After Making Altars to Her Icons, an Artist Builds Her Own Legacy

After Making Altars to Her Icons, an Artist Builds Her Own Legacy

Over an extended profession of artwork and activism, Amalia Mesa-Bains has been a vigorous champion of Chicano tradition and the experiences of ladies inside that tradition. Her altar-like installations, which draw from her personal life as a Californian daughter of Mexican immigrants, command area with a dizzying array of non-public results and mementos.

They take purpose at some dauntingly massive targets: the Roman Catholic Church, colonialism, the patriarchy. And they emphasize neglected histories with sheer, plain accretion, or what the artist has referred to as an “aesthetic of accumulation: accumulation of expertise, reference, reminiscence, and transfiguration.”

Now, in a robust and overdue exhibition at El Museo del Barrio, Mesa-Bains is appearing as her personal greatest advocate. At 80, after a sequence of well being struggles, she is taking management of her legacy in a present that hyperlinks all of her main installations for the primary time. This course of is extra sophisticated than it sounds: Many of Mesa-Bains’s early works, consisting of discovered objects from family and friends, have been initially meant to be ephemeral, and he or she typically recycled their elements from one mission to the following (adapting the Chicano technique of reuse that had come to be recognized throughout the neighborhood as “rasquachismo.”) Some of the works at El Museo have been up to date and expanded, or edited down, from their preliminary displays. So though the exhibition is technically a retrospective, it’s additionally a singular, career-defining new mega-work.

“Amalia Mesa-Bains: Archaeology of Memory” involves El Museo from the Phoenix Art Museum and, earlier than that, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, the place it was organized in collaboration with the Latinx Research Center at Berkeley. The El Museo presentation (overseen by the museum’s curator Susanna V. Temkin, with the curatorial fellow Chloë Courtney) is Mesa-Bains’s first New York museum solo since 1993, when she had a single-room set up on the midtown department of the Whitney.

Coming only a 12 months after her receipt of the MacArthur award in 1992, the Whitney present was one thing of a breakout second. Other exhibitions and accolades adopted, most of them on the West Coast, the place Mesa-Bains was born and raised, in Santa Clara, Calif., and the place she had established herself as a professor on the University of California, Irvine (with a doctorate in scientific psychology) and a pacesetter within the Chicano artwork neighborhood.

El Museo’s exhibition begins with the work that was exhibited on the Whitney, “Venus Envy Chapter I: First Holy Communion, Moments Before the End.” The first set up in her four-part “Venus Envy” sequence exploring historically feminine areas and rituals (the title is a play on Freud’s “penis envy”), it reinterprets the Catholic custom of the primary communion in order to foreground ladies’s company and need. While surrounding us with white lacy clothes and flower petals, prayer books and rosaries, Mesa-Bains additionally presents us with photographs of the fear-inspiring Aztec deity Coatlicue (related to loss of life and rebirth) and the Sixteenth-century Spanish nun Santa Teresa de Ávila (who described her spiritual ecstasy in robustly bodily phrases).

All of this unfolds in a gallery made to appear to be a teenage lady’s dressing room, with a mirrored self-importance. In the second “Venus Envy” set up, first seen at a 1994 solo exhibition on the Williams College Museum of Art, Mesa-Bains evokes different kinds of cloistered ladies’s areas: a library, a walled backyard, and — in a twist — a harem. This formidable, multisensory piece unfolds as a sequence of interval rooms. It leaps throughout centuries and continents, with areas representing the imperial harem of the Ottoman Empire (which Mesa-Bains had visited in Turkey), a “Virgin’s Garden” modeled on a Fifteenth-century Northern European portray, and the library of the Mexican nun and feminist pioneer Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

The connection is difficult to understand, but it surely has to do with ladies who have been fenced in and located energy in sisterhood. (In the present’s catalog, Mesa-Bains writes that as a doctoral pupil she stored a framed picture of Sor Juana over her worktable “to remind me that if a solitary nun beset by males of the church may very well be an mental and religious being within the seventeenth century, then I may very well be one within the twentieth century.”) Mirrors and richly coloured and patterned textiles, together with a scattering of dried lavender and different botanicals, assist to create continuity.

The third set up within the “Venus Envy” sequence, initially offered in 1997 at Steinbaum Krauss Gallery in New York — now retitled “Cihuateotl With Mirror From Private Landscapes and Public Territories” — facilities on a legendary area the place ladies reigned: Cihuatlampa, recognized in Aztec cosmology as a house for the spirits of feminine warriors. The important set piece is a larger-than-life reclining determine, coated in moss, who gazes into a large hand mirror. The picture of the Virgin of Montserrat, often known as the “Black Virgin,” friends again at her. It’s a show of woman-worship anchored in a number of completely different cultural representations, together with the reclining Venus of Western artwork historical past. It’s additionally a sort of self-portrait, strengthened by a supporting photographic paintings titled “Amazona Azteca” and displaying Mesa-Bains placing an influence pose because the Aztec goddess Tlazolteotl.

Vulnerable our bodies, versus robust ones, hang-out the fourth and closing installment of “Venus Envy.” Originally exhibited in 2008, it adopted the artist’s five-year restoration from a life-threatening automotive accident. It takes the type of the botanica of a curandera, or people healer, and among the many objects offered are pure and religious cures — dried vegetation, a rattlesnake pores and skin, and a votive providing — interspersed with paraphernalia from Western drugs, comparable to chemistry beakers and a steel laboratory desk. Here too are items of Mesa-Bains’s private and household medical historical past, together with her personal oxygen tubes and her sister’s hospital bracelets.

In Chicano tradition this type of repurposing of the detritus of every day dwelling, or “rasquachismo,” has been related to values like resilience and resourcefulness (in addition to an perspective of defiance). In her vital writing Mesa-Bains put a feminist spin on the thought, calling consideration to the methods during which Latino ladies have been working with discovered objects of their houses. “Established by means of continuities of religious perception, pre-Hispanic in nature, the household altar features for girls as a counterpoint to male-dominated rituals inside Catholicism,” she wrote in her 1999 essay “‘Domesticana’: The Sensibility of Chicana Rasquache.” The time period has endured: In 2022, El Museo mounted the intergenerational group present of Latinx artists “Domesticanx” in tribute to Mesa-Bains.

In her writing, and in her many artworks devoted to notable ladies, Mesa-Bains has repeatedly elevated different Chicana artists (together with her contemporaries Judy Baca and Virginia Jaramillo) and paid homage to the familial and historic figures who encourage her. The closing set up in “Archaeology of Memory” is titled “Circle of Ancestors,” and brings to thoughts the cross-historical feminist gathering of Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.” Seven hand-painted, jewel-encrusted chairs are organized round a cluster of candles; every chair has a mirrored seat again emblazoned with a portrait. Among the ladies depicted are Baca, Sor Juana, Mesa-Bains’s grandmother Mariana Escobedo Mesa, and Mesa-Bains herself (seen in an image from her first holy communion).

The message on this piece — and on this inspiring retrospective — is evident: If you don’t have a seat on the ceremonial desk of artwork historical past, make your individual desk, your individual ceremony. Write, train, manage, create. Honor these working alongside you and those that got here earlier than you. Then, pull up a chair.

Amalia Mesa-Bains: Archaeology of Memory

Through Aug. 11, El Museo del Barrio, 1230 Fifth Avenue; (212) 831-7272,


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