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Move Over, Barbie — This Queer Chicana Artist Built Her Own Dream House

by Sanam Sindhi

July 11, 2017
Image credit: Bibs Moreno

Gabriela Ruiz is building her first home. On July 13, the Los Angeles-based designer, model, and performance artist known to her fans as Leather Papi is opening her first solo installation, “Haus,” a multi-room walk-through exhibition reimagining a home’s traditional rooms. There’s a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, a bedroom — plus, one not-so-traditional dungeon. In a conversation with GOOD, the queer Chicana artist and child of immigrants opened up about the sex- and body-positive origins underpinning her unusual new digs, along with what it’s like to make her way in the art world without a traditional support system.

What inspired you to create this installation?

I’m a multi-dimensional person and creating a multi-room installation is a way for me to show the different layers of me. You only invite people to your home who are very special to you. I’m a performance artist as well, but this installation feels way more intimate than performing in front of other people.

Why are you ready to show this part of yourself now?

Because I was given the opportunity to have access to a free gallery space where I could show my work. I can’t afford to rent a space out and pay gallery owners and work through a middleman because the art world is so inaccessible, especially for women.

If society isn't going to make room for bodies like mine, then I will.

And even more so for queer Chicana women. I didn’t graduate from an institution. I don’t have a degree. I have to perform as someone who does. There are so many requirements — such as social capital and access to wealth — to be validated and taken seriously as an artist. For someone like me, who doesn’t have access to those things, an opportunity like this presenting itself feels like a gift.

Being a first-generation child of an immigrant often means that we are obligated to stay home and help our families. Is part of the reason you’re creating this house because you don’t have your own space?

Yes. I live with my family in the [San Fernando] Valley — my work studio is the only space I have. My room at home doesn’t feel like it’s mine. It’s an exchange for the help that I give my family. I want my own space eventually. This installation is a way for me to create that for myself. 

But your mom is very supportive of your art, isn’t she?

She is, but she doesn’t understand it. She can’t grasp a “creative process” because she’s a working-class immigrant, and when you’re a working-class immigrant, you aren’t necessarily granted the time or resources to be creative or pursue art. So for me, being a first-generation Chicana artist was difficult in the sense that I can’t look to my family for examples. I had no guidelines for my identity or what I wanted to do because no one in my family came from that. No one in my family went to college or had a career path outside of working-class jobs. And women stayed home until they were married. I’m the black sheep of the family. When I called my dad and told him about my show, the first thing he asked me was if I was making money off it. They only know how to equate success with financial success. They want to understand my art, but they can’t.

I think that narrative rings true for so many first-generation kids of immigrants. We are told from an early age that our ambitions should be to become doctors or lawyers, and I think much of that has to do with our families feeling validated if we succeed in a very traditional way.

Exactly. So not only are you already trying to navigate how to be seen by institutions and the art world in general, you also have to navigate how to be seen by your family. My parents still being supportive of my work is meaningful to me, though. The next step is to get to a place where they understand it too.

Left image credit: Art to be displayed in “Haus” courtesy the artist. Right image credit: Bibs Moreno.

But I also think the experience of growing up the way we do very much molds our artistic identities too, don’t you?

That’s very true — so much of my work comes as a result of the circumstances of my upbringing. Even with this installation, it’s about me re-creating my childhood and current environment. That’s something I wouldn’t be doing if I had a different upbringing. My art very much revolves around my background and identity.

Your art also very much revolves around sex, autonomy, and body positivity. Are people receptive to the subtle ways you sneak that into everything — from your clothing designs to your performances?

Everything in my work revolves around sex, in subtle ways or not. People are often surprised when they see who is creating the work. In society, my body type isn't allowed to feel or be sexy. But I'm comfortable in my body, and if society isn't going to make room for bodies like mine, then I will.


Gabriela’s installation opens July 13 from 7-11 p.m. at the Little Tokyo Art Complex (262 S. Los Angeles St., Los Angeles, CA 90012). She can be found at leatherpapi.net and @leather.papi on Instagram.

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Move Over, Barbie — This Queer Chicana Artist Built Her Own Dream House