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Amalia Mesa

May 10, 2023

Artist, scholar, and activist Amalia Mesa-Bains is a magnetic storyteller in many senses of the word. For six decades, she has advocated—or agitated, as she has often put it—for real change in the art world, with the aim of upending systems that have long marginalized artists of color, women artists, and queer artists. Just as she passes along tales of her own efforts to do this to younger generations, her art also conveys the narratives of those who refuse to be forgotten, erased, dispelled, or silenced.

Generations of artists, scholars, curators, and writers that have followed are forever indebted to women of color like Mesa-Bains, whose outstanding retrospective, "Archaeology of Memory," on view until August 13 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), is the fruit of all her labors, no matter how delayed. It is not to be missed.

This is the 79-year-old artist's first museum retrospective, and one of only a dozen or so solo exhibitions she's ever had. It is the rare opportunity to see well-known works together, like the stunning Transparent Migrations (2001), which reflects on the perilous journeys of migrations that many in the Latinx community know all too well. An armoire made of mirrors sits in a field of shattered glass straddled by two sculptures of agave plants. Inside the artist's wedding mantilla hangs above an array of carefully placed objects.

That work finds its analog in a lesser-known piece by Mesa-Bains, Queen of the Waters, Mother of the Land of the Dead: Homenaje a Tonantzin/Guadalupe (1992), made of a three-tiered mirrored altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe that is flanked by six bejeweled clocks with an image of the Virgen on their faces. Above hangs a sky-blue cascade of fabric; affixed to the wall are dozens of crystal jewels; and on the floor is a pool of potpourri.

Mesa-Bains's artistic and scholarly practices are centered around holding space for those whom the mainstream would prefer to ignore. This dates all the way back to the late ’70s, when, as a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology, she interviewed ten Chicana artists of her generation about their lived experiences, what led them to art-making, and how their culture influenced the formation of their identities. In the ensuing decades, Mesa-Bains would continue this work, curating exhibitions of and penning essays on Chicanx and Latinx artists—often writing some of the earliest scholarship on these artists.

Her 1995 essay "Domesticana: The Sensibility of Chicana Rasquachismo" looked at Chicano art aesthetics from a women's point of view. It broke new ground, honoring the generations of Mexican and Mexican American women who had made art in their homes, even when it was not seen as art proper. Read today, the essay foreshadows a remark Mesa-Bains, who won the MacArthur "genius" fellowship in 1992, makes in the BAMPFA catalogue: "The construction of space is ongoing as a social, spiritual, political, and economic practice."

That is embodied in her installation-based altars, which are sometimes composed of hundreds of objects. Mesa-Bains began engaging altars around 1973, when she first made ofrendas for the Día de los Muertos celebrations at San Francisco's Galeria de la Raza. Her endlessly innovative takes on the format are mesmerizing to experience in person.

Several of these early altar installations are no longer extant, as Mesa-Bains always envisioned them as ephemeral works. But the diagnosis of a major cardiopulmonary disease in 1991—her "come to Guadalupe" moment—made her reconsider this approach. Her iconic An Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio (1983/1991), which closes the show, has been presented as seven different iterations since its 1983 debut at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco for Día de los Muertos. One version never returned from a traveling exhibition in Europe, while the current version, now owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, was recreated for the seminal 1990 traveling exhibition "Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation (CARA)."

With this evolution, that space that she had been holding for two decades now became lasting, a record of her artistic talent and by extension of the community, la cultura. In making the ephemeral permanent, Mesa-Bains boldly cemented what she had long been saying: there is value and worth in this community—it has been there all along.

The BAMPFA show, curated by María Esther Fernández and Laura E. Pérez, opens with Mesa-Bain's first intentionally permanent works, the first three chapters of her "Venus Envy" series, a pun on the Freudian theory that women suffer from "penis envy." The series represents a significant departure from the true altar form into installations that reflect on the place of women in society—how they have been historically subjugated and the ways in which they have resisted that oppression.

Conceptualized during the 1990s, with the fourth and final chapter created in 2008, these works have never been shown together until now. You could blame that on the fact that US museums generally refuse to showcase art about the Chicanx experience, but Mesa-Bains's approach is also a reason. She never thought a retrospective would be possible because some of her works reuse the same objects (around 60 in total), a gesture that harkens back to the roots of the care involved in maintaining a home altar or creating an ofrenda for Día de los Muertos.

Instead of replicating objects for each of these works, BAMPFA has made the intriguing choice of parceling them out across the show. This is a way to breathe new and renewed life into the works, which can be seen as Mesa-Bain's own Gesamtkunstwerk.

Similarly, given spatial concerns, several of the works have been adjusted for their presentation here. These installations now have room to breathe in BAMPFA's spacious galleries, in part because of how Mesa-Bains demarcates space. Instead of opting to use stanchions or taped-down lines, she uses rose petals, lavender, and other floral debris in her installations to suggest how close visitors can approach the works. She's reorienting how visitors are allowed to interact with the art on view in a museum, and doing it in ways both alluring and pleasurable.

As you traverse the first half of the exhibition, you encounter various moments from throughout "Venus Envy," which serve as a journey through Mesa-Bains's life. The first of these Venus Envy Chapter I: First Holy Communion, Moments Before the End (1993/2022) reflects on the impact of the artist's First Holy Communion. Recently acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the work's focal point is a white vanity table, its mirror spectrally superimposed with an image of the Aztec deity Coatlicue. Behind the vanity are swaths of draped white satin and in front stands an angled chair with a bouquet of white flowers resting atop. Photographs of family, figurines, beads, a miniature bottle of Patron tequila, and much more adorn the vanity. Nearby are three vitrines, one holding her Communion dress, another a statue of a faceless Virgin Mary, and the third, dozens of photographs and other religious paraphernalia including a Virgen candle.

As the "Venus Envy" series progressed, Mesa-Bains expanded her focus, delving into expansive conversations of women's experiences across the centuries. The second chapter is subtitled The Harem and Other Enclosures, and it includes the ever-powerful Library of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, which imagines the library and desk of the proto-feminist nun whose 1691 treatise Respuesta a Sor Filotea de la Cruz (Reply to Sister Filotea of the Cross) advocating for women's right to education ultimately led to her silencing by the Catholic Church. This work is rich in protean imagination with a sundry of objects—globes, spices, a rosary, a Bible, hourglass, skull, candles, shells, and The Autopsy Chair, a gray armchair that the artist has cut into, painted red, and then sutured; Mesa-Bains has updated the work with statistics that range from Covid deaths for the Latinx population in 2022 to the prison population of Latino men relative to the white population.

Further along are the other sections of the chapter: an all-green armoire titled The Virgin's Garden and a version of The Harem, consisting of a large-scale print of an archival image of the work's original installation at Williams College, to which she has installed mirrors with colored scarfs draped over them. Later comes Venus Envy Chapter IV: The Road to Paris and Its Aftermath, The Curandera's Botanica (2008/2023), consisting of a large metal table upon which dozens of objects are arranged and a healer's cabinet. The final chapter was created after a near fatal car accident in Paris that prevented the artist from producing work for five years while she underwent multiple surgeries.

What struck me most was the pairing of two installations that hold space for women: Venus Envy Chapter III: Cihuatlampa, the Place of the Giant Women (1997) and Circle of Ancestors (1995). At the center of the first is Cihuateotl with Mirror, in which a woman-goddess figure covered in mounds of differently hued moss stares at a mirror onto which a Black Madonna image has been superimposed, its back baroquely decorated with shells and beads. Nearby hang the artist's imaginings of couture fit for a goddess: larger-than-life heels, a copper-wire vestment, and an elaborate feather cloak.

In the Aztec afterlife, Cihuatlampa, which translates from Nahuatl to "toward the west," is the place where women who died in childbirth, transformed into deities by their sacrifice, live. But Mesa-Bains is not an artist who would simply accept this patriarchal notion. Instead, as Mesa-Bains tells curator Lowery Stokes Sims in the catalogue, the work becomes "the story of women who could have been warriors in another time. Instead, they just got punished for being outspoken, for being loud, for laughing too much, for being too smart."

In Circle of Ancestors, seven chairs face each other in a circle, each individually decorated for Sor Juana, artist Judith F. Baca, the Aztec goddess Coyolaxauhiqui, the artist's grandmothers and mother, and the artist at the age of her First Holy Communion. You can only imagine what this sharing of ancestral knowledge, wisdom, insights, and chisme would come from this gathering of strong, powerful, larger-than-life women. You can almost feel them in communion, holding space for each other.

What would Mesa-Bains have achieved, had she had the financial and institutional support to realize her most ambitious ideas? It's hard to know, and it's a question one could ask for many women artists of color. But, as the BAMPFA exhibition shows, her work doesn't suffer from the limitations of her lived experience. It thrives, and a new generation is likely to take note because of this retrospective. When she turns 80 next month, we may just enter the Age of Amalia.