“Art, Identity, and the Changing Narrative about Latinos” Speaker Feature: Amalia Mesa-Bains


Amalia Portrait circle avatarAmalia Mesa-Bains is an artist, educator and cultural critic. Her artworks, primarily interpretations of traditional Chicano altars, resonate both in contemporary formal terms and in their ties to her Chicano community and history. She has exhibited widely including Los Angels County Museum of Art , the Whitney Museum of American Art at Phillip Morris, Museo del Barrio, National Museum of Art, Smithsonian, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and others. She has pioneered the documentation and interpretation of Chicano traditions in Mexican-American art and is a leader in the field of community arts and education. Among her many awards is the distinguished MacArthur Fellowship. She is Professor Emerita in the Visual and Public Art department at California State University at Monterey Bay.
Amalia will be one of the featured speakers at our Annual Membership Meeting: “Art, Identity, and the Changing Narrative about Latinos.” We asked her to share some thoughts on this year’s theme.


What brought you into the world of art? Can you explain how it drives you?

It was almost expected that I would become an artist because my family has a long history of creative expression, folk art, and textile art. As a third generation artist, my family provided me with great support growing up. Although my parents were working class, my father was both a farmworker and cannery worker and my mother had been a maid and governess, they prized the arts and found frugal ways to get me materials. I received my first easel at seven years old and my father, who worked in grocery stores at that time, collected news paper rolls from local butcher shops, flattening them with rocks so that I had paper. When I was in high school, they saved enough money to get me an oil painting set because my teachers thought I had talent.

I have found over my lifetime that, although I have worked as an educator, television host, activist, and public lecturer, visual art is the most direct form of self-expression and it helps me to rethink issues and create options. Art is still at the core of my identity and gives me the most satisfaction. The larger art world is very aimed at mainstream artists and Latino artists have had to create their own systems of exhibition and presentation. Without these “Casas de Cultura”, which act as incubators, artists of my generation, the founding Chicano generation, would never have had the exposure we have now. I see this as my life’s work to continue to be inspired by other artists.

How have you seen art play a role in the Latino community? In particular, how has art provided Latinos an opportunity to explore and define identity?amalia-2 copy
As a member of the founding Chicano generation, a participant in the building of our cultural institutions, and an educator, I have witnessed the value of the arts in strengthening Latino identity. My dissertational work was a study on the development of Latina artist identity based on cultural experiences. It would be hard to imagine Latino identity without our music, our dance, our art and our cultural expressions like Day of the Dead, quinceneras, cuisine, and community life. The work of artists like Carmen Lomas Garza recall for us our community memory. Similarly, artists like Rupert Garcia have documented many of the historical events in graphic form, while artists like Judy Baca have changed the public landscape and mad visible our invisible histories. Through my experience in communities across the country I have seen lawyers, doctors, media personalities, actors, and entertainers who affirm their identities through the art they keep in their offices and homes. It remains for our professionals to be greater collectors of Latino art in the way that Cheech Marin has taken the lead.

As an artist, how have you used your art to impact and evolve the narrative around Latinos? What changes have you seen?
As an artist I have worked to build and strengthen institutions like the Galeria de la Raza, the Mexican Museum, the Social Public Art Resource center (SPARC), and many others born out of the Chicano movement of the 1970s. I also served as a Commissioner of Art for San Francisco and in these capacities, beginning in the late 1970s, I have seen the struggle of our cultural community-based organizations (CCBO) to sustain their base, to provide services to the artists and cultural community, and to change with the generations to remain relevant to their constituencies. By the mid-80s the censorship battles closed off the NEA Expansion Arts program, forcing our CCBOs to develop alternative and entrepreneurial funding to cover staff costs as well as programmatic growth. In my own artwork I have pursued the ceremonial forms of the altar, offered, and descanco and over time the installation art concerned with history and memory. These works have dealt with issues of the border, demographic growth, women’s issues, social justice, and spiritual practice. Like artist Pepon Osorio, I have engaged in what would be called narrative change or work that seeks, through its narrative qualities, to inspire and provoke change in our community. I have seen the emergence of a new generation of artists, including greater numbers of women and queer artists, take the lead in expanding the Latino identity. I have also been excited to see contemporary Latino art retain the tradition of intersecting art and advocacy.

How have funders helped increase the impact of the art you have created (or of art in general)? What are key insights that funders need to know in order to make their decisions about supporting and enduring the impact of Latino artists?
I have worked for over 40 years to strengthen our CCBOs as well as our artist community. From the earliest works of art addressing topics like immigration, education, women rights, farmworker labor conditions to more contemporary issues of gender and sexuality, I believe that Latino art has long been a barometer of cultural change within our larger national community. I have found that, as the conditions of our communities have become more acute, funders have, understandably, provided greater support for critical social issues like education, health, and public policy. Unfortunately, funding for cultural work has waned and often the arts and culture are left out of the larger dialogue on change and social justice. Yet, without the CCBOs, much of what we consider our cultural identity would be diminished. Artists call attention to social issues and provide the inspiration necessary for our youth to persevere in education. I have worked with funders over the years to support our CCBOs and to take on special projects and initiatives. The critical issues we are facing in the arts community include: the survival of our arts organizations now in financial struggle, the aging of artists whose art works are in jeopardy, the support for a younger generation, and the funding of public projects aimed at community change. This is a crucial juncture in the cultural and artistic future of our community and our funders can play an important role in saving our organizations and artistic legacy.

Don’t miss your chance to meet Amalia Mesa-Bains. Register now for “Art, Identity, and the Changing Narrative about Latinos.”
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