A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN WITH LONG GRAYING HAIR, glasses, and red lipstick stares into the camera. She answers a typical beauty pageant question—“Why do you want to win?”—with an unusual reply.

“I’m 56,” she says in an upbeat, singsong tone. “Fifty-six years old, 56 years young. Once you get a certain age, you’re invisible. It’s called the Invisible Woman Syndrome. I can be Miss Nalgas USA. I can do anything. I’m 56!”

She is also the artist, writer, and performer Rosemary Meza-DesPlas, and as usual, she plays a character. In this case, she’s a woman hoping to take home the crown in Miss Nalgas USA 2022, an original performance art piece to be staged at the Farmington Civic Center on November 12.

The show caps an illustrious period for the Texas-born Meza-DesPlas, who has lived in Farmington since 2016. In January, she was awarded a $9,100 Fulcrum Fund grant, administered by the Albuquerque-based organization 516 ARTS, for her proposal to put on a satirical “faux beauty competition for self-identifying Latinas over age 50.” Thus was born Miss Nalgas USA 2022 (nalgas is a Spanish term of endearment for “buttocks”), and Meza-DesPlas set to work on her yearlong project. Then, in May, she was selected as one of 15 artists nationwide—and the only New Mexican—to be awarded a $50,000 Latinx Artist Fellowship from the Ford and Mellon foundations.

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“I don’t know what I’ve been doing that’s different from what I was doing 10 years ago,” she tells me ruefully in her bright, art- and book-filled Farmington studio as her cats, Marvin and Smudge, wind around our legs. In person, Meza-DesPlas sways between down-to-earth humility and whip-smart social critique, which emerges in her next sentence. “But there is a focus on intersectionality right now, on inclusiveness in the art world. It feels as if someone woke up and said, ‘Wow, we don’t show enough Latinos in museums or galleries.’ ”

from left The artist has been collecting her hair to use in her works for more than two decades; each shade is carefully labeled and stored in her studio. Photos by Jeremy Wade Shockley.

Since the 1990s, Meza-DesPlas’s artwork has wrestled with a woman’s role in a patriarchal society. In her spiky, expressive watercolors, drawings, and installations, nude women scream in frustration and dance together intimately, breasts and butts are disembodied and multiplied, and famous women artists are dubbed “good wife” or “bad wife” based on their biographies.

Her portraiture incorporates hand-stitched hair—her own, which she’s been collecting in storage bins since 2000—into intricate line drawings that express feminist viewpoints. Her series Chicks with Guns addresses Hollywood’s fetishization of gun-toting babes, puncturing the relationship between sexuality and violence with depictions of nude, regular-bodied women posing with handguns and rifles. Two other series, Jane Anger and Gender-Based Burdens, depict the harnessing of women’s anger, as seen in the #MeToo, Time’s Up, and Black Lives Matter movements, as well as the physical and psychological manifestation of the unique loads women carry.

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“Wanna see my burden hat?” she asks playfully. It’s a reminder that many of her series include two and three-dimensional works. She pulls out a hand-sewn bundle of homemade pillows that resemble a set of tumors, lumpy and grotesque. She hoists it over her head, grinning, pleased with how she’s physically shaping her own set of intimate concerns. “I’m not done yet.”

Every Meza-DesPlas work is the sum of its parts. The Invisible Woman Syndrome, her 2022 installation at Form & Concept gallery, in Santa Fe, grew out of her preparation for Miss Nalgas. The meditation on race, ambition, and gender is comprised of a café table covered with a handmade tablecloth printed with large pinto beans. A bell jar, containing layered varieties of beans, and six felt tortillas sit on the table. Dangling from it are 12 multicolored bras, embroidered with the names of notable Latinas, including Dawson-born labor activist Dolores Huerta and the New Mexico suffragist Adelina “Nina” Otero-Warren, whose image recently made it onto the U.S. quarter.

from left Rosemary Meza-DesPlas repurposed her wedding dress for her pageant costume; Invisible Woman Syndrome, a multimedia installation. Photographs by Jeremy Wade Shockley.

A homemade, printed apron on a nearby dress form showcases the Miss Nalgas main character, Refried Rosi Frijoles. On the fabric, the Rosarita Traditional Refried Beans brand’s usual Latina character is replaced by a beaming Meza-DesPlas, who wears a sombrero and Mexican dress. A framed watercolor on the wall declares this is not a taco underneath an eye-popping depiction of, well, something other than a taco.

As with most of Meza-DesPlas’s work, The Invisible Woman Syndrome is unabashedly feminine, provocative, funny, frank, and profound. She brings each of these qualities to Miss Nalgas.

“My ideas evolve,” she explains, nodding to the carefully labeled tubs of hair stacked against one wall of her studio, which reflect her coif’s transformation from brunette to gray. (She now stitches on black twill, to highlight the silvery strands.)

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“I had already done a series on ‘T and A.’ I wrote a paper called ‘The Norm of Imperfection’ that looked at breasts and butts in our history.” Then, after watching the cheeky halftime performance by Jennifer Lopez and Shakira at the 2020 Super Bowl, she says, “It’s not that far of a stretch that I went toward Miss Nalgas. I was thinking specifically about the Latina. What are the stereotypical characteristics that people associate with the Latina figure? The ample butt.”

In Miss Nalgas, a one-night-only live show that will be screened at Form & Concept in December, Meza-DesPlas has a field day with society’s reductions of women based on age, race, and booty. The script is suffused with engaging humor, and no pageant contestant escapes critique.

One would-be Miss Nalgas, named Rocky Rita Badlands, embraces the revelation of a recent DNA test: She’s 9.6 percent Hispanic. Having sewn her dress herself, she proudly tells the judges, “I made it tight around my butt, you know, it’s a nalgas contest, right? I was inspired by Frida Kahlo. She’s my favorite artist!” In one fell swoop, the play skewers both the murkiness of ethnic self-identification and the notion that Kahlo is the only Latina visual artist in the world.

The artist’s well-organized studio leaves room for her to have fun.

As I bop around downtown Farmington with Meza-DesPlas, it’s clear that anticipation for the pageant is riding high within the community. Both the server and owner at Boon’s Family Thai BBQ ask how the preparations are going. As we get up from lunch, people at the next table call out, “Rosemary!”

Patrick Hazen and Karen Ellsbury, a local couple, want to introduce her to a friend. Everyone chats about the upcoming performance, where Hazen, a photographer, and Ellsbury, a painter, will play roles. “I know what nalgas means,” says the newcomer coyly. “I’ll be there.”

The cast features a lineup of local luminaries, including longtime news anchor and radio host Scott Michlin, a two-woman band called the Zia Chicks, and Farmington High School English teacher Stephanie Jaquez, who plays a judge. The cast and crew reflect the warm welcome Farmington’s arts community has given Meza-DesPlas since she and her husband, Edward DesPlas, moved to town for his executive administrative job at San Juan College.

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“I’m thrilled she’s been embraced by Farmington,” says Andrea Hanley (Diné), chief curator at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, in Santa Fe, who has roots in the Four Corners area. Hanley featured Meza-DesPlas’s Yo También—a woman’s dismayed visage comprised of hand-sewn gray hair on black twill—in Feminisms, a 2020–21 exhibition Hanley curated at 516 ARTS.

She calls the artist’s ritualistic collection and use of her own hair “fascinating.” “At one point she told me, ‘Well, I have to wait a little bit longer because I need white hair!’ ” Hanley says, laughing.

“The dichotomy of using hair is something that connects with her in a very deep way,” Hanley continues. For the curator, the artist’s use of her hair—sexy or repulsive depending on the context, always culturally controversial, a symbol of strength, sensuality, and reverence—evokes empowerment. “Her process feels so relevant right now. It’s important for her and for the country to focus on feminist perspectives and concerns.”

When the spotlight hits the Farmington Civic Center stage on November 12, the audience will become the true judges of Meza-DesPlas’s searing yet irreverent vision. “She really does manifest what feminism is, as a woman of color, as a woman artist,” Hanley says.

“She speaks the language of women, and she elevates what that is. She amplifies it and then she turns it into art. It’s a real, original voice.”

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There She Is, Miss Nalgas

See Rosemary Meza-DesPlas’s original performance artwork Miss Nalgas USA 2022 at 7 p.m. on November 12 at the Farmington Civic Center. The one-hour pageant is free. 

A video of the performance premieres at Form & Concept, in Santa Fe, at 3 p.m. on December 3. 

Learn more about the artist on her website, rosemarymezadesplas.com, and follow her on Instagram (@rosemarymezadesplas).