Amalia Mesa-Bains is an artist and curator, and Professor Emerita at California State University, Monterey Bay. She is known for her altar and altar-like installations, which she began making in 1975. I first encountered her work at the Craft & Folk Art Museum during the exhibition Some Assembly Required, and then again reading Chicana Art: The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Altarities.
In fall 2013, Amalia was invited to create a work using the collections of UCLA's Fowler Museum in honor of the institution's 50th anniversary. (The task reminded me in some ways of Eduardo Paolizzi's 1986 Lost Magic Kingdoms exhibition, created with artifacts from the Museum of Mankind.) The resulting piece was New World Wunderkammer, three united cabinets of curiosity representing Africa, the indigenous Americas, and the complex racial mestizaje of the so-called New World.
I recently spoke with Amalia about her practice and her ongoing relationship with altars. I'm very grateful for her generosity in speaking with me.
What were your earliest encounters with altars that you remember?
My mother, Marina Gonzales Mesa, who was educated by Italian nuns in a convent/orphanage outside Los Angeles always had an altar at home for the Virgin Mary in the month of May and my grandmother, Mariana Escobedo Mesa, who always kept an altar on her dresser which included my uncles who died in war, JFK, and the Virgen Guadalupe.
Can you talk about your decision to use the altar-form as a primary element of your work?
In the early years of the Chicano Movement of the late sixties and mid-seventies, artists were enlisted to take on roles in the community around resistance or affirmation. For many of us affirmation included cultural reclamation or reclaiming spiritual traditions such as making altars. The work of building community altars and ofrendas (offerings) was part of the duty of the cultural worker/artist. I was enlisted by community centers like the Galeria de la Raza, the Mexican Museum in San Francisco and the Social Public Resource Center of Venice California and others. For almost 10 years I created community-based altars and ofrendas and then began to innovate them for museum settings.
In keeping my eyes open for altars and altar-like memorials around LA, I often encounter installations that I'm not sure qualify as altars. One time, I stopped to check out a telephone pole that was wrapped with yarn and flowers. In your mind, what makes something an altar as opposed to a pile or accumulation of objects?
These particular sacred sites are called descansos (from descansar - to rest) and signify a place where an actual death occurred, usually from an automobile accident. These spaces are devotional and are often kept up for years by family. These descansos or resting places are different from an ofrenda or offering that is situated in a home or cemetery, or an altar, which is a permanent ongoing record of the family’s history and spiritual beliefs. Also in some places, mainly rural, you will see yard shrines or capillas (little chapels), which constitute a sacred space in public view and function as a blessing of the outdoor space.
In New World Wunderkammer, you seem to collapse the altar and the wunderkammer into a single unit. An altar is associated with the highly personal and the spiritual, often within narratives of colonial violence and racial marginalization, while a wunderkammer is rooted in a European type of collecting that in many ways was meant to establish control over both the natural world and colonized peoples. Can you talk about your vision with New World Wunderkammer, and your understanding of the similarities and differences in the two forms?
In actuality, when Marla Berns of the Fowler first approached me to help them celebrate their 50th anniversary, she asked me to do an altar and I let her know that I had moved away from public altars to more situated spaces such as libraries, laboratories, and gardens with some spiritual components. These forms have allowed me to be more active around my social justice concerns and to develop a method of inquiry. The Wunderkammer is based on a Cabinet of Curiosities form I started when the US Quincentennial was occurring and when so many of the Latino cultural community were enraged at the celebration of ‘Discovery” that disguised a colonial genocide in the Americas.
The New World Wunderkammer was part of this inquiry and allowed me to reflect upon the Mestizaje or mixing of races in the New World when the Spanish decimation of native peoples required the importing of slaves to the Americas. The mixing of Spanish/European, Indigenous and African peoples brought with it collision of cultures and religions and new spiritual practices. The cabinets in the Wunderkammer are arranged with each having a witness or guardian figure in the central niche and objects/artifacts of war, religion and culture. In the lower portions were many of my family histories and practices so that I could insert my own life in the Americas within the narrative. I tried to reintegrate these collected pieces into their own cultural life prior to the colonial enterprise, and the prints I created functioned to heal the loss and displacement of the missing object. The cabinet of the Americas is in the center with the African and Colonial on either side and the vitrines as a sense of the flora and fauna reimagined in the new world. This wunderkammer is not an altar but is a space of spiritual healing for a disrupted world in the aftermath of the Colonial era and also comments on the role of collecting institutions and their objects.
Details from NWW, via the Fowler Museum:
You clearly believe in the capacity for sacredness in objects. What was it like to have access to the Fowler's collection?
The process of the New World Wunderkammer took two years as I visited many times to understand the collections and to decide my selections which then determined the design of the cabinet and the remaining space. It was an emotional, sometimes wrenching, experience with an enormous power of spirit. I consider myself lucky to enter such a world accompanied by my husband, who is African American and helped me to select the pieces for the African cabinet. I still remember when I saw the Nkisi, or African healing figure with nails, and the power of its gaze and I still dream of them. The sacred process of the lower section was driven by my need to heal the space and bring justice to the pieces taken from their home in their original cultural space. The NWW was for me geography of healing and a ceremony of memory.
What makes altars (potentially) subversive?
I once coined a term ‘politicizing spirituality’ when writing about two shows I curated, Ceremony of Memory and Ceremony of Spirit where I looked at artists of the United States whose ancestor reflected the diverse spiritual practices. I think that memory and spirit for people of color are acts of resistance. To never forget our history and to continue our spiritual practices is in of itself subversive. We do not suffer from an absence of memory but from a memory of absence, what we have lost is never far from our memory and our spiritual practices help in the healing of this loss. Memory fosters a resilience that is needed to survive in these times of anti-immigration and discrimination. I believe that creating our sacred spaces will always bring us health and balance.