Nelson Morales: Making More Than Just “Beautiful Pictures”

By Patrick Saleeby for McColl Center for Art + Innovation

Nelson Morales is far from home. 

While Mexico City currently serves as the McColl Center for Art + Innovation fall 2017 artist-in-residence’s base, his hometown is further south in Union Hidalgo, which is in Oaxaca, a region known for its indigenous people and cultures.

It was in Oaxaca that Morales began work on his Muxes project, which is currently featured throughout Charlotte at various institutions as part of the citywide In Focus/Enfoque: Contemporary Photography in Mexico exhibition this fall. Muxe (pronounced MOO-chess) is a third gender recognized in Oaxaca. While muxes are born male, they often behave as females; they may dress as women, or handle tasks typically reserved for women in Mexican society.

Nelson Morales, from the Muxes series. Courtesy of the artist.

Morales has compassion for the subjects in his Muxes series. While his portraits often exude a proud sense of identity and sexuality, it’s his sharp eye that offers dignity and empathy to the subjects of his photographs. That empathy comes, in part, from Morales’ own personal transformation.

“When I was a kid, I discovered I was a muxe, and I didn’t want that,” Morales says. “I wanted to be a straight man, like society says.” 

Morales often goes as far as saying he hated muxes as a child. However, once he started taking the photographs that would eventually become the Muxes series, his feelings started to change. As his compassion for the muxes grew, that compassion was turned inward on himself.

“Once I accepted the muxes,” he says, “I finally accepted myself.”

For anyone in Charlotte who has met or listened to Morales speak, this acceptance is wildly apparent. When he served as Creative Mornings Charlotte’s featured speaker in September, the global theme for the lecture series was, coincidentally, compassion. This allowed Morales to tell his story of self-acceptance, as well as the challenges he faced as an artist struggling with his own identity. Morales hopes his story and work will inspire others.

Nelson Morales, from the Muxes series. Courtesy of the artist.

“LGBTQ people are still fighting for rights here,” he says. “And they face some of the same challenges that we have in other cities in Mexico.”

During his McColl Center artist residency, Morales has continued to work with groups fighting for acceptance within the Charlotte community.

In conjunction with the organization Orgullo Latino, he has photographed members of Charlotte’s LGBTQ community, and the hope is to showcase the portraits at an art show during Charlotte Pride in 2018.

Morales has also been exploring a new project that involves a transgender woman in the area; the individual actually sought him out in his McColl Center studio. Morales believes the initial photos of this work-in-progress project represent some of his best work ever. While he feels like he has “found something special” in his new subject, he credits McColl Center with allowing him to keep exploring the themes that fuel his work.

“I love McColl Center,” he says. “I love the opportunity, the space. My studio is beautiful, I feel comfortable. But I think the most important thing is I’m free.”

“I want to do whatever I want, and they never tell me not to do something, and that is very good for an artist. I can put on my wall whatever I want.”

Nelson Morales, from the Muxes series. Courtesy of the artist.

Morales knows his work is challenging for some, especially now that he’s gaining a wider audience in the United States. Though he’s enjoying that artistic freedom during his residency, since being in Charlotte he’s seen both ends of the spectrum when it comes to public reaction to his work. For him, receiving the occasional negative response only emboldens him.

“I need that kind of reaction sometimes,” he says. “It makes me stronger, because I need to be honest, and not just make what’s viewed as ‘beautiful pictures.’