Artists reimagine Nike’s Cortez running shoe

With the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, Nike wanted to introduce a new running shoe, named Nike Aztec, to pay homage to the history of the host country’s Aztec Empire. However, a legal battle with Adidas forced Nike to rename their shoe, deciding instead to name it Cortez after the brutal Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, responsible for the downfall of the Aztec Empire. The shoe’s introduction to the public then aligned with the 1972 Summer Olympics. To commemorate the Cortez’s 50th anniversary, Nike teamed up with LaPau Gallery in Los Angeles’ Koreatown for a exposure.

After visiting LaPau, I realized that this show was less about celebrating the product itself and more about people’s lived experience. Nike Cortez 50th Anniversary Exhibit features multimedia works by nine Latinx artists from the Bay Area of ​​Northern California on the US-Mexico border that draw specifically from their experiences on the West Coast.

Jesse Maria Gomez-Villeda, “Evolution” (2021), archival pigment print, 23 3/4 x 15 3/4 inches
Jesse Maria Gomez-Villeda, “Love Birds” (2021), archival pigment print, 11 1/4 x 15 3/4 inches

For example, Jesse Maria Gomez-Villeda’s “Evolution” (2021) focuses on waist fashion – striped suits and two-tone wingtip shoes juxtaposed with peeking-through Cortez sneakers. oversized iron pleated pant legs, superimposed over an image of the motor club crowd. The layering of these black and white images emulates a nonlinear idea of ​​time and further illustrates how fashion, like zoot suits, remains a countercultural position that brown communities continue to preserve.

Lying on his cobija, the direct gaze of Manuel Rodrigues upsets stereotypes. In his self-portrait “Pan Dulce” (2014), he reframes and establishes the terms of his own gender and sexuality using brown masculine markers like the jockstrap, Cortez sneaker, and Los Angeles Raiders hat. Raul Baltazar’s painting “The immeasurable, erotic and inaccessible” (2017) plays with a modern Chicano payaso-stylized scene, flipping the script on the popularized Aztec patriarchal portrait. Using materials like cardboard, knitted yarn, and screen printing, the works of Gary Ganas Garay, Misty Avila Ovalles, and Manuel Lopez capture the socio-economic relationship with the remaking of identity.

Manuel Rodrigues, “Pan Dulce” (2014), inkjet print on Gloss Baryta, 9 1/4 x 13 1/4 inches
Raul Baltazar, “The immeasurable, erotic and inaccessible 2” (2017), acrylic on canvas and wood, 52 x 78 inches

In a separate small gallery room, loudspeakers play Guadalupe Rosales’ nocturnal soundscape “The City I Live In” (2022). Rosales uses the East Los Angeles sounds of the ice cream truck and police surveillance helicopters to mourn and commemorate the victims of gun and police violence. At the center of the sound space is rafa esparza’s sculpture “Deconstruct Cortez: Nuevo Mundo Prophecy: Homie Love” (2022) for which he takes the iconic image of the Mexican coat of arms and offers new prophetic hope by dismantling and reshaping parts of the sneaker. Using chicken wire, bandanas, socks, Cortez sneakers and a belt, Esparza presents a harmonious coexistence of snake and eagle.

Just as 50 years ago the Latinx community took symbols and markers meant to be oppressive, even derogatory (like the term Chicano) and re-inscribed their own meaning, these artists take the sneaker of a brutal colonizer’s name and reshape their own complicated agency, presenting a new articulation and imagination of what is possible.

rafa esparza, “Deconstruct Cortez: Nuevo Mundo Prophecy: Homie Love” (2022), Nike Cortez shoe, Nike Cortez soles, socks, military belt, initial buckle and mesh, 46 x 34 x 12 3/4 inches

Nike Cortez 50th Anniversary Exhibit continues at LaPau Gallery (3006 West 7th Street, MacArthur Park, Los Angeles) until October 29. The exhibition was curated by Paulina Lara.

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