Amalia Mesa-Bains is an internationally renowned artist, scholar, and curator. Throughout her career, Mesa-Bains has expanded understandings of Latina/o artists’ references to spiritual practices and vernacular traditions through her altar installations, articles and exhibitions. In 1992 she was awarded a Distinguished Fellowship from the MacArthur Foundation. Her work has been shown at institutions that include: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art at Phillip Morris, and the New Museum, as well as international venues in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, Ireland, Sweden, England, France and Spain. In 2011, her work was featured as part of NeoHooDoo: Art for A Forgotten Faith, and in 2013, she recontextualized objects from the collections of the Fowler Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles in New World Wunderkammer. As a cultural critic she has co-authored along with bell hooks, Homegrown: Engaged Cultural Criticism. Mesa-Bains founded and directed the Visual and Public Art department at California State University at Monterey Bay where she is now Professor Emerita. Mesa-Bains community work includes board of trustee positions with the Mexican Museum in San Francisco and advisory boards for the Galeria de la Raza, and the Social Public Resource Center in Los Angeles.
An Interview with Amalia Mesa-Bains
Marianne K. McGrath
MKM: Tell us about your childhood, where did you grow up? Were you always creative?
AMB: I grew up in Sunnyvale California in 1943 when it was rural and an agricultural center with orchards and canneries. Yes, I was creative and the third generation of artists in my family.
MKM: You began your education with a degree in art and ultimately earned a PhD in psychology. Can you tell us about this multi-disciplinary journey and how it informs your work?
AMB: I began with an art degree in painting, but eventually turned to new media and materials that include spray painted constructions. When I began my master’s degree, I was part of Teacher Corps, a program that recruited minorities to serve in minority communities. Because of Teacher Corps at San Francisco State University, I was lucky to be on a team assigned to schools in the Mission district with fellow Latino team members and a veteran educator Yolanda Garfias Woo, who became my mentor. She was good friends with many of the Chicano and Latin leaders in the Mission. Through her I was drawn into the Chicano Movement and dedicated my art to the cultural work of the movement. While teaching I began to realize the emotional and psychological needs of my students, so I began taking night classes in psychology. At the same time, I was in an artist’s dream group guided by my mentor and friend Renaldo Maduro, which led to my interest in clinical psychology. Eventually I went to the Wright Institute which moved me toward a multidisciplinary approach to art, culture and women’s development. This disposition has informed much of my work as an educator, artist and activist.
MKM: You are an artist, curator, educator, author and activist – how do each of these practices inform, inspire and support the other in your varied projects and your work in general?
AMB: I think my curiosity has driven much of the interconnected fields that I work in. Many of the themes and directions in my work are also present in my curating, writing and activism. In particular my commitment to making visible the work of Chicana and Latina artists.
MKM: When you’re creating what’s your daily routine? Rituals, patterns?
AMB: I generally gestate on projects for quite a while which involves a great deal of reading, research, and even interviews to put together the guiding concepts. This will lead me to image collecting – all of which eventually helps me frame the final project. I always keep a drawing project book as I go along where I paste in images, notes and drawings as the project unfolds. I don’t work in the morning, mainly the afternoon, and particularly afternoon and often middle of the night note taking. I have no rituals other than being sure the studio is ready with tools and art supplies in order and tables cleared.
MKM: Has your practice changed over time?
AMB: Only in so far as age and illness have required more planning for other fabricators and scheduling of supplies etc.
MKM: What is your most important tool when you are making art? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?
AMB: Only my imagination, since I depend more on fabricators such as glass blowers, box builders etc.
MKM: Is there an artwork/installation you are most proud of? Why?
AMB: My favorite piece as an experience and process has been the “New World Wunderkammer” which allowed me to work with all the departments at the Fowler UCLA Museum, including their extraordinary collections. It was a two-year project with multiple visits and direct work with specialists, designers, education folks and others.
MKM: What has been a seminal experience?
AMB: In my early years as an artist, I was mentored by Yolanda Garfias Woo who introduced me to the Meso American world, as well as the traditions of Mexican folk forms including the Days of the Dead. My long mentorship and friendship with her has been life changing.
MKM: What memorable responses have you had to your work?
AMB: I have had many reviews and recognitions. The recent review in the New York Times for the opening of the new Kinder building at Museum of Fine Arts Houston was especially positive, but my very first review in “Art in America” in 1987 when my show “Grotto of the Virgins” at INTAR in New York was acclaimed as one of the 10 best shows in alternative galleries that year, it was inspiring.
MKM: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
AMB: Hang on and stay with your purpose.
MKM: You often work with objects and collections – Do you maintain any of your own collections or live with other artists’ work?
AMB: Yes, we have an extensive collection of Chicano, Latino and Black art.
MKM: What is your dream project?
AMB: I have always imagined a residency in a museum where I could rearrange my objects into different installations each week.
MKM: What are you working on right now?
AMB: I am currently working on a project for the Mac Arthur Fellows 40th Anniversary which is called “Dos Mundos: Mexican Chicago.” It will be at two sites and tell the story of the invisible history of Mexicans in the building of Chicago as well as an homage to my own family who were very active in the Mexican communities of Chicago.
MKM: Is there any subject or theme you’ve been particularly interested in lately?
AMB: I am always interested in the issues of the immigrant experience and also in the change in the natural world.
MKM: What do you have planned for the year ahead?
AMB: Completing the Chicago project, writing and readying myself for a potential retrospective in 2023.
New World Wunderkammer
One of Amalia Mesa-Bains’ favorite projects, for both the experience and process, was New World Wunderkammer. She was invited to create this installation at UCLA’s Fowler Museum in honor of the Fowler’s 50th anniversary, fall 2013 to spring 2014. New World Wunderkammer featured more than 75 rare and historic objects from the museum’s permanent collection. The objects were combined and recontextualized with many of Amalia Mesa-Bains personal items from previous installations.
Mesa-Bains is well known for her groundbreaking work creating altar installations reminiscent of the ofrenda, a traditional home altar intended to honor and memorialize the departed. Along with the spirit of the domestic ofrenda, Mesa-Bains incorporated an age-old institutional method of display for New World Wunderkammer: the “cabinet of curiosities” or “cabinet of wonder”. The cabinet of curiosity has its origins in Renaissance Europe as a mode for storing and displaying collected items intended to illustrate an owner’s knowledge of the world.
The Fowler Museum provided Mesa-Bains access to all of its collections and the freedom to compose New World Wunderkammer as she envisioned. Over the course of two years, she became familiar with thousands of precious objects and ultimately assembled three connected cabinets of curiosity, representing “Africa, the indigenous Americas and the complex cultural and racial mixture (Colonial mestizaje) that typifies the New World.” 1 In this setting Mesa-Bains invited viewers to explore the “collision” of these colonized cultures while offering new paths of understanding and healing for the objects, the people encountering them and the museum in which they reside. 2
In addition to composing the cabinets, Mesa-Bains created eight giclée prints featuring images of specific objects in the exhibit. The object image is situated within compositions that include photographs, maps and plants that illustrate the context and history of the object’s origin. The prints were installed in proximity to the actual objects in the gallery cabinets. Study tables provided an interactive component within the gallery space, inviting visitors to participate in examining objects and history together.
It is easy to understand why New World Wunderkammer is Amalia Mesa-Bains’ favorite exhibit for the experience and process. Through her vision and inspirational creative process, Mesa-Bains produced a profound, multi-layered, inclusive and interconnected exhibition. New World Wunderkammer, brought together communities and cultures to create connection, honor memory and history, cultivate understanding and promote healing.
Testimonios,Blanca Santander’s poignant digital installation about migrant children forcibly separated from their parents and put into cages by the US government, speaks directly to our hearts. The artist created seven soft sculptures representing children, each inscribed with words of the children who were placed into insufferable conditions in what is known as the Ursula Processing Center. Santander then arranged them in a digital exhibition, they seem to come and speak to us. Friends and students of the artist spoke the words written on the sculpture.
Blanca Describes the Work:
“In 2018, President Donald Trump enacted a “Zero-Tolerance” border policy that superseded all prior border policies, allowing immediate persecution of all persons who crossed the border. This abrupt and aggressive executive order led to an infamous and much-undeserved crisis, where children were forcibly separated from their parents. Lost and afraid without their guardians, these children lived in awful and inhumane conditions–cramped in detention facilities with more than maximum occupancy, stuffed in rooms filled with complete strangers, little to no privacy for restroom usage, no clothes to change into, little to nothing to wash themselves with, no beds, no blankets, no one to console them. Around 5,500 children were separated after the policy was signed by President Trump, and more were separated even after the policy was rescinded. These children, who were left crying for their parents, for decent treatment, for freedom, are still today traumatized and scared, being put through an oppressive and confusing border-law system, with complex litigation and paperwork, as well as hiding from past and current terrors on either side of the southern borders.”
As many as 2000 children were crowded together in cages. According to one report there were a dozen cages each with 140 children. The facility near McAllen Texas was within the hundred mile border zone, so Border Patrol has broad authority to ignore Constitutionally protected rights. So mindlessly obsessed driven were the White House administrators to create a strong stand against immigration, that even infants were separated from their parents, left completely alone ( over the objections of the attorney generals from the border states). In a few cases older siblings looked out for them, or at least tried to, given the horrendous situation.
These children have now been placed in foster homes, still separated from their families, or in shelters run by the Office of Refuge and Resettlement. A few have been reunited with a parent in the US that they never knew. The trauma they suffered can never be erased either from their own psyches, or from our own. Many of the parents have been deported to Mexico. As of February 2020 r there are still 500 children whose parents cannot be found in spite of efforts to find them in Mexico and elsewhere.
The artwork bears the testimonies of the children who were kept in detention near the border, where they plead for places to sleep, to eat, bathe, and see their families once again. The work is inspired by the information released to the public, dedicated to spreading awareness and drawing compassion for these children within our own borders, children who need our help and even more so with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, which makes them subject to more stress and legal and humane trouble.”
This collage is a study for the final work.
The Ursula Processing Center is being “remodeled,” a rather ominous idea, perhaps indicating that in the future, children will once again go there. According to the New York Times, “the renovated facility is designed for 1100 children.” The facility opened under Obama as a short term solution (even then illegal and unacceptable), but under the political machinations of the last four years, the children were left there for months and the chaos of trying to find the parents has gone on for years because virtually no record keeping happened. There are still many children who have not been reunited with family. Yesterday we heard that the Biden Administration is opening a new facility for children. It looks to be less inhumane, but the fact that it exists at all is terrible.
As one advocate for the children stated “It’s unnecessary, it’s costly, and it goes absolutely against everything [President] Biden promised he was going to do,” said Linda Brandmiller, a San Antonio-based immigration lawyer who represents unaccompanied minors. “It’s a step backward, is what it is. It’s a huge step backward.”
Testimoniosbears witness to Santander’s own deep feelings for migrants. She herself came from Peru . She knows first hand why these migrants are coming. As she told me “ The Shining Path terrorism in Peru lasted 18-20 years. Because of my work, I was constantly in the heart of terrorism that was in the mountain regions of Peru. I was working with NGOs like UNICEF to help create educational materials for children in impoverished areas. Alongside these educational materials were things such as sustainable agricultural techniques and being aware of and protecting endangered wildlife. To have cultural relevance in my illustrations I had to travel across my country and see how impoverished and/or indigenous people lived. Every community is different than other ones. There were difficult times in my country and the communities needed authentic support.”
Esperanza Abandonada (Abandoned Hope) 2017 poignantly and succinctly refers to the tragedy of immigration for children. It foretells Testimonios. It depicts a doll impaled on the other side of a barbwire fence.
As the artist said “It depicts a doll impaled on the other side of a barbwire fence. Its poignant image of a child who has lost her beloved doll, crossing the line into another land, speaks directly to the hardships of fleeing home to enter an unfamiliar place. Even when working hard within the borders of their new land, they have to flee from those who would take their new life away, often leaving behind what is most precious to them in the process.”
But these works are only one aspect of Santander’s work. She has addressed many topics, followed many directions, including public art in Seattle. She often approaches her work with celebration and joy.
She declared “It is difficult to express my emotions and thoughts in words, so illustrating and painting are extremely important to me. They get my message out to the world, where I am not bound by a language barrier. I feel free when I paint, because I can pour out the feeling tethered to my existence.: that I am a mother, a woman, a warrior, lover of peace, my culture and mother nature. I rarely express sorrow or lack of color, as I find more happiness and freedom in painting liveliness of nature and the female body. But sometimes the sorrow I feel for the world and its woes must exit through my hand onto paper or canvas. I want viewers to feel happiness for the world and what it has to offer – trees and flowers that give us beauty and protection; the strength and momentousness of women and the Mother Earth.”
An example of this more joyful work is Daughters of Immigration, “Immigration to this land means you have emigrated from another. You have left behind family, tradition, culture, and language. All here is new and strange. The feeling of home becomes divided, and you don’t feel like you belong to one culture or the other. Then your children are born here and they are North American. They grow up only knowing this land and only memories and shadows of the other.
They are sons and daughters of immigration. We live out of suitcases full of our heritage and culture. Does being different make us stronger? Are life’s struggles really just a shared experience calling us to unite our energies for a better world? I have learned to identify with immigrants from all over the world. I feel sisterhood with all immigrant women. In my paintings women are celebrated as the nucleus of the family. Being a mother gives us incredible strength to draw from an inner power to fight for a better life for our families. We also have an insight and connection as creators of life when it comes to our feelings for our planet.”
Blanca Santander is a Peruvian-American artist who has lived in Seattle since immigrating in 1996. Her artwork focuses on environmental and social justice, as well as her identity and her heritage. Either by teaching art to children, or by providing artwork that is colorful, informative, or uplifting to those who may come across it, Blanca uses the passions that inform her art to help uplift others in her community.
Nazanin Hedayat Munroe is an artist, designer and historian specializing in textiles and costume. Dr. Hedayat Munroe received her Ph.D. from University of Bern, Switzerland and M.A. from San Jose State University in art history, specializing in historic textiles from the Early Modern Persianate World. Dr. Hedayat Munroe is currently Director of Textile Technology and a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Business & Technology of Fashion at CUNY – NYC College of Technology, where she lectures on textiles, historic dress, and contemporary issues in the fashion industry. From 2011—2016 she worked at The Metropolitan Museum as a textile specialist, publishing several articles and teaching courses at the museum in her area of expertise.
A nationally acclaimed textile artist and NEA grant recipient, her installations and research focus on expressions of cultural identity expressed through clothing, ranging from complex woven designs to digitally printed and smart textiles. She received her M.F.A. from Cranbrook Academy of Art and B.F.A. from Savannah College of Art and Design in textile design and fiber art. She has exhibited her garments and textile-based installations at several museums including the M.H. De Young Memorial Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cranbrook Art Museum, San Jose Museum of Art, and The San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles.
MKM: Why did you pursue art? Were you always creative?
NHM: I was always creative; from the age of about six, I spent many hours writing stories about characters who traveled back in time. Then I would draw and paint their elaborate wardrobes by looking at history books. I started making clothes around this time too, I had a little miniature sewing machine.
MKM: You are an artist and scholar – Can you tell us about the interchange between your fine art practice and your academic, art historical work?
NHM: In retrospect, it makes sense that I became a textile and garment designer who also studied art history, bringing these two disciplines together in my work. I research my garments pretty extensively while I’m designing, and when I’m writing about historic objects, I experiment in the studio to put myself in the place of the artist. These two approaches fit together nicely for me.
MKM:What inspires you? other artists, your process, research, a theme?
NHM: Most of my work is inspired by Persian culture and literature, contemplating themes such as destiny and divination; as well as issues pertaining to women and their idealized representations in art and literature as passive beings, when in fact they were often master strategists and mediators. The ideas become distilled into key words and images (I usually include text in my work), and then I create my installations to invite viewers into the psychic or physical space. If there is a common goal with all my work, it’s to take ideas from Sufi poetry and give them physicality, so the viewer is walking into a poem.
MKM: In your fine art practice, what is your most important tool? Is there something you can’t live without in your studio?
NHM: I like to think of tools and techniques as a means to an end; I start with a vision of a piece, which usually consists of an installation and a garment(s), and then apply the technique that will express that vision. I work with paintings, sketches and textile samples before making the larger piece. Some of my favorite techniques are silk painting, dyeing and screen printing; color and motif are major elements in my work. I started as a weaver, but it’s difficult to make large work without an appropriately sized loom, and in New York I just don’t have the space for it.
MKM: What memorable responses have you had to your work?
NHM: I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by viewers, who are truly so generous with their enthusiasm and willingness to contemplate the ideas in my work and share their responses. The most memorable responses have been at venues in California and New York. The “Permanent Madness” performance and exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles (2006), which played out a scenario from Nizami’s Layla and Majnun, and included audience participation; this was also displayed at The Metropolitan Museum (2012). The performance/exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art, in which I displayed the “Destiny House” (2007) and gave live Hafez destiny readings (a form of fortune telling with Persian poetry)—viewers were lined up throughout the museum! My artist residency and exhibition “Animedallion” at the de Young Museum (2008) had a great turnout for the closing, which included a live musical performance by a Sufi group. “100 Destinies” (2015) was shown with the Westchester Arts Council in New York at Persian New Year to an enthusiastic audience, with a musical performance of Persian poetry; and the Graduate Theological Union’s Doug Adams Gallery in Berkeley, CA (2017) had a lot of great press, and a beautiful catalog by Carol Bier. The common thread was that these works all involved silk textiles and Persian Sufi poetry as the basis for the work, and included an element of audience participation. I think there is some universal truth that those poets tapped into that comes across to viewers, which is really enhanced by the visual and performing arts.
MKM: How has COVID impacted your practice and teaching?
NHM: COVID-19 has impacted everything. A virtual exhibition, as accessible as it is to global audiences, is not the same as having a live opening and meeting other artists and viewers. There is something magical in that, and the human connection is really missing. As far as teaching—same thing! Online teaching has some advantages, but I miss being in on campus with my students where we can connect face-to-face.
MKM: What can we expect from you in the year ahead?
NHM: This year (2021) I am wrapping up two major publications: a book on Sufi poetry and textiles from the early modern period; and on the other end of the spectrum, a book on the history of fashion from the mid-19th century to the present. Publishing works on these seemingly extreme opposites, I see now that the universe gave me a chance to explore my career as a former apparel designer in tandem with my career as an artist and historian, and find connections between the two.
The Talismanic Garment Series
Nazanin Hedayat Munroe’s recent artwork comes from her Talismanic Garment series. In describing her motivation for this series, she tells us: “I began the Talismanic Garment series in January 2017, prompted by the changes we started seeing in our society—particularly the increase in overt prejudice and scorn. Making a series of protective garments based on the idea of sacred symbols combined with text, I drew upon my research of early modern garments from my own heritage. I felt that protective icons and Sufi poetry by Rumi was the cloud of psycho-spiritual armor that I need to cloak myself—literally and metaphorically—from the evils and hazards lurking in the world. Both garments incorporate Rumi poetry as the protective prayer. I hope someday to live in a world that doesn’t feel overrun by spiritual and physical illnesses and social discord, but I’m not sure we will ever set our talismans aside.”
Talismanic Ensemble for the Era of COVID-19
“The Talismanic Ensemble came from my research of talismanic garments inscribed with astrological symbols and Qur’anic text, used as protective garments during the early modern era in the Islamic world. These garments protected against the “evil eye” (warded off with the image of an eye), black magic, wounds and illness, by creating a barrier with positive language. Words can protect in folk tradition too: mothers in Iranian culture pray for the well-being of their children by whispering protective verses and blowing the words around their heads like a magic cloud—something that my own mother did for me as a child. This ensemble is my attempt to create a protective cloud in this era of COVID-19, which is marked not only by illness, but also by fear and anger—things that have been present in civilization for millennia. These talismanic garments were traditionally worn underneath regular clothes, as if they would lose their power if exposed. In this series, I am reversing this practice by putting the protective images, and verses—which include mystic poetry and personal supplications—on the outside of the garment. The dress is printed with a pattern of a head sprouting positive thoughts, representing the inner self. The cloak is a physical barrier representing the social distance that separates all of us into bubbles of fear and isolation.”
“The Talismanic Kaftan is based on my research of cloth and garments as protective devices in Middle Eastern culture. It is based on a warrior garment, representing my outer life working as an artist and professor in New York City, photographed on site for the performative image “NY: Struggle for Space” (2018). For this piece, I constructed a “Smart textile” that speaks to the viewer, rather than the wearer: if the viewer gets too close, the colors change and blink. Using a proximity sensor, the lights turn green, yellow, or red to indicate safe, close, or too close. They hold a steady light in green when the viewer maintains a safe distance. Although this piece was constructed before the 2020 pandemic, the concept of social distancing has added additional challenges to establishing individual comfort levels with physical interaction, making it that much more important to communicate with visual symbols. The use of light here is also a reference to Divine protection and enlightenment.The digital print on the kaftan is based on a “Khamsa,” a talismanic symbol usually made of metal and carried on the top of a standard when soldiers went into battle or worn as jewelry around the neck. Protective talismanic clothing was also worn on the body, inscribed with Qur’anic verse or Sufi poetry. Here, I have united these separate practices by creating a repeat pattern and printing it on the fabric. The undergown contains verses by Jalaluddin Rūmī, a twelfth century poet whose poetry was often reproduced in other media. The poem is translated to English, but I have kept the Persian word Khamūsh: in Rūmī’s medieval poems this means “silence” and is used by Rūmī to indicate the end of his ecstatic rantings; in contemporary vernacular, this means “to turn off,” i.e. lights. Essentially, the garment in this context functions as psycho-spiritual armor.”
“My inner life is about supplication and the search for internal peace, as seen in the Talismanic Gownand the performative image “CA: Supplication for Serenity” (2018). The gown is my West Coast prayer dress, photographed in California as I stood in a gesture of supplication at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.The Talismanic Gown is based on my research of garments as protective devices and images on clothing as a powerful tool for communicating identity. The sheer overgarment is digitally printed with a design inspired by a 17th century Safavid velvet, referenced as the “Supplicant” pattern by scholars. The supplicant depicted on cloth is in a traditional pose of du’a (supplication) as she converses with the Divine. By donning the garment, the wearer becomes the supplicant by displaying her image on the garment, indicating her piety to the viewer. The undergown contains verses by Jalaluddin Rūmī, a twelfth century poet whose poetry was often reproduced in other media, digitally printed here on cotton. The poem creates a protective forcefield around the wearer, whose prayer becomes mingled with Sufi mystic expression. Sometimes we communicate the most through silence.”
Welcome to the rebooted national WCA blog,Art Insights! Editors Marianne McGrath and Susan Noyes Platt are committed to offering fresh perspectives every month on women working in the arts, in the form of interviews, studio visits, and reflections. We think you’ll enjoy it and hope you’ll visit regularly. If you have an idea for a post, Marianne and Susan welcome your contributions.
Updating the WCA blog is one of the significant initiatives of the WCA Art Writers Committee which formed after the June 2020 Board Meeting as a way of enhancing the visibility of writers in the organization. Art historians helped to found WCA 50 years ago and continue to advance its mission alongside critics, essayists, and bloggers. Re-envisioning Artlines as a substantive arts journal has been our other project (with credit due former WCA President Susan M. King for starting the process).
The relaunched Artlines will be published on the national website this month. Edited by Rosemary Meza-DesPlas and Shantay Robinson, it features articles that consider the intersection of activist arts and social justice in relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement. An elegant new design by Allicette Torres and Sahiti Bonam makes space for longer form writing and ample illustrations. The managing editorial team of myself, Patti Jordan, and Jess Long are working on a call for participation for future issues—look for it here and in PULSE this spring.
After many years as a tenured professor of art history, Susan is currently an independent art historian and freelance art critic and curator, based in Seattle. Her most recent book is the first volume of her collected writings, Breaking Ground Art Modernisms, 1920–1950 (Ingram, 2020). She is currently working on Volume 2, to be titled Setting Our Hearts on Fire. She writes a monthly column for Leschi News and maintains her own website and blog at www.artandpoliticsnow.com
Marianne is an independent art curator. After a successful decade working in museums curating exhibits and presenting art and education programs, she founded MKM Art Consulting, which offers curatorial projects and consulting services to art institutions, galleries, and artists. Marianne holds a BA degree in Art, MA degree in Art History and her professional affiliations include ArtTable, College Art Association and the Women’s Caucus for Art. mkmartconsulting.com