Spotlight: Wilmer Aburto
Wilmer Aburto is a photography who uses his art for social change. His latest project, Discípulos de Amor, was inspired by a lack of portraiture featuring queer people of colour.
Pride In Business: Can you tell me how you got started with photography?
Wilmer Aburto: I've been practicing photography for a long time. I was introduced to it basically when I had my first camera — when I was 10 years old and had just moved to Canada. My parents had given me 110 mm film camera and I started shooting portraits of friends and family members.
PIB: Why do you think you gravitated towards that form of art?
WA: Honestly, I think it was having a camera as a form of expression. When I was living in Nicaragua and we were preparing for our trip to Canada, I remember going to a photo studio to get our passport photos taken. I remember there was an excitement about knowing that we were going to a photo studio and then the actual experience of sitting for the passport photos. I just felt like it was such an interesting experience of feeling special. I thought, "wow, what an interesting interaction that was." That always had an impact, being the subject and having my photo taken felt so special. When I had my first camera I always thought the person that was getting their photo taken would feel special.
PIB: I don't think I've ever heard anybody say that they had a pleasant experience taking a passport photo.
WA: I know, right? I think I would have been around eight years old at that time.
PIB: Can you tell me how being a queer immigrant in Canada impacts your process?
WA: For this current series I've been working on — it's called Discípulos de Amor — I'm focusing really on capturing representation. When I was growing up here as an immigrant teen, I remember just feeling really hungry to see visuals that I felt would represent me or visuals that I could connect to in pop culture and media. It was challenging for me to see myself represented in all of the different mediums around me like music videos or magazines. So, in the last few years, I've had a more intentional focus in working with people of color and working with people that identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community and queer or femme identities and trans individuals. So, I worked on a series capturing models that were all represented under that scope. I just felt a very natural connection to the work.
I exhibited that work in Italy, in Chicago, and in a solo show here in Calgary in 2017. I kind of felt that it was a closing of a chapter after I had my solo show here in Calgary. Shortly after that, I had been to an art supply store and they had a book section and there was a book that really caught my attention. It was called Contemporary Photography Portraits and it had been published that year. I remember I gravitated to it immediately, I picked it up and I started like just flipping through the pages and there was a lot of female figure represented which, I thought, with art history, that's definitely in line with what we're used to seeing.
But then it really got my attention, this contemporary portrait book didn't have any people of color in it. I didn't see that representation. I really stopped for a moment and thought, you know, I definitely feel inspired to continue that work because I still see that there is a gap in representation and in that intersectionality of different identities. I decided to continue that body of work and that's how this Discípulos de Amor series was born. I thought, "okay, I'm really going to very intentionally continue this work here in Calgary."
PIB: What would you say has been your greatest takeaway from pursuing this project?
WA: Definitely an excitement for creating this body of work here in Calgary and really being able to shift the narratives that I feel I've seen around me. Even within the LGBTQ+ community, I think that for a long time, I've seen different people connect to a narrative of what this representation has looked like in the past. Now I feel really excited as my takeaway being that I can contribute to shifting those narratives that have existed for a long time into something that, to me, feels more inclusive and more representational, having that intersectionality piece and that component there to see more diversity and more representation accurately being captured.
PIB: There appears to be a lot of sort of religious imagery attached to Discípulos de Amor. What inspired that?
WA: I moved to Canada when I was nine and I entered into the Catholic school system right away. It's funny because my introduction to coming to school was on Halloween. In Nicaragua where I was born, we don't celebrate that. It was definitely a culture shock, coming into the school and everybody was dressed up. From that it started an introduction to a lot of Catholic images and the connection of church and the art that has been created through history and the relationship to what Catholicism represents. I think the shifting of cultures at that time in my life really had a major impact in the kind of things that I was taking in. That exposure to Catholic imagery did present itself to me as a really interesting form of art.
With the series, I really wanted to celebrate these intersectionality of identities in a way that to me kind of captured that same impact that I experienced when I was growing up and seeing these larger-than-life, grand stained-glass windows in the churches and the beautiful paintings, sculptures, and statues. So, this is my way of me wanting to celebrate those identities in a similar fashion. I worked with very talented artist here in Calgary who supported in styling the shoots— his name is Colin Menzie. He draws the tattoos on the models. A lot of the models we've worked with have minimal or no tattoos at all. Some of the words that are on their bodies are words in Spanish that are celebrating freedom of power, strength, and love. In combination with the Catholic imagery, to me it's like elevating individuals to really feel celebrated.
PIB: A lot of folks within the LGBTQ+ community may have butted heads with the Catholic church in the past. Did you find that there was any sort of resistance from your models while creating this series?
Actually, I've had quite a positive experience working with the models and a lot of it I would attribute to having this kind of dialogue with the models, explaining the angle of the shoot and what I'm hoping to accomplish and wanting to share. Every model I've worked with has been really excited to be part of it. In the actual sessions, I found that it has sparked really amazing dialogue around these topics around representation and around intersectionality, because I found there was an overlap of these experiences of race, class, gender, HIV status. So, because we're intentionally sitting down together and collaborating in the process, these conversations come up and the models have really opened up and shared their own experiences and where they fit within all of these areas. It's been absolutely amazing, and I feel like I've learned so much and I have a lot of gratitude for the models who contributed to it. I'm really excited because I've had a lot people that want to be part of it.
PIB: When did you first realize that you could use your art as a tool for social change?
WA: A few years back, I was working with a project that was based here in Calgary. It was an anti-graffiti project where youth that were considered high-risk were engaged in an afterschool program where we were basically creating murals that were going to go around the hoarding of construction sites. We were working with a lot of newcomer youth. We were working with a lot of youth that had affiliation to gang activity and, in some cases, kids that had gone through prostitution at a very young age. They were coming out of that and engaging in this afterschool program during critical hours we had identified where youth would usually be engaged in activities that were high-risk. That was the first time where I realized that art is such a powerful tool to be able to engage people in self-realization and growth and development in learning skills — anything from life skills to skills that could be applied towards employment and towards furthering education or connecting them to different opportunities. From there, from that project on, I very intentionally have been involving myself and developing programs that were specifically connected to using art as a tool for social justice.
PIB: Is that where programs like Art Start sprung out of?
WA: Yes, absolutely. Art Start is a model that was actually developed from a program where we took the nine essential skills that the government of Canada has identified are essential to any job. Regardless of which sector an individual is working in, these skills are transferable and applicable to any job. We were designing art workshops based on the skills. For example, how to develop time management skills through a figure drawing class or how to improve communication through a photography workshop where we created a scavenger hunt. A lot of this work I've done through a studio here in Calgary called Studio C — a collaborative art center. We focus primarily on developing programs that are using art for social engagement.
PIB: You mentioned the reason you embarked on your current project was because of a lack of representation. Do you recall when you first felt like you were represented in a medium?
WA: There's an artist, a photographer by the name of Robert Mapplethorpe. When I was introduced to his work he was based in New York and he was capturing the underground scene in New York at the time, the gay scene, and he captured people of color in his work. That was the first time where something really sparked with me and I saw there was a beautiful connection between capturing people's stories that were different from what I was seeing and being done in a beautifully aesthetic way.
PIB: Could you tell what you think the arts community is like in Calgary?
WA: I've been Calgary for a long time and been part of the arts community for decades now. My impression of the community here that we have a lot of very gifted, talented artists in the city and I feel that contribution makes the arts scene in Calgary a thriving one and one to watch out for. A lot of established artists and emerging artists in the city make it very exciting for me to have stayed here for as long as I have. I feel very honoured to be part of the arts community here and to be somebody who is representing the arts community. I've had the conversation come up in the past where people will often ask me why I haven't gone to other cities because my work has been very naturally and very quickly accepted in other cities. Like when I had my work exhibited in Chicago, they saw it and they wanted it. There were no questions asked about it. When I shared that experience with people, the question that often comes up is why stay in Calgary?
I've definitely had barriers. I published a book in 2017 of my work and I had printers here in Calgary refuse to print the work because of religious beliefs. That only motivated me more to be able to connect and find somebody that would print it because it was very important for me to have the book printed here in Calgary. So my response to that has always been that I actually feel very much part of creating that arts community that is thriving here in Calgary because I actually was able to connect to someone that I worked with beautifully in that collaboration of printing the book.
That connects very much to my roots of creating. I think art is definitely something that I feel that I see in this city all the time, presented in ways that are definitely world-class. I think those artists do live in the city. I'm really proud to be part of projects where we're creating opportunities for artists to be recognized for their skills and talent. In the work that we're doing through Studio C, it's really about creating opportunities where these artists are creating business from their art and supporting them in doing that. We’ve worked with newcomer artists, we've worked with artists that have different disabilities and different barriers. That includes working with high-risk youth, with seniors. We've worked with military veterans and with LGBTQ+. Our angle has always been to be able to create paid opportunities, to create a platform for artists to be able to thrive and to be able to have that opportunity to make money from their work.