Tejano music icon Selena Quintanilla Pérez is the focus of Travis Boyer’s presentation in the FotoFest group show entitled In Place of an Index.
“She was a really important part of my growing up,” the Brooklyn-based visual artist tells OutSmart. His exhibit is now on display at Silver Street Studios through November 13.
Boyer went to a high school in Fort Worth in the late 1990s that had a large Latinx population. Tejano culture was prevalent, and not just limited to the Latinx students. People from all backgrounds listened and danced to Tejano music.
“It was really accessible, and I loved it. A lot of people, like Selena, didn’t speak Spanish but really loved her music. It was a bigger cultural phenomenon, not limited to any one group.”
Boyer was a teenager when Selena was murdered in 1995 by Yolanda Saldívar. A big Selena fan, Boyer was deeply affected by her death.
“There is a strange thing about queer culture and especially about gay men—we often have kind of a diva that we hyper-relate to,” Boyer notes. “Especially with tragic divas like Judy Garland, Marylin Monroe, and Amy Winehouse. For me, Selena was a tragic diva and I identified with her.”
Not wanting to focus on Selena’s death in his artwork, Boyer set out to portray an alternative reality. “The premise for the show (and you kinda have to stay with me on this),” he laughs, “is what if none of those terrible things had happened and not only was Selena still alive, but the Selena store would be more akin to stores like Colette? Colette was a store in Paris that did a lot of cool artist collaborations.
“As a way to talk about that history and my passion for it but without accessing a history that’s inappropriate for me, I imagined that I would be exactly myself, Travis Boyer, an artist being commissioned by the Selena store to make some cool things.”
Among those “cool things” are horse blankets with images of Selena’s shapely legs woven into them. “Think of Polo shirts. Very few people are going to a polo match or riding in a polo competition. The sport is very exclusive, and yet Polo shirts have this aspirational cachet that everyone accepts. Same thing with Hermès. Some of these fancy brands that we think of for handbags and scarves, started as high-end equestrian gear. I actually use the same size as the Hermès horse blankets for the Selena blankets.”
Along with those blankets, Boyer created aluminum hand mirrors that have a kind of a 3D image of Selena. “They kinda look like pizza cutters to me now. I actually love that. In the film Selena, there’s a really famous scene where she’s eating pizza with Chris Perez and she says, “I can eat a whole pizza all by myself.” So I thought in this absurd luxury-art world that I’m trying to conjure—in this alternative history—the idea of a sterling-silver Selena pizza cutter just really warms my heart.”
Boyer’s exhibit features items from the Selena Etc. store, which the singer had built up before her death in 1995. Boyer believes that fashion and commerce were Selena’s ticket to independence. The music was always going to be the family’s business, but the Selena Etc. store was hers—and of little interest to the family as a whole.
Another item in the exhibit is a framed poster of a Selena ad for Agree shampoo, one of many commercial endorsements the singer had. The poster is framed in smoked plexiglass and is somewhat obscured, forcing viewers to search for the image.
“You have to stand there for a minute in order to find it. I also made the plexiglass somewhat reflective, so as you stand there looking for her you also eventually see yourself.”
Selena-themed prepaid phone cards are among the memorabilia found in Boyer’s exhibit. “Prepaid phone cards are very much a 1990s thing, but they’re also an immigrant thing,” Boyer explains. “People who don’t have bank accounts or credit cards use prepaid phone cards to call home to other countries. These are people who are in the process of transitioning to a new country, to a new economy. That Selena was a symbol for them is fascinating.”
Along with creating an alternative reality where Selena was not only alive but prospering as a high-end retail magnate, Boyer wanted to make a statement about gun violence: Hey, it didn’t have to be that way for Selena and it doesn’t have to be this way for us now.
Boyer, who has lost friends to gun violence, points to Yolanda Saldívar, currently serving a life term in a Texas prison for murdering Selena. She was able to legally buy a gun.
“I understand the cultural arguments, that it’s part of a complicated Wild West identity kind of thing. But that gun was purchased and returned and then purchased again. Yolanda Saldívar had a criminal background and was clearly having a mental breakdown, but we let her have a gun. Wouldn’t you rather have Selena? I know I’d rather have my friend Clay. So why is this necessary?”
Boyer is sensitive to the fact that as a white gay man, he’s interpreting someone else’s history and culture in his FotoFest exhibit. “When I did the show in 2017, I basically gave round-the-clock tours of the show in order to explain exactly where I was coming from, my personal history, and why Selena was so important to me. I’m just a regular gay guy. There are a lot of Latinx writers and cultural producers who can speak in a more well-rounded way about Selena.
“It’s tricky putting people who are dead into the queer framework, but that aspect of it should be pretty clear to people. I think a lot of kids—and not just queer kids, but trans kids and people in the drag community—connected with Selena in a really profound way, and it is dynamic and beautiful. I think it’s disappointing that there’s not more permission for Selena drag. Selena was a drag genius.
“Showing at FotoFest, I felt there was an obligation to show something relevant to my growing up in Texas. I really needed to leave Texas in order to be able to be an artist. It’s regrettable that Texas wasn’t the right place for me to make a life at that time, but it’s an honor to get to come back and have that echo.”
What: In Place of an Index, presented in conjunction with the 2021 Texas Biennial
When: September 2–November 13, Wednesdays through Saturdays, 11 a.m.–5 p.m.
Where: Silver Street Studios, 2000 Edwards Street
Artists: Regina Agu, Travis Boyer, Tay Butler, Ja’Tovia Gary, Ryan Hawk, Baseera Khan, Autumn Knight, Annette Lawrence, Adam Marnie and Aura Rosenberg, Stephanie Concepcion Ramirez, Kara Springer