Selena, 1992, by John Dyer, part of an exhibition at the McNay Art Museum. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Selena Forever/Siempre Selena is a small new exhibition at the McNay Art Museum that promises to be a big hit with late Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla-Pérez’s legions of fans. 

The new exhibition, which runs through July 5, features five photographs taken by award-winning San Antonio photographer John Dyer, who got the opportunity to take pictures of Selena in 1992 and again in 1994, just months before she was murdered at age 23 by the woman who ran her fan club and boutique clothing stores.

The photos, on display in the museum’s Octagon room, depict two distinct moments in Selena’s trajectory. In 1992, she was a South Texas star on the rise, with a smattering of regional hits and a growing collection of Latin Grammys. In 1994, she was a Grammy-winning sensation, a superstar poised to make a crossover into English-language pop music.

A gifted singer, songwriter, model, actress and fashion designer, Selena has been called the Mexican Madonna, Santa Selena, the Queen of Tejano and, simply, La Reina – all monikers stemming from an affection that goes beyond fandom and into an almost spiritual realm.

In a 2009 book titled Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory, Deborah Paredez, a poet and an ethnic studies scholar at Columbia University, digs deeply and critically into the lingering power of Selena’s life, death, music, and persona. 

In Selenidad, Paredez posits that “Latinidad,” her term for a collective sense of Latino and Latina identity, has been significantly shaped by the commemorations surrounding Selena’s death and by the ways in which she is remembered and celebrated. Paredez also considers the economic and political implications of Selena’s ongoing popularity, examining the ways in which corporations and political strategists alike have sought to capitalize on the insight into Latinidad offered by the community’s memorializing of a unique icon.

“Selena’s material and symbolic body has been used to mobilize emotions, cash flow, votes, and emergent identities – from her hometown’s memorial statue to drag queens and prepubescent girls who continue to embody her,” Paredez writes in the introduction to the book.

Because Selena’s import and allure go well beyond an appreciation of her music, it’s not surprising to see photographic portraits of her end up in an art museum. 

Kate Carey, the McNay’s director of education and the exhibition’s curator, said that the initial intention was to use the Selena photographs Dyer loaned the museum as a part of a larger upcoming exhibition called Fashion Nirvana: Runway to Everyday, which looks at fashion in the 1990s.

However, Carey and her team quickly realized that the images demanded a different kind of treatment.

“As we worked more,” she said, “we realized that the opportunity to show these Selena photos in their own space was something that we couldn’t pass up.

“There was just this feeling that these photos deserved their own thing.”

Photographer John Dyer stands next to a photo of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez that he took in 1992.

At least part of the inspiration to give the photos their own exhibit was the museum’s “ongoing initiative to ensure that people, including people who might not typically visit art museums, feel seen and represented at the McNay,” Carey said.

As an added bonus, Carey said, the Octagon, the space in which the exhibit is housed, bears a vague resemblance to a tiny chapel. “It has become our little Selena chapel,” she said.

Dyer, who was on hand Tuesday for a media event before the exhibition’s opening, spent 10 hours photographing Selena in 1992 for a Más magazine cover and roughly two hours at the Majestic Theatre photographing her in 1994 for Texas Monthly.

“She was a joy,” he said of Selena, “just funny and open and friendly.”

Dyer’s photographs of Selena have become iconic, a part of people’s internal incarnations of the singer and their connection to her.

“I guess I captured her spirit a little bit, her joy at being alive … something about what she had that could affect so many people for so many years emotionally,” he said.

“Photographers don’t get lucky very often with a subject like Selena,” he said. “[I got] so much good stuff that I hardly even had to try.”

Dyer said that while the photos from the 1992 shoot are frequently requested for use by media outlets, the photos from the 1994 shoot are rarely ever requested. “It’s kind of obvious why,” he said.

The 1994 photos bear a markedly different energy compared with those from 1992, with the singer seeming more distant, moody, even brooding.

“In ’92, she was full of life and young and the world was before her and everything was possible,” he said. “In ’94, she had been given the celebrity treatment. She had been asked by everybody to do interviews, to do magazines, to do TV ads.”

Selena at the Majestic, 1994, by John Dyer.

Selena acknowledged to Dyer that she was tired after a recent commercial shoot that lasted several days. “She was just exhausted,” he said. “You could see it in her face, you could see it in her body language.” 

Although Dyer has ascribed his own reasonable narrative to the difference in Selena’s demeanor in the two photo series, he conceded that the Selena photos, like any photographic works, “will always be mysterious.”

“Good photographs instead get people asking questions and examining, … ‘What was really going on in that little moment of time and space?’”

It’s those questions, that mystery, and the desire to come closer to a personal hero that will draw many into this small exhibition and will keep them lingering over what was lost when La Reina’s life was cut short, when scores of fans lost a living idol and gained a sort of secular saint.

“It’s amazing how emotional people still are about Selena,” Dyer said. “It’s been 25 years. That really tells you something about that young lady and the mark she left on not only this state but the country.”

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.