Centering Play: In Discussion with Semillites

Semillites. trans self-portrait #13. Image courtesy of the Artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini

Originally from Central México, Semillites Hernández Velasco is a Brown and trans non-binary visual artist based in Vancouver on the unceded territories of the Squamish, Tsleil-Waututh, and Musqueam Nations. With a playful approach, their bright illustrations explore queerness through erotic imagery. Whether it’s a self-portrait with devil horns or a steamy threesome depicted in coloured pencils, Semillites’ work unabashedly depicts sexual intimacy, often with a touch of humour.

Additionally, Semillites has recently begun teaching self-portraiture workshops that prioritize LGBTQ2+ Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour. In the following interview, they speak more of their inspiration from trans musicians and getting in touch with one’s younger self to express creativity.

Could you talk more about your influence of “looking for your path through your art practice” and how your practice is tied to immigrating from México to Canada?

I think there is a connection between the two but I’m still trying to find out what that connection is. I come from a family that has migrated over generations and so migration was always a necessity and a solution to survive. For me, when I decided to migrate to so-called Canada and Vancouver, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I knew I was looking for some answers. When I arrived here, I realized that the answers weren’t outwards but inwards, so the way I started to get all these answers was through my artwork. Through drawing and painting, I felt like I was drawing with my ancestors and through that process, I began to know myself better. It’s a path that I feel is no longer linear, it’s more of an inward, healing process.

For me, it’s about taking the gaze out of the equation and saying, I am my own eyes and I see myself through my own eyes.

You explore self-portraiture in a variety of iterations through your art practice. Can you speak further about what self-portraiture means to you and the use of archetypes to explore sides of yourself through art?

I think self-portraits are a way to create representations in comparison to portraits in Western art that have been used to create representations of women, of racialized folks, of queer people, or the “others.” For me, it’s about taking the gaze out of the equation and saying, I am my own eyes and I see myself through my own eyes. And growing up and now, I feel like I still struggle to see representations of Brown and trans people. [For this reason], I consciously started to create representations of what I wanted my body and my skin to look like and doing it in a celebratory way and also an honest way. I think some of my self-portraits are wittier and funny and some are darker and [explore] a range of emotions. I think self-portraiture allows you to create your own representation and to see how much you grow and change throughout the years. It’s a very beautiful experience to see all of [your] progress and not just in a linear way.

Semillites. 24: can i get some f*cking privacy? Image courtesy of the Artist.

You explore queerness, gender, and sexuality playfully through your illustrations. Can you expand further about your use of playfulness and the erotic? In what ways do you find playfulness can create an avenue to talk about difficult topics?

I take a lot of inspiration from my cousin who draws and she’s now thirteen years old. When she was younger, we used to draw together, and the way she saw the world mesmerized me. The lack of perception and the lack of constructs she had really inspired me. When I went back to my drawings it was the same things, traces everywhere and colours everywhere. I started to think of the beauty in imperfections and creating art that was closer to that, towards what we did as kids. I think as adults we don’t play enough. We don’t let ourselves do the things that we did as kids, use curiosity, use the colours, and draw on the walls. I think the world would be a better place if we played more often. For me, the solution to unlearn these things is the same way we learn through school-like exercises, through drawing, and stuff like that. I think it’s going back to when we were younger before ideas were glued into our minds. I think it’s a tactic I’m trying to use—I don’t know if it’s working or not but at least I know it works for me because it brings me back to who I was when I was a kid. Especially in the art world where we see art on canvas, art on paper, art in a very specific form I think that when we create outside of that, the possibilities are endless.

Semillites. protect trans lives. Image courtesy of the Artist.

Do you think that art can play a role in social change? How do you find your illustrations intersect with social change and empowering the community around you? 

I believe in my responsibility towards the community of the place that I live right now. I think I have a responsibility towards everything that surrounds me, the people that surround me, the trees, plants, and the land. I also feel like I have a responsibility to respond to the trans community and towards people in México also. I always struggle with thinking [about] who am I talking to and which community am I molding and changing. I think that as artists we have a huge pressure to think that our art can change the world on a global scale, but I think that the most change that [I can create] is when someone who has an experience closer to mine comes to me and says, “Hey I saw something of my myself in that drawing that you did,” or “That drawing made me smile.” Something as small as that to me is so beautiful.

Because I’m an introvert I don’t seek community with that much enthusiasm, I mostly do it online. Although lately, I have been trying to take more direct action. A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to do a self-portrait workshop [which] I said yes to. She got the funding for it and I’ve been doing that over the last two weeks. This is a way I can directly share the tools that I have learned and that I have acquired thanks to the privileges that I also have. I think it’s also about that, debunking the art scene and sharing all the tools that we can for the people that went to art school, that had access to education, who speak two languages, and who have more privileges. I think it’s about sharing and also uplifting the people that we have around us.

It has been a good experience for me to relearn some of the things that I thought I knew but also to connect with people while drawing because I usually do it by myself at my desk with my music. Having other people witness what you’re doing is a different dynamic but a very beautiful dynamic.

Semillites. queer lactose-free fantasy. Image courtesy of the Artist.

Who are some other artists that inspire or influence you?

I look up to artists across Turtle Island from different disciplines! The drawings of Syrus Marcus, the lyrics of Backxwash, the words of jaye simpson, the voice of Luisa Almaguer, the story-telling of Tajliya Jamal, the vulnerability of Lee Lai, the colors of Chhaya Naran, the unapologeticness of Iki Yos Piña, among many other Brown, Black and Indigenous artists!

I have also been immensely inspired lately by trans musicians and singers, especially trans women. I listen to Luisa Almaguer when I’m drawing, and I feel like my drawings flow very differently—I feel very much accompanied by her.

Do you have any other recent or upcoming projects you’d like to discuss?

I’ll still be giving the workshop and will start another series of workshops that are accessible and some are free for trans People of Colour. I am also working on a Snakes and Ladders game, that’s kind of where I’m moving towards with my art. I’m trying to go from prints and nice things that you can put on your wall to things that you can use. As I was telling you, I think playing is so important to me, so I want to incorporate that—games and art. Hopefully, in a few months I’ll be releasing the game.

What is your process like making a game versus a print? Is it a lot of different components?

It kind of reminds me of printmaking and bookmaking since you have a lot of different things to line up and you have to make sure you know the paper is the right size and format and everything. First, I was doing the board [holds up the board over zoom]. I was doing this with the circles and went ahead and did a [first draft] version with some colours. The format is one thing, and images are the other.

For the images, I wanted to do things that I wanted to draw, things that I like that remind me of pleasure and joy. That’s what I wanted to do with this game, explore some of the ideas that I had, but without having to mention them. I just wanted to subconsciously put ideas into people’s minds about fat bodies being beautiful, trans people being happy, and the scissors.

I think there’s that element of the prohibited as well, with sexuality being such a prohibited topic that we don’t get to discuss other than in seminars kind of like sex education. I think conversations about sexuality and gender happen way more organically through our lived experience in a less hierarchal way—it’s more of a horizontal way.

You can check out more of Semillites’ work on their website and Instagram. The next session of self-portraiture workshops will be starting April 3rd at 10 AM PST.

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