Sen Mendez / Queen Sen Sen

:: AGE

23

:: LOCATION

Oakland, CA, USA

:: MEDIUM

block printing

:: IDENTIFIES AS

queer non-binary

I first met Sen Mendez a.k.a. Queen Sen Sen at the Malcolm X Jazz Festival a couple years ago and loved her prints of womxn, authentically and unapologetically represented with big round booties, bellies and back rolls. I instantly felt connected to Sen’s work. After 4/20/2018 at 1015 Folsom’s show with headliner Princess Nokia, my life changed when I saw Qing Qi, and since then played her album “If The N*ggah Ain’t Shit, Play This For His B*tch” countless times and we were so happy to find out that the album artwork is by Queen Sen Sen. Through fate of a mutual friend, we reconnected and I interviewed this 23-year-old non-binary queer artist at Shooting Star Cafe to eat some yummy food and talk about their process, views on representation of fat bodies, love, and protecting black trans womxn.

Why is it important for womxn to create?

Living in a society that’s very misogynistic, anti-womxn, anti-femme, it’s important for us to create work for us that speaks to us, represents us, talks about us. I follow a lot of femme artists, having conversations about breaking narratives about what a womxn artist is supposed to do, or what is acceptable art, from and by womxn. It’s also so important for a womxn to create because it’s a form of our own resistance against folks who tell us to not create.

In the art world, we see so many men artists who do something very simple like creating figures using words or letters out of a book, and they’re placed in New York MoMA and have a warehouse to themselves. You don’t see that happening to womxn. For womxn artists to be recognized, it’s a lot harder in the sense of higher expectations to what we have to fulfill and what is deemed acceptable to be art, or forms of art, outside of modeling, cooking, dancing.

There’s different ways that I’ve noticed and been inspired by feminist artists who have broken those stereotypes, narratives and represent them to their truest selves. That’s what I want to do, is represent fat femme bodies, breaking the narrative that naked art of womxn should only pertain to thin waists, small breasts. I resist with my own art and drawing only bodies with fat, rolls, layers, curves – ways that our bodies actually look realistically. It’s also breaking the narrative that we shouldn’t have fat art. Especially in a fat-shaming society, it’s important for me to create art that looks like me. I love my fat body and I don’t give a f*ck if you want to follow me or police my body, telling me to lose weight, exercise, go on a diet. I post so many images of fat bodies and tag “fat” on them and it’s not surprising how many fitness pages start following me and I block them because I don’t want them to police my images. No, I love my fat, and that’s something that’s been an important part in my own healing process as a person who grew up being fat. Having to deal with a lot of fat-phobia in my own community and finally be able to face them now and say I love myself, I love my body and I don’t care if you think I’m eating too much, or if you think i should eat less. I don’t care if you think I should lose weight, whether I’m attractive enough. I feel attractive. I feel enough. That’s what I try to reproduce in my art to make other fat femme bodies feel the same way.

That’s so powerful. It’s so true that artistic representations of womxn there are rarely representations of fat bodies that are loving, accepted, celebrated that’s not trying to position them to motivate you to lose weight. It’s unfortunate.

It is unfortunate. It makes me angry too, or frustrates me at least, because when I see a lot of male artists draw fat womxn and try to objectify fat womxn, that concerns me because it continues a cycle of violence and sexual violence against fat womxn, that we want to be admired or objectified by these men who apparently love us. You can love us and you can make appreciation art, but it’s different when you’re profiting off of images of fat womxn and you’re not a fat womxn.

Even a lot of femme artists who are thin bodied, drawing all of their characters as if they were fat. That’s something I have a problem with myself, at least for me I think it’s difficult as a fat person to see someone else create an image that reflects my body but doesn’t necessarily speak to me. I may be like, “That’s a beautiful picture of a fat womxn” and I want to see more of it, but it doesn’t make me feel comfortable because I don’t know what they’re trying to say, what message they’re trying to give with their images. Are you doing something to end fat-phobia with these images or are you just objectifying or sexualizing our bodies when we don’t want that? That’s something people confuse my art with. I’m not sexualizing fat bodies, I’m doing something that makes me happy with my fat body. It helps me internalize love for my body, love for myself, so when i look in the mirror I don’t look at myself in disgust or with hatred, the way I did before. Being intentional as a fat womxn, what do I want to see? How do I want to be best represented? I’m curious to see what these artists say for that, how they feel about fat womxn, fat bodies, fat-phobia.

It’s not the same, but I wonder about white artists who portray people of color and profit off those images, showing diversity now, but if it’s not your experience, what are you doing to support for love for self if you’re profiting off it?

Even in the fat positivity community, we’ve had a problem where womxn of color fat bodies aren’t celebrated, or at least not enough, or the ones who are celebrated are often white fat female bodies. I’m not hating against anyone’s hustle, but I also think there’s not enough fat positivity around black womxn, brown womxn, or any other womxn and it’s often shamed within our own communities to be fat.

To really understand why it’s socially acceptable for white womxn to be fat, is to understand that a long time ago in Britain, fat white womxn were deemed wealthy, royalty, superior. That still exists today when it comes to a lot of white fat womxn. They’re still continuously being celebrated, socially accepted, but when it comes to womxn of color who are fat fat, it’s a problem and that’s where I become uncomfortable. That’s where I become curious in artists who do draw fat womxn, what are you doing to fight against racism against fat womxn, sexism against fat womxn, discrimination against fat womxn in general. That’s something I think about all the time in my art. That’s why I always draw womxn of color, try to give something that’s not a European standard of beauty because fat white womxn are still a European standard of beauty. That’s something I’m resisting in my own art that I think is important for me to do to celebrate black fat womxn, black fat trans womxn, brown womxn, brown trans womxn that are fat, helping them recognize their own beauty because we’re constantly reminded that we’re not beautiful.

I hear you say the work you do is breaking narratives, as certain forms of resistance, representing fat femme bodies and helping people love themselves. If you had a message to share with your artwork, what would you hope to share?

The message I want to share with my artwork is whatever body you have now in this moment is the best body. I think that’s the most important message I can give to any womxn or any femme person. Our bodies are often policed in so many ways. There’s so many memes of womxn just breathing and men’s reactions, feeling some type of way about this, like “Bitch, what? I’m breathing. Let me live.” I think that’s the message I want to share: Your body is the best body, now. Not what you want it to be in future, what it was in the past, right now.

Do you feel like you’ve experienced discrimination because of the identities you hold? If you haven’t, why do you think that is?

I have gotten opposition on my art particularly pieces that aren’t trans-inclusive, especially trans-femme inclusive. I’ve held myself accountable since then and I try not to share any more art centered on vaginas. I think all bodies are beautiful and I don’t want to exclude anyone from enjoying my art. I want to be able to reproduce amazing fat femme body art that all fat femmes can feel connected to.

What are the social justice issues you care most about?

Recently I’ve been particularly interested in protecting black trans womxn. With Black Lives Matter, that’s one of their points, that within our communities, we’re continuously ignoring the fact that black trans womxn have been murdered at an alarming rate long before BLM started.

Another social justice issue I’ve been working on outside of my art is trying to work on prison abolition against trans prisoners. I hope I get to work with policies to help black trans womxn getting their medications and hormones and making sure black trans men are in a safe place, or even getting them out of prisons and jails because it’s dangerous. They deserve to live as much as anyone else. Longer than 25 years old, 30 years old.

It’s disheartening when we’re continuously having these Pride parades and refusing to acknowledge the beautiful black trans womxn who did the work so we could have these celebrations. To not hold ourselves accountable and protect them is an injustice in itself. How can we celebrate when we cannot celebrate everyone? It’s important to build that conversation and protection with them. And it starts with supporting them – sending them money to sustain themselves because they face so much discrimination in housing, jobs, social spaces, just by existing.

In between being a student, educator, supporting different social issues, and working, how do you make time to create?

On the days I’m not working, I try to set aside the whole day to make art. Shout out to Trin, they gave me a drawing pad and that’s how I started getting into digital illustrations. Whenever I’m studying, I’ll try to take a break and work on projects I’m doing. I try to make time here and there, whether it’s 5 minutes or an hour, to work on my art. Every time I set aside time to make art, I always try to be very intentional when I am creating about what I want to best represent in my pieces. I feel like when you have art without passion, it’s just a picture. For me, it’s really important to set intentions while I’m drawing, painting, or printing.

How does mental health affect your art?

Mental health affects me everyday. Since a really young age, I’ve used art as a way of coping and surviving. Mental health and art has been parallel in my life. It has been a form of resistance against everything I’ve gone through.

Some days, when I have my bad days, I just write poetry or draw or some days I just want to cuddle in bed all day and cry. In that process, I’m already thinking about how I want to share my sadness with the world, or how I want to share my process of healing with the world. Using that to create affirmations for others to be okay with their own process of healing and knowing that healing doesn’t look like a picture perfect smooth easy ride into paradise. Healing is very difficult. You’re constantly having to face the same traumas over and over again, but each time we’re facing these traumas, we’re responding to it differently or in hopes of responding to it differently.

How do you define love?

I love love. Love for me means full-on acceptance, no judgment. Love is full appreciation too. I feel like love has kept me alive for so long. Growing up, feeling like I didn’t have enough love and hoping for more love in the future, that has kept me going – searching for love in the sense of searching for love in community, in myself. Motivation to push myself to love and deconstruct my idea of love.

I used to automatically think of romance when I thought of love. That’s not what love is only. I think about deconstructing the idea that only certain people deserve our love. Yesterday I was looking at a post by Erykah Badu and she was playing and gave a shout out to an artist who has a history of beating a pregnant womxn. The caption said, “Don’t judge me because I sin differently from you.” I think that was a really powerful message because she kept responding that she can love whoever she wants to love, regardless of whether we have judgment or fear of loving someone who has caused that much harm to someone else.

When we think about love, we think of it as very limiting or conditional. For me, as a survivor, as someone who also in the past been an abuser, I feel like I still deserve love even though I’ve done so many shitty things. I still think about them to this day, hold myself accountable, and try to change my behavior. It hasn’t been as horrific as that, but it’s hard for us a society to deconstruct who is worthy of love and who isn’t. Love is not limited. Love is not conditional. Anyone is worthy of love and we are all capable of causing harm to one another and we are all capable of forgiveness and being able to change our behavior.

That’s why it took me such a long time to speak up about the things I’ve gone through with my family because I knew or tried to believe they were capable of changing. I tried so hard to believe they were capable of love so I shouldn’t give up on them, but also recognizing that they were continuously hurting me and not holding themselves accountable. Yes, they’re worthy of love, but I don’t have any more capacity to give *my* love. That’s not me limiting my love, me being conditional. That’s me Having boundaries so I can heal and no longer cause harm to others because I’m no longer tolerating harm to me or being told  believing that same harm is support or love. That’s something I was having a hard time acknowledging, that their love was not the love I defined love as. I was expected to constantly forgive, shut my mouth, be quiet, accept their one or million “sorries” and waiting for the next time they would hurt me. That alone has affected my relationships a lot because I was expecting anyone who came into my life, who said they loved me, I already had these expectations that they were going to let me down. That’s something I no longer wanted. I don’t want to continuously expect they will let me down. Now I know my support is here, the support that I deserve, the support that I want, and it’s not abuse. For folks who have lived with abusive families or in abusive relationships, we’re reminded “they love me” but if they’re intentionally hurting you all the time, that’s not love. That has affected my art in so many ways, trying to escape that. Using art as my escape, abyss, where I’m there alone and I feel safe.

Who or what inspires you to create?

So many beautiful femme artists inspire me to create. I follow so many amazing artists on Instagram. Sometimes I get worried I’m following too many people (laughs). I’m inspired by others’ stories. I think it’s important to listen to each other and see each other in ways that are beyond our five senses. For me, a lot of my inspiration shows in my art and it’s important to acknowledge artists who inspired my piece, so I’ll tag the artists.

If you had words of advice for your younger self, or any aspiring creative, what would you say?

My younger self was so insecure because I had so much criticism about my art growing up, how it wasn’t going to make enough money or look good. I would tell my younger self to keep creating, sharing my art, making art. Don’t let anyone tell you your art is shitty. If they can’t see the beauty in your work, how can they call it what it is? Keep creating and don’t give anyone the power to determine what is art and isn’t. I lost so many years because I was thinking of what people would think of my art and I wish I had someone reminding me to keep doing art. I had so many relationships, so many friends who didn’t know I was an artist because I wasn’t doing art, wasn’t sharing it. That’s something I’m doing now, I’m trying to create art everyday, healing for my younger self.