Sunday, June 28, 2009

Chicana/o Biennial at MACLA

Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana has a small gallery in its downtown San Jose location. Every two years the Latin cultural center hosts a juried exhibition on Chicana/o art. Each time, they make an effort to showcase a balance between genders and among artists at various stages of their careers, from emerging to famous in order to watch Chicana/o art evolve from its highly political inception in the 60s.

At this year's Biennial, about half of the pieces were driven by border issues, and many referred to Aztlan, the ancestral land of the Mexica and Maya, and therefore Chicanos, that is now the Southwestern US.

Consuelo Jimenez Underwood most directly drew out the tension between the US and Mexican border and land rights. He made an elongated triangle of a flag, using materials in red, white and blue to mimic the US flag, but embroidered flowers that symbolize different tribes to reference Aztlan. The symbols of the two countries overlay each other in the same space of the triangular flag, mimicking the way the US lies over the same area that Aztlan does. Can the same region be considered different places, different nationalities peacefully? This question about what space political borders carve out versus what people know that space as is not unique to the Mexican-American border tension, however, Underwood's piece artfully carves the tension out that underlies many of the other pieces in the Biennial.

Margarita Cabrea, for instance, created two sculptures that directly deal with the border itself. Nopal with tunas, a large prickely pear cactus made out of Border Patrol uniforms, and set in a terra cotta planter, makes the point that Border Patrol agents--and all the markers of increased surveillance and attempts to make to border impenetrable--are as much a part of the landscape now as are cacti. Cabrea addresses the other side of the border with Yellow Backpack. When would-be immigrants are caught by the Border Patrol, the Patrol takes their belongings from them, often nothing more than a backpack. In this sculpture, Cabrea makes an unsturdy backpack out of thin, gauzy material that is transparent. Inside is a rosary, made--like the other contents spread out on the table--out of a thick, leather-like material. All in all, the backpack contains garlic, a water bottle, a can of tuna, a breast pump, a first aid kit. Each piece is sewn, but the thread isn't tied off, so long strands of thread hang from each of the meager contents, leaving them unfinished. Yellow Backpack reveals what little one can survive on and the desperate hope that drives people to cross the border with no promise that life will be better on the other side. The rosary and breast pump together make the faith that drives women across tangible. A rosary by itself would leave a sort of abstract sense of blind faith, but the addition of the breast pump shows that this nursing mother fully believes that she will be reunited with her baby soon, and is determined to keep lactating as shes crosses over.

With Deborah Kuetzpalin Vasquez's Citali, La Chicana Super Hero, we get a different view of women on the border than the faith of the owner of Yellow Backpack. This print feature a militaristic, defiant woman wearing a bandanna, braids, and bullet belt. She is young, strong and angry, and, in a Kahlo-esque move, holds her heart literally in her hand. Her heart is the center of the piece, its bright red sends the dull background into gloom, and is almost the size of this woman's head. Its vena cava extends back from her hand into the massive hole in her chest. The background features the double wall of the border fence, and a Border Patrol car coming towards her. Across the top, this poster, reminiscent of the highly politicized posters from the 1970's, reads: Nigun ser humano es ilegal (No human being is illegal) and then, in lettering that matches her heart: NO to the Mexican-US Border Wall. Vasquez bypasses any ancestral claim to land to make a her statement simple and powerful. Her message is twofold: that the land belongs to all, everyone should have a chance to move about at their will and that people will always continue to try and cross the border.

Ester Hernandez also made a political poster, but she specifically addressed the results of NAFTA, which went into effect in 1993, and has arguably had positive results for the elite in all three countries and an overall negative effect on Mexican farmers and laborers, as well as having contributed to the increased economic inequality between the US and Mexico. Hernandez's poster, SunRaid, is a recreation of the Sun Made raisin box, but here, against the bright red background, a smiling skeleton dressed in the peasant outfit of the Sun Made maid holds the basket of grapes. The poster claims: "Un-natural harvest of Sun Raid Raisins" and "Hecho en Mexico/Mad in the USA." The power of this poster comes in its framing of an ubiquitous image of a commonly seen food, making the viewer question where does our food come from? Whose hands touch it? How are they treated?

Viviana Paredes also sculpted in response to changes in our food chain; her untitled piece consists of small, blown glass bowels filled with different varieties of dried corn kernels and then mounted on a long piece of wood. One origin myth of Mexicans is that people were born from corn, indeed, corn was a wildly cultivated staple crop of the Americas, pounded into mesa, from which tortillas are made. In the past twenty years, genetically modified corn has cross pollinated with the heirloom strains of corn. By placing corn kernels behind glass, Paredes interjects the possibility that these varietals may be completely replaced by the genetically modified corn.


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