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.
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.”