|Another Life Up Inside Her Head|
By Amalia Mesa-Bains
“Maria was living two lives, one of drudgery, labored motions and another up inside her head.”
This poignant line is from a retablo sculpture by Christina Huizar. It is part of a text overlaying the cutout figure of the martyr St. Sebastian. It seems to encapsulate the complex mix of the personal, the traditional and the contemporary that is both the source and the dilemma of young adulthood for many women. This work is part of the exhibition Another Life Up Inside Her Head: Chicana and Latina Artists from the emerging generation, which presents the works of 17 women artists of Chicana, Mexicana and Latina descent from the Bay Area.
This exhibition of emerging artists is the second in a series of shows presented in the (Re)Generation Project —an intergenerational undertaking aimed at providing access and support for an emerging generation of artists and cultural workers. The works in this exhibition include paintings, photography, video, sculpture and installation. These artists voice the individual and social struggles of their generation and must be viewed in their historical and contemporary context.
The art of the emerging generation of Chicana and Latina artists is connected to a body of work begun in the previous generations in a time of great political and cultural upheaval. There have been many comparisons made between the historical situation of the earlier women artists and the context of the work emerging from this generation. While the first generation of Chicana artists was defining themselves simultaneous to the broadest issues of Chicano identity within the Chicano movement, the current context is a result of that Movimiento as well as the Feminist Movement. It is ironic that the very institutional access that the Chicanas of the first generation fought to realize in higher education should result in situations for these contemporary women that provide little cultural understanding and are largely empty of role models.
Many art schools hire intermittent adjunct faculty, and tenured positions for Chicanas and Latinas are extremely rare. For example, after twenty-five years of our struggle, Judith Baca remains the only tenured Chicana professor in Studio Arts in the entire U.C. system. Within this alienating environment and systematic lack of support is the irrelevancy of art historical curriculum, which rarely considers Chicano, Latino or Women’s art. Nonetheless, a body of visual art production and a body of Chicana literature and feminist critical writing has impacted many of the artists in this exhibition. The traveling exhibition “Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation,” begun at the University of California at Los Angeles, stands as a marker for the first large-scale recognition of Chicano art and particularly for the women’s work within it. In this respect it is important to restate some of the more established artists and works that stand as a foundation and backdrop to this new generation of Chicana/Latina artists.
The Chicana pioneers of social critique include muralists, printmakers and painters who challenged the dominant history. The large-scale works of muralist Judith Baca are reflections of group process based on women’s organizing principles. In particular the Great Wall of Los Angeles and the World Wall have been exemplary models to many young artists. An exhibition of Baca’s partial retrospective was part of the Galería de la Raza’s early (Re)Generation Project in 1994.
Other Los Angeles based Chicana muralists is Barbara Carrasco, whose struggles with institutional censorship have been legendary. Juana Alicia has also been an inspiration in her mural work in the Bay Area, especially in her efforts in the public setting of Cesar Chavez Elementary School and her work with a collective of women on the Women’s Building mural. The social critique of Ester Hernandez in her ongoing prints and pastels is an affirmation of politically-engaged work that redefines the everyday through satire and subversion. In this tradition the early Guadalupe series of Yolanda M. Lopez, as well as her more current video critique of Mexican stereotypes, are major influences in both feminist and Chicano/a art.
The richness of cultural narrative is highlighted by the work of Carmen Lomas Garza whose monitos paintings chronicle the real and the marvelous. A native of Texas, Lomas Garza was once a curator for the Galería de la Raza. Her achievements now include a national retrospective entitled “Pedacito de Mi Corazón” and a children’s book. Other Chicana painters influential to the emerging generation are Patssi Valdez, formerly of the performance group ASCO. Valdez’s domestic interiors reflect the tension between the traditions of the feminine and the contemporary conflicts of urban life.
The installation work of Celia Alvarez Muñoz has been important to the development of more conceptual forms of cultural critique. Her presence in the 1991 Whitney Biennial is a milestone in Chicana art. Among Latinas, Ana Mendieta, Regina Vater, Catalina Parra, Josely Carvalho, and María Fernanda Cardoso are just some of the seminal figures. These women have employed video, advertising imagery, organic materials and ephemeral performance work in their examination of both culture and gender issues from a Latin American perspective.
This brief foundation is meant only to indicate that the work of emerging artists is not without a history or contemporary setting, Yet the works in Another Life Up Inside Her Head are a reflection of artists of Chicana, Mexicana and Latina identity, the complexity of this mix makes any collective history only partially possible. What is of most concern are the issues, themes, and formal strategies of the work in relation to individual, personal and societal material.
In addition to the alienating effects of higher education, some of the most critical differences for young women artists working now are the media perspectives on women, the national crisis in domestic violence and abuse of women. The complex concerns for women artists of this generation are related to the intersection of gender, culture and class. The struggle for an ethnic identity is negotiated within the framework of gender, sexuality and Post Feminist backlash in an age of rampant xenophobia and racism.
In an era without a broad-based national context of Civil Rights, much of the developmental tasks of this generation have taken place with little collective support. But the recent Chicano and Latino student strikes on campuses across the country indicate the resurgence of collective efforts where many of the hunger fasts have been led by young women. The conditions of this age are the provocation for the artists’ cultural production. The young artists in this exhibition manifest the relationship between individual development and societal change in their themes and visual concerns.
Family memory as the site of both individual and social struggle is a consistent device in a number of works. The constructed paintings of Lucia Villegas continue the legacy of farmworker issues through diptych juxtaposition of cherished objects and painted surfaces. In “10 Bajo Un Solo Techo” she subverts the organic beauty of decaying fruit and cactus with the bedsprings of a mattress. Through the device of a diptych, the natural landscape stands as a paradox to the overcrowded conditions of exploited labor camps and even more private memories of family intimacy. Once again, the relationship between land and cultural identity is embedded in an agricultural history even more bitter in the aftermath of Proposition 187.
In the “Maria Series,” Christina Huizar uses the reliquary and retablo form to present in an almost childlike fashion the remembrances of a disrupted domestic life reflective of the contemporary mutations of urban families. The opposition of the cutout figures, wooden and tin box decoration, religious imagery and revealing text create a sense in the viewer of a shared secret.
The traditional family and Mexican cinema are the backdrop of a young woman’s coming of age in the small box work of Olivia Armas. Roles are questioned through the use of the film character, the quinceñera celebration and the small book. The exploration of cultural ceremonies and media images is part of a continuous critique relevant to each generation.
The window installation by Erica Hannes elaborates on the coming of age ritual of the quinceñera. With a satirical play of tiny dolls, flowers, and dried chicken feet, she both affirms and contests this traditional young women’s ceremony. This feminist irony is carried over into her motorized spiked high heels. With implications of escape and the shoes are a sad reminder of the treacherous conditions of violence and abuse common to today’s society. The simultaneity of glamour, domestic tension and political engagement make her works seductive and disturbing.
Hannes’ pieces embody a major theme among these many works—the redefining of the feminine through a critique of gender roles and sexuality. The work of Sue Lopez continues this contestatory stance through the use of feminine apparel” the purse. Her piece, “Some More Baggage for Your Handbag,” uses the book text to statistically narrate events of violence against women. The employment of women’s clothing used in the shoes and purse works are continued in the nurse’s dress installation of artist Monica Praba Pilar. Her documented performance piece, “The Heart of the Matter,” investigates the institutional abuse of mental patients. The nurse’s uniform is also the healer’s garment with its nest-like covering of organic materials, herbs and handwritten stories.
Pilar Agüero’s nest series uses the metaphor of nature to examine the developmental tasks for women of marriage, partnership, maternity and artistic career. The empty frames hover above the fragile nests as though each was waiting to be filled. The eloquence of the empty painted frames hint at concerns of reproduction, creativity and spirituality. In her other works these reoccurring themes are reflected in waxy miniature symbols of egg, bird, boat, bottle, water and female reproduction. The implications of the body, the somatic and the sexual are all references in the work of these four artists.
The traditions of healing and spirituality are long-standing practices in Latino communities and have been a historic area of art making. Ana Fernández uses the body as reliquary in a critique of colonial religiosity and indigenous domination. In “El Dios,” the hanging torso is a sculptural space of amulets and talismans of spiritual power. Fernández’s family recuerdos in “San Diego” are part of this inseparability of body and mind in a healing world-view where death is balanced by life. The ancestral images are presented in a mixed media retablo. The depiction of this spiritual material is continued in the memorial and saintly photographic images of Rosa Perez and the video work of Conchita Villalba.
One of the most important aspects of this exhibition is the participation of Mexicanas and Latinas. The experience of migration and displacement are revealed in the geographic memory signaled through the body in the landscape. Elizabeth Gómez works with the figure in an allegory of transformation through visual signs of seasonal changes. Her piece, “Here Today Gone Tomorrow,” is a painterly rendering of loss and longing. In her “Jewels” painting, the imposition of actual jewels on the surface of a verdant tropical texture bring a metaphor of precious garden of life to mind. The works of Julia Colmenares pursues this organic and natural setting for her figurative paintings in “El Sueño de Elisha” and “Venus y Cupido,” which both recall the abundant riches of a homeland. Jannie Achecar also remembers the tropical paradise of her native Puerto Rico in the amorphic fusing of body and topography in “Mujer de Las Palmas.”
The cure for displacement is not solely a geographic reclamation but an ancestral continuity that transcends place. In Carolyn Castaño’s “Nosotras,” three generations including the artist herself are recalled in an illuminated portraiture that takes its power from the self and family. Self-portraiture is also part of the delicate fabric photo transfers of Rosa Valdez. Investigating their roles within the family and within the cultural signs of meaning is at the center of both of these autobiographical works.
Vanessa Montiel is the artist whose sculptures most capture the organic in her series of gut pieces that record the transformative stages of nature. They speak as remnants of processes and materials which, like other works in the exhibition, are signs of both personal and collective development.
Another Life Up Inside Her Head is the first presentation of these young artists in a group at the Galería de a Raza, and marks the beginning of new careers, new images and continuing commitments to women’s cultural work. In the heterogeneity of this work lies the complexity of identity and social community. The autobiographical is a persistent force in the questioning of self and society, like the little girl of Christina Huizar’s “Paint What You Know” series and Lilly M. Rodriguez’s Billboard/Mural. This is a beginning of an imagined future and a revelation of much to come.
Mujeres: Birthing Ourselves Anew
by Dolissa Medina and Christina Huizar of the (Re)Generation Writers Committee.
We, the women if the (Re)Generation Project, begin this essay with the memory of Tejano music pop star Selena, a young Chicana tragically murdered in the prime of her career. We place her recent death on a continuum of lost role models for Chicano/Latino youth—young girls in particular—and see this moment as a potent reminder of the need for positive images of mujeres in popular culture and other media. As evidenced in the mass outpouring of grief on both sides of the border, Selena represented an emerging generation of women who used the creative voice to touch the hearts and minds of many. She accomplished this without diluting her cultural identity, and should be looked upon in death as a celebration of the life potential gestating in our culture.
In the wake of Proposition 187 and the renewed government assault on poor women and people of color, there is greater need than ever for today’s mujeres to protect against destruction of Raza. We draw nourishment from numerous foremothers, including those who work closely with (Re)Generation: Ester Hernandez, Carmen Lomas Garza, Amalia Mesa Bains, Renée Moreno, and María Pinedo. Yet their complex reality specific to our generation also implores us to look to one another for appropriate leadership today.
This exhibit, representing 17 Chicana/Latina artists from the emerging generation, is one such insight into the vital new place of the mujer. Indeed, the creative/intellectual space “up inside her head” is the womb for a new generation of mujeres—women birthing anew a reality of more diversified identity, the artists in this show largely reflect a heterogeneous grouping of women, coming from different places—sometimes countries—and having grown up under different circumstances. Yet what links us as artists and participants of the (Re)Generation Project is the political strategies we must conceive for a world far different from that which brought out women elders into consciousness.
As the first daughters to come of age after the mass political movements of the 1960s and ’70s, our generation benefited greatly from the collective work of the Chicano civil rights movement and the feminist revolution. With the accomplishments of this previous generation, we have gone where our parents only dreamed of—college. We have also entered male-dominated professions in increasing numbers, and have found the space to challenge traditional female roles both inside and outside Latino culture. Equally important, we continue challenging traditional male roles. We recognize the important place for Chicano/Latino men and young boys in our vision, and view feminism as organically tied to the community. The political legacies continue: for those of us who are lesbian or bisexual, we look to the gains of the gay rights movement and discover a greater freedom to come out of the closet and live openly in our community. We have the power to demand change in every level of society.
And demand much we will. Historic political slogans will be reborn to adapt to our changing reality. “Viva la Raza” is just an empty battle cry until Raza women can truly live without domination and fear of violence from the men in their lives. “Sisterhood is Powerful” only has power when women of color challenge the racism and classism of past feminist movements. Homophobia and heterosexism in both communities will not be tolerated. As we define this new space for our generation, we must view our diversity as an asset and not a liability. To do this will only strengthen the power and resources available to future children. Like the Aztecs, we build new temples over the altars of the past, finding strength in spiritual continuity.
So listen to us. Listen to our words, search the pictures that we paint. Accept our offer of sustenance. You will find it there, the connection—the vision—that binds us. We are young mujeres, protectors of cultural continuity. We will become your foremothers of tomorrow.