Look Pretty: The Art of Jovan Israel [Mexico City]

Photos by Caitlin Donohue; text design by Jovan Israel

Mexico City illustrator Jovan Israel was one of the only boys invited to the Sad Girls y Que secret Facebook group. For rabid intersectional internet feminists, this fact implies many things. For the less informed, I will elaborate.

A week ago I had a photoshoot with Israel. At a certain point, it became clear we'd entered the world of his drawings, where everything is bright, gender roles have disappeared and you can't stop talking about how beautiful everything is. He was on a bridge in the botanical gardens of the Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City’s Central Park, fall-stepping with heavy feet because I suggested it would give the camera more time to catch him mid-air (this kind of worked). In the middle of our stoned horsing around, we heard piano music. There was a white wooden piano under a canopy at the garden's entrance and an off-duty park security guard had started to play it. Everything was a bright shade of green that made me super calm about the afternoon rain, which we hadn't planned on. I had this weird sense of balance. 

Israel's work is a land full of cats, blunts, girls and genderqueer chola aliens in cut-off jean shorts, Destiny’s Child shirts and combat boots. Over here, Hello Kitty with tits and a dick. Over there, a portrait of Audre Lorde with an uncharacteristically long (for Tumblr) caption in Spanish that talks about her importance as an activist. His work reflects a shifting gender identity in Mexico and explores the boundaries of the culturally-specific definitions of sissy and trans in a way that is easily consumed and shared via the internet. He counts among his collaborators zine makers from around the continent, including Beth Siveyer's Girls Get Busy feminist platform.  

When you think of political illustration in Mexico, you inevitably flash on José Guadalupe Posada, a populist printmaker whose work was filled with the violence of the country, with death and dying and corruption and class warfare -- things that are sadly still present hundredfold in the Mexico of 2015. Israel’s work is political too, but not in the confrontational ways that Posada's was. Israel's pieces are solution-focused. They establish space for one’s self, regardless of terrorism or an institutionalized fear of violence. A year ago, the Instituto de Juventud (Institute of Youth) asked him to illustrate a pamphlet combating teen pregnancy, drug use and domestic abuse. These are real problems in the country, no less dire for the drug war that rages around them. He remembers sitting on the metro the day they were handed out to the public, watching people throw them in the trash and die from laughter over slangy conversations in the panels. They represented something new, something that was really only meant to be understood by a new generation of Mexicans.

The 24 year old got his start drawing fashion illustration, filling the Internet with renditions of his favorite images from magazines. But he got tired of drawing the same angular body over and over. Sitting by a bank of cactus, Israel removed a sheet from the stuffed folder of work that he brought with him. He showed it to me, a drawing of a quartet of women morphed and screwed to reflect the discomfiting effects of the fashion industry. "I should do more stuff like this," he reflected. Nowadays, every body type under the sun shows up in his work, lovingly drawn bellies and thighs among them.

The work's activist bent is clear, so it makes sense that Israel's creative endeavors go beyond the page. This winter, he and friend/fashion designer Eduardo "La Mendoza" Mendoza Laguna started a reggaeton-heavy queer party in Mexico City called Mami Slut. They created the event (there have been two parties so far) so that they and their friends could get into Latin rhythms, dodging the electro pop that tends to dominate gay bars. Israel designed the party’s logo, a chola with her eyes low, face framed by gold hoops. The day we went to the park, Israel and I had a brainstorming session about how Mami Slut’s twerk contest could avoid the peer pressure trap. He wanted to make sure that it didn’t end up being a bunch of people on stage twerking because their friends made them get up there. We agreed that Israel would have to take a more proactive role in framing it next time. It's his party, after all. 

I asked Israel, while we were sitting by yet another pond, this one covered in lily pads that looked straight out of The Little Mermaid, how he’d describe his own work. He laughed, thought, said “loco,” thought some more, and stuck with his original answer. I guess in a world that's crazy, it's the crazy people who are the most sane.


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