (or crucified) position. He won the fight against his past, or at least he was one step closer to healing from his losses.

It was important for Lovato to draw real blood in The Fight for Change as homage to his ancestral roots.[5] He wanted to connect to ancient concepts of bloodletting and Aztec histories, like in the portrait of his mother in his series Wins that portrays her emerging from Cōātlīcue (recognized by the double serpent head). The Aztec goddess wore a skirt of snakes (with serpent heads as volutes of blood) and a necklace of human hands and hearts. In Lovato’s version, she is displayed with an additional symbol taken from Catholicism, a sacred heart, evoking ideas of blood and sacrifice.

Cōātlīcue birthed Huitzilopochtli the great warrior, also known as the Turquoise Prince, whose name also means hummingbird.[6] Like Mother Mary who birthed Jesus miraculously, Cōātlīcue was impregnated with Huitzilopochtli by a cluster of feathers. Huitzilopochtli’s symbol of the hummingbird is also an iconographic reference for warriors who died in battle.[7]  By referencing his mother as Cōātlīcue, Lovato connects himself to Huitzilopochtli.[8]

Throughout Mesoamerica, including the Maya and Olmec cultures, people perceived the hummingbird’s long beak as a symbol of blood and war. Scholars Mary Miller and Karl Taube state that “the act of bloodletting was commonly compared to the hummingbird sucking nectar from a flower.”[9] And the speed and aggressive nature of the tiny creature may have inspired it as the stand-in for Huitzilopochtli’s fierceness as a warrior.[10] For Lovato, the hummingbirds throughout his paintings represent his personal spirit guides, although he likes the ancient connections to bloodletting.[11] In Mesoamerica, bloodletting was performed to talk to the ancestors and gods, and Lovato uses blood in his performance as a ritual to speak with the deceased.[12]

Blood is an essential medium for many contemporary artists to call attention to atrocities in communities globally. For example, in Quién puede borrar las huellas? (Who can Erase the Traces?), Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo walked barefoot with her feet dipped in chicken’s blood to leave red footprints in protest of a military leader, with deep ties to Indigenous genocide, who was running for office. We can think of Lovato’s blood stains as reminders of those who die each year of mental health-related issues such as drug use, suicide, and gun violence while little is done by those in power.

In addition to the performance, the exhibition contained three series of paintings: Loss, which the artist interacted with during the performance; Wins #1, which includes his immediate family members, the portrait of his mother, and his fighting self-portrait; and Cycles of Addiction, which includes a self-portrait of the artist as a child. A sound piece was also included, and three separate series of photography were exhibited: Community Portrait, Wins #2, and Guns Down.

Image courtesy of the artist. Film still.

Lovato pays respect to his family through paintings and Burqueños through photography in Burque Unite, and his devotion to place is infectious. Although his work addresses the dark issues of suicide, homicide, drug addiction, and mental health, he also highlights the city’s positive side: the community, a city with people full of resilience, grit, perseverance, and shared traditions.

The exhibition’s photography components included Community Portrait, an uplifting and communal installation of black-and-white photos suspended from the ceiling, highlighting survivors and pillars of the local community. In the center hung a boxing glove with a Zia sun, the symbol appropriated by New Mexico from Zia Pueblo, positioned in such a way as to suggest pulling someone up. Lovato’s Wins #1 series captures the artist’s gratitude and inspiration to continue the fight: His immediate family is noted, especially his daughter, as his greatest motivation to battle on. Wins #2 is a continuation of the artist’s portraits of living family members as larger-than-life-size photo transfers on silk tapestries. The little boy holding a Scooby-Doo toy (Lovato’s nephew Johnathan) reminds us all of the urgency of addressing the issues that endanger our youth and our future. Guns Down comprises smaller black-and-white images that recall the consequences of inaction by documenting a gun violence protest that occurred just following the death of Lovato’s other nephew (Gabriel) in 2021. Lovato spoke at this rally, and excerpts of this dialogue were used in his sound piece, New Mexico True.

Along with the audio recording from the protest, Lovato mixed tourism sound clips into the piece, demonstrating the conflicting and contradictory concepts of place. New Mexico has a complicated multicultural fabric with conflicting historical narratives. The tourism department promotes the state colloquially as the “Land of the Enchantment” for its stunning big skies and desert landscapes. New Mexico is known for the sunsets and red and green chiles; it is also known as the “land of mañana,” meaning the land of tomorrow, boasting a laid-back or slower-paced lifestyle. Nevertheless, within this picturesque narrative, New Mexico is also home to the atomic bomb, and the state’s largest city is rife with addiction, poverty, and homelessness.[13]  Historically, it is the land of the successful Pueblo Revolt. Lovato’s work exemplifies the complex “politics of place” and the location’s chronicles of mixing the oppressor and the oppressed.

Cycles of Addiction, from 2020, stylistically reflects the artist’s Chicano art influences. From 2014 to 2016, Lovato lived in San Diego where he was largely influenced by the famous murals of Chicano Park, a case for art and activism that concluded with a community win and a mural mecca. Lovato studied painting under Andrea Rushing at the San Diego Art Academy in Barrio Logan. Additionally, during this time, he met and was mentored by Richardo Isalas and Enrique Lugo, aka Chikle. The series includes a depiction of a two-year-old with a larger-than-life personality informed by a photograph of Lovato as a toddler with a bandana around his forehead, a beer in his hands, and a joint in his mouth. Lovato painted the image of himself and included his personal iconography, the hummingbird, and another feature found throughout his work, his fight mask, appropriated from the late rapper MF DOOM, shown as a tiny medallion foreshadowing his future as a martial arts fighter.

Other background elements of this painting highlight the location. The child is standing in the middle of the road with classic cars on either side of him. Albuquerque is known for its cruising culture, and Central Avenue is packed with classic cars, special chrome rims, and hydraulic lowriders every weekend. The street signs are visibly Central and Edith, and the license plate reads the iconic Chicano slogan, “Sí, se Puede,”  traditionally translated as “Yes, We Can,” implying that it is possible to make a difference in our communities if we are united.

Outside of the gallery, the programming felt like a festival, providing an opportunity for the community to come together. There were Aztec dancers, Mariachi bands, enchiladas, and paletas. The artist even rented a bounce house, noting that many visitors would have children in tow, and it would be best for them to be playing outside during some parts of the programming.

Lovato also gathered together organizations that help address the core issues of his exhibition through resources and other means of support. For example, Bernalillo County offered Narcan (a lifesaving overdose treatment) nasal spray and training, and Serna Solutions, a counseling firm, provided information for helping loved ones who struggle with addiction. Other participants included Crossroads for Women, an organization that helps women transition after incarceration; Token IBIS, a philanthropic organization that aims to help everyone donate to special causes; New Mexico Crusaders for Justice, a group for those affected by gun violence; and Turquoise Lodge Hospital, which focuses on substance abuse treatments and rehabilitation.

With all of the sorrow present, Lovato created space throughout the experience for reverence, and celebration was most apparent in the community ofrenda, altars constructed to honor the lives of loved ones in the tradition of Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Additionally, the community feast, which Lovato classified as a happening and a food-as-art gathering, was the ultimate balance of pain and hopefulness, challenging us, as viewers and community members, to not ignore the problems, to not become overwhelmed and desensitized, but instead to come together for our survival.

[1] Author interview with the artist, August 3, 2022.

[2]Orpheum Community Hub, Albuquerque, New Mexico, October 29, 2022. Burque is an affectionate name for Albuquerque, one of the nicknames for the city.

 [3] Jeffrey Gibson, “Jeffrey Gibson on the origins of his beaded punching bags,” New York Studio School: Lecture Series Archive, August 31, 2017. https://nyss.org/jeffrey-gibson-origins-beaded-punching-bags.

[4] ​​I am specifically thinking of Cassils’ “Becoming an Image.”

[5] Author interview with the artist, November 7, 2022.

[6] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Huitzilopochtli.” Encyclopedia Britannica, August 30, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Huitzilopochtli.

[7] Ibid.

[8] The artist aimed to reference Tonantzin for her connections with the Virgin of Guadalupe.

[9] Mary Miller and Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (London: Thames & Hudson, 2021), 98.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Author interview with the artist, November 7, 2022.

[12] David Freidel, Linda Schele, and Joy Parker. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path (New York: William Morrow, 1993), 202.

[13] Jadira Gurulé, “Unraveling Latinx Racial Politics: Museums, Intersectionality, and Art in Conversation.” Chiricú Journal: Latina/o Literatures, Arts, and Cultures 4, no. 2 (2020): 66.

The performance appeared as the live version of the painted self-portrait displayed on the adjacent wall, a figure consumed by a dust-ball (or emotional whirlwind) of memories, dark urges, and fighting. As heavy as the performance became for all parties involved, like the lone monarch butterfly in the painting, we were ultimately left with the ideas of transformation and change.

I wrote this essay for the Burque Unite catalogue published to accompany the exhibition and community healing event by artist Gerald Lovato in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 29, 2022.

To read the other essays and see artwork images, click here for the publication.

To learn more about the artist, visit his website at https://www.geraldlovato.com/.