“We were the generation that was right at the cusp of losing it all,” the Chicana artist and educator Amalia Mesa-Bains tells me, an urgency clear in her voice.
And with good reason.
Born in 1943 and into a generation that viewed assimilation as a shield to protect their offspring from the welcoming American traditions of racism, discrimination and exploitation, Amalia’s undocumented Mexican parents never taught her Spanish and they kept their family history locked away to be forgotten.
“I grew up knowing I was Mexican, but not really understanding what that meant,” Amalia, who is 79, says. “There’s a scholar, he’s not alive anymore, Juan Gomez Quiñones, he used to say the people most concerned with identity are the people who are in the most peril of losing it. And we were Americanized. I grew up in…a white, white, white America. And you kept trying to fit in, and you just couldn’t. And then at some point, you just got really mad, and stayed mad for years and years.”
That rage manifested just as the Chicano Movement was underway, something that Amalia calls her “saving grace.” That movement gave birth to a yearning for cultural reclamation that has not only inspired Amalia’s mixed-media art for the last five decades, but is literally reflected in her very first retrospective exhibition, “Archaeology of Memory,” now on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA).
Co-curated by María Esther Fernández — the inaugural artistic director of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture at the Riverside Art Museum — and Laura Elisa Pérez — a UC Berkeley ethnic studies professor and co-chair of the university’s Latinx Research Center — planning for the show dates back to the summer of 2018.
“This exhibition is particularly important now. First, because it is so overdue,” says Fernández. “Women of color artists, among them Latinas, have been in the last years ‘discovered’ at the end of their careers, rather than in their 40s and 50s. For Chicanas, women of Mexican origin artists, this neglect in major and mainstream museums is striking.”
Two years after initially planning the exhibition, Fernández and Pérez pitched the show to BAMPFA’s Executive Director, Julie Rodrigues Widholm.
“U.S. Latinx artists remain vastly underrepresented across museum exhibitions and collections. We all know this. It’s evident,” says Rodrigues Widholm. “We also know that the work of women artists, particularly those of Amalia’s generation, are too often undervalued, relative to their male peers. This is feminist art, this is Chicanx art, this is contemporary art, and this is American art.”
The show — a collection of nearly 60 pieces ranging from prints to collages to altar installations — opened on Feb. 4 and, thankfully, will be on display until July 23, 2023. For a body of work this vast and this encompassing, the exhibition deserves the space and time BAMPFA has allotted to it.
In a word, the show is overwhelming. Not just because of the elegance and beauty that accompanies each and every piece, but because of how personal it is. In allowing us into her space, Amalia tells us in the most intimate of detail the story of her family. It’s a story grounded in social justice and triumph, but also one that explores pain, death, and of course, healing.
“The work that I make I think, yes, it is beautiful, and it has an aspect of spirituality. But it’s also about all the questions I’ve been forced to ask about the world, and why we are treated the way we are,” she says.
“I think sometimes my work is a little mystifying to people because they get drawn in by the beauty, and then they realize, what is this story really about. I catch them with the things that make them want to stay and look, and then I try to teach them, or open up their own thinking about their own lives. So when I finish I always have hope that people will come and find the truth for themselves in whatever they’re looking at.”
When walking through BAMPFA’s massive gallery that houses the various pieces that weave together “Archaeology of Memory,” among the most prominent being the Venus Envy installation series, the common observer may recognize that they’re glimpsing a life and experience that isn’t their own. But look close enough, and long enough, you’ll notice the mirrors, the glass, the colors, the smells, and you’ll see a part of yourself too — literally and figuratively.
Through the Venus Envy series, which is broken up into four chapters, Amalia’s installations serve as a visible biography, told through metaphors. In Chapter I, we see images of Amalia as a young girl etched into mirrors that adorn the wall, an altar commemorating her First Communion, and a collage of photos from that holy ceremony that many of us are coerced into as kids. It’s an homage to Amalia’s coming of age, and her eventual questioning of the church’s storied tradition of upholding patriarchy.
In Chapter II, Amalia explores the community she forged with her “comadres,” all while being married to her supportive husband, Richard Bains. “As lovely as my marriage has been, for many women, marriage is at the beginning almost like an enclosure in and of itself,” she says. “You lose your relationship to others because you’re focused on this one individual.” Those relationships with those “comadres, which include Judy Baca, Ester Hernández,Carmen Lomas Garza, still exist to this day.
The third Chapter, “Cihuatlampa,” deeply explores the sexism Amalia faced, even after earning her PhD and being named a MacArthur “genius” in 1992.
“I still ran into the same wall that had to do with people resisting your intelligence, your power, your advocacy, because they just can’t accept that that can come from you, because you’re not white, because you’re not a man,” she says. “And so this is a story about women who have learned to fight for the things that they feel are right, and how it is that we come together to support one another.”
The fourth and final chapter of Venus Envy however, is perhaps one of the most profound. Here, Amalia explores her own brush with death, and honors the “curandera” tradition of her family, and honors the many members of her family who have now transitioned.
“I have lived through a lot of death, a lot of challenges to my health, and eventually I came to the concepts of healing,” she says. Twenty years ago this fall, Amalia was returning from Paris when she was involved in a near fatal car accident.
“It was a very big turning point in my life, not just because of the physical injuries or the limitations, but because sometimes when life takes hold of you like that, you have to stop. You stop everything you’re doing and you realize what really matters to you is to be well,” she says. “So I turned to curanderismo because in curanderismo, the living and the dead are inseparable, the celestial and terrestrial are inseparable. The cure is alway collective, because the illness is always collective. We don’t get sick by ourselves and we don’t get well by ourselves.”
She described suffering from “Susto,” or what many may call shock or trauma. “And I most certainly had that,” she says. “Because in Susto, it is believed that the fear that you have is so deep, that it causes your soul to flee your body. And the result is what you would find in shock or trauma.”
She got better.
The exhibition also includes “homenajes” to her family’s history of migration, Tonatzin/Guadalupe, Aztlan and Dolores del Rio.
“I never really thought I would have a retrospective, because people have always found my work challenging, at least in the museum world. But I think over these years we’ve developed a whole new generation or two of young women and men of color who have gone into the museum world. And the shows I’m having are a direct result of Black Lives Matter, the Latinx movement, and the generation of young curators of color,” she says. “I feel vindicated…because I know now that young people and younger scholars and younger activists will find things in this work. And now I know, that in some strange way, my legacy is secure.”