Spirituality lies at the heart of a groundbreaking study of Chicana
art with a disdain for the patriarchal
Chicana Art: The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Altarities
Laura E Pérez
2007, Duke University Press
391 pages, 90 plates
Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez
SPIRITUALITY is a difficult theme to explore, not least in mainstream scholarship within the most materialistic society on the planet.
With refreshing defiance and a disdain for the patriarchal, Euroamerican, and increasingly secular, Laura Pérez places spirituality purposefully at the heart of her journey into Chicana art.
It is an act of intellectual bravado, but one that the author of this pioneering introduction to the work of more than 40 artists has pulled off with verve. It is also entirely within keeping with the cultural and political energy generated by Chicana feminism, a sensibility, the author reminds us, derived from a condition that reflects biculturalism twice over.
As Pérez explains in articulating her decision to research the hybrid, non-institutional spiritualities found throughout the work of many Chicana arrtists based in California and the US South-west, these divine or psychic gestures could be considered forms of ofrenda (offering) that share an altar with a more complex feminist politics. She writes:
“To these feminist artists, in successive generations and in a variety of media from the early 1970s through 2000, this offering mattered politically in many ways: as a voice of dissent to a Eurocentric, intellectually recolonizing, post-Enlightenment atheist mandate. As a rebuttal to unexamined Darwinian cultural evolutionary thought, consigning non-Western spiritualities to the tail end of the march of progress. As a new resource for a politics by which to guide the healing of the unjustly socially marginalized and of the increasingly polluted environment. As an expression of cultural hybridities, received both from family traditions and through the local coexistence of Hindu ashram, Buddhist temple, Afro-diasporic Latina/o botánica, neo-Mexica-Aztec sweat lodge, Christian church, and Jewish synagogue. And, finally, as a recirculation and reinterpretation of different and ancient notions of artist and artmaking.” [pp. 2-3]
Chicana Art offers the first systematic archive of the work of artists in a variety of mediums, reproducing art from between 1985 and 2001. As such, it is the first book dedicated primarily to the broad range of visual work produced by Chicanas, plugging a gap already amply filled in the areas of literature and the performance arts.
Tlacuilo and tlamatinime
Pérez provides a rich interpretation of the works selected, often and again refreshingly, as much by instinct as by rule-bound aesthetic discrimination. The author describes herself using the Nahuatl as a tlacuilo-like literary and visual thinker, and hence likens her interpretive approach to thetlamatinime, sages.
Chicana Art goes on to explore the cultural hybridity of the spiritual motifs and assumptions that underpin these works; the vindication of indigenous epistemologies that characterise the thought of the Chicana/o movement; the gendered and racialised study of the female form; and popular art with a religious inspiration, such as altar art.
Pérez also examines comic art and more introspective pieces that reflect the efforts of Chicana artists to endow their own subjectivities with integrity, particularly through self-portraiture, as well as patriarchal and heterosexist ideologies as they relate to works that recall the occupation of Mexican lands. To make the impassioned point that the latter lies deep within the substrate of Chicana cultural psychology and still has a considerable bearing on contemporary life, she writes:
“Anti-Mexican sentiment is rooted in the spurious writings of the nineteenth century on which later film images and media campaigns drew and which has been used to generate and promote negative racial and gendered stereotypes that seemed to rationalize the Anglo right to seize Indian, then Mexican territories, and either hold slaves or treat culturally different peoples as inferiors to be ill-used. That many Chicana artists keep within view the tensions generated by these repressed histories reminds us that we are all still subject to their effects.” [p. 302]
There is much of interest for the reader new to this absorbing area, but artists whose work is particularly striking include Ester Hernandez, whose Mis Madres/My Mothers and Cosmic Cruise/Paseo Cósmico place American Indian and Latina Women at the centre of the cosmos; Delilah Montoya, whose photo mural La Guadalupana, for example, is constructed like an altar depicting the image of the Virgin in the tattoos of a handcuffed Chicano; and Alma Lopez, whose radical Lupe & Sirena in Love, employing images that often appear on Mexican lotto cards, claims a place for same-sex desire within Mexican and Chicana/o religious and popular culture.
This collection forms a vital contribution to the study of Chicana art and represents a challenge to what the author argues is the cultural conservatism and neglect of many university art departments. It also reveals the breathtaking degree of creativity that can be found within just one sector of the Latino community, and how this is contributing so significantly to the greater canon of US art.