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“Ever feel like someone is puking in your mind? Like they just can’t stop talking SHIT all the time?”
Every six months or so, the library at the National Museum of Women in the Arts rotates a small exhibit in its entrance, but “Womanimal: Zine Art by Caroline Paquita” is likely the first to ask viewers that question. More importantly, it’s the first of these exhibits to highlight zines as art.
“Zines are a medium that’s been around since, really, the ’20s,” says Heather Slania, director of NMWA’s Betty Boyd Dettre Library and Research Center. “In the 1990s, they got utilized for punk-rock movements, especially with riot grrrl.” Now, Slania says that those ’90s lady zines and their DIY aesthetic are beginning to be seen as an art form.
“Womanimal” covers 18 years’ worth of artist and Pegacorn Press founder Caroline Paquita’s work, showing her evolution from the Xeroxed black-and-white images in her first Brazen Hussy zines to the half-woman, half-animal drawings in her ongoing Womanimalistic series. Several of these zines are set up in two display cases, but the main feature of the exhibit is actually an iPad that lets the viewer browse through Paquita’s work. Without the iPad, there really wouldn’t be much to see.
The exibit also features some of Paquita’s other works, like “Zine Libs” and “The Lesbian Lexicon,” which is filled with words and phrases that describe queer experiences with a cheeky sense of humor. In Paquita’s DIY dictionary, a “boycation” is a break from dating women, and a “blood bath” is sex with two periods. This is typical of the way that Paquita’s work makes queer lives visible through serious, funny, and honest descriptions.
The art, stories, and essays in Paquita’s zines cover a mix of topics, from poking fun at aspects of the punk scene to hard drug use and uncomfortable sexual experiences in middle school. Often the light and the heavy, as well as the real and the fictional, are painfully intertwined in the same story. One of the recurring characters in Paquita’s comics about her youth is a “three-armed” boy who torments her with his love. He briefly falls for the ambiguously gendered Phyllis, until Phyllis is discovered to be intersex and is ridiculed by the other students. Paquita tells the story with funny descriptions and asides, but she also touches on some of the painful truths of childhood: feeling like you love someone, thinking that you hate someone, and being embarrassed by your difference. The jarring combination of emotional highs and lows is in keeping with the confessional style of the early-’90s zines that Paquita looked to for inspiration and emulated in her early work.
Some of her art and comics address health and body issues, like a spread on “Punk Medical Myths” (good to know Borax doesn’t cure scabies), or an illustration of two Womanimals that spoofs kombucha (“Krotchbucha: The Magic Tonic”). And then there are little gems like an ad Paquita found on Craigslist that doesn’t beat around the bush: “This is a bit of an off-color gig, however the task at hand is extremely creative and interesting. I am currently seeking someone to vajazzle me as a present to my husband for Valentine’s Day.”
Strangely, Paquita’s Brazen Hussy and Womanimalistic zines kind of feel like that scene in 13 Going on 30 when Jennifer Garner tells her women’s magazine staff about the kind of people she wants to see in their publication: “I want to see my best friend’s big sister, the girls from the soccer team, my next door neighbor, real women.” The vintage photo of a woman with cat-eye glasses on the cover of Brazen Hussy #2 could have been an old picture of your aunt. The Womanimals might remind you of drawings that you or your friend did in college. Paquita’s work reminds viewers of the people that they know, and its power is intimately paired with this recognition.
Womanimal is only available to the public Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to noon and 1 to 5 p.m. (when the library is open), which makes it difficult for nine-to-fivers to see. Even so, hanging out with Womanimals is a solid way to spend your lunch break. Paquita’s mythical, blue-ink illustrations of queer, feminist lady-beasts are so calming, they might just make you forget about your sell-out corporate job.
1250 New York Ave NW. $8–$10. (202) 783-5000. nwma.org.