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Amalia Mesa-Bains: Archeology of Memory

DeWitt Cheng

In recent years the already socially liberal art world has decisively embraced the populist, multiracial history of the United States. This was not always the case. One of the pre-eminent artists involved in bringing about this paradigm shift is the Bay Area’s Amalia Mesa-Bains, who has championed Mexican identity and culture since the 1970s, and is the subject of a major retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum, as well as of a related gallery show, an installation and a set of digital collages on canvas, at the Rena Bransten Gallery. These shows follow a suite of recent museum retrospectives by a quintet of distinguished artists of color, all with ties to the Bay Area, including Ruth Asawa, Bernice Bing, Dewey Crumpler, Carlos Villa, and Carrie Mae Weems.

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Amalia Mesa-Bains, “Queen of the Waters, Mother of the Land of the Dead: Homenaje a Tonatzin/Guadalupe” (detail), 1992, mixed media installation

including fabric drape, six jeweled clocks, mirror pedestals with grottos, nicho box, found objects, dried flowers, dried pomegranate, potpourri, 18 x 6’.

Mesa-Bains, an author, educator, and curator as well as an artist, works in a variety of forms, but is best known for her multimedia installations. These theatrical assemblage environments conjoin old glamor photographs, postcards, toys, figurines, vintage furniture, shells, ceramic fragments, candles, crystals, mirrors, pearls, broken glass, draperies, gold leaf, dried leaves, rocks, sand, dried flower petals, branches, and soil. In other words, almost anything. ‘Voice-over’ quotations are inscribed over the imagery in her collages and installations. These appear on the wall or handwritten in the scattered materials on the floor.


These bricolage shrines to the dead — which commemorate strong-willed culture heroines like the seventeenth-century scholar-nun Sor Inès de la Cruz and the actress Dolores Del Rio — draw on the Mexican tradition of the ofrenda, a home altar created during the Day of the Dead to welcome the visiting souls of deceased family members. Photos of the dead honoree are displayed on the wall surrounded by crucifixes and images of the saints and the Virgin Mary; below are placed the ancestors’ favorite foods and drinks, along with candles, mirrors and yellow marigolds (cempazuchitl, a flower the Aztecs associated with death). 

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Amalia Mesa-Bains, “Venus Envy, Chapter I: First Holy

Communion, Moments Before the End” (detail),

1993/2022, mixed media installation

The wealth of information may seem daunting, but the artist’s homages are poetic and associational rather than literal and historic. I was particularly taken with the ghostly imagery that seems buried within the antique mirrors; the effect is achieved by abrading the silvering behind the glass surface and fixing the image of the saint or scholar in question so that they appear to float within the vaporous aperture. Historical memory confronts us like an apparition.


Mesa-Bains’ profusely decorated shrine installations center on items of antique furniture that reflect the artist’s studies of history, religion, culture, identity, and myth. All of these are allowed to merge and collide, finally illuminating the conditions of the present. 


A woman’s vanity or dressing table is the central focus of the anti-Freudian “Venus Envy, Chapter I: First Holy Communion, Moments Before the End,” an examination of the virginal role model traditionally inculcated in adolescent Latinas. Surmounted by a boudoir cloud of white satin ruching, the white table supports a clutter of artificial pearls, framed photos of young women, perfume bottles, and Madonnas. A suggestive seashell is placed on the floor, but intimations of mortality intrude: a gold and silver skull peep from the half-opened drawers, and revealed in the mirror is the fearsome Aztec goddess Coatlicue, one of whose aspects, Cihuacōātl, "snake woman,” is associated with deaths in childbirth.

Sexual purity is again the subject in “The Virgin’s Garden,” featuring a hand-painted, moss-bedecked armoire, its half-open door revealing clothing and books inside. Inspired by a fifteenth-century German Renaissance painting (a copy of which is displayed nearby), the piece examines the hortus conclusus, or closed garden, a traditional emblem of female chastity — especially of the Immaculate Conception — dating from the Song of Solomon: Hortus conclusus soror mea, sponsa, hortus conclusus, fons signatus. “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up…. Thou art all fair, my love; there is no spot in thee.”

The liberating education of the female mind during eras of male repression is the subject of “The Library of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.” The seventeenth-century colonial-era Mexican nun and intellectual, who had educated herself in her own library — which came to include four thousand volumes — hosted a salon in her nunnery for other learned women. (Octavio Paz postulates that entering a nunnery was the best option available for ambitious, independent women at that time.) Sor Inés wrote poetry and prose in Latin and Nahuatl on religion, love, feminism and the misogyny and hypocrisy of the dominant male order in a “philosophical satire” entitled “Hombres Necios (Foolish Men)”; and was punished, predictably, for her transgressions by being forced to sell her beloved library and return to traditional duties. She died in 1695, at the age of forty-seven, of plague while tending to her Hieronymite Order sisters.


Sor Inés’ imagined worktable, adorned with books, lamps, musical scores, and manuscripts, is flanked by a small stand bearing an Aztec figurine, an oil painting of a bespectacled inquisitorial grandee, and a heavy leather-upholstered chair lit by large candlesticks, all painted gold. Strands of hair lie on the seat of the chair, suggesting the punitive shearing of tresses, or the pulling out of hair in despair. A twin of this chair appears, in silver, in the show about the U.S.-Mexico border at Rena Bransten. In the mirror above the desk Sor Inés appears, among her books, beneath a radiating pattern of fractured lines in the glass. These cracks were due to an art mishandling error, but the artist, echoing Duchamp’s embrace of accident in his Large Glass (the actual title is “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even”) liked them for their suggestion of a radiant intelligence, albeit one silenced by social duress.

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Amalia Mesa-Bains, “Venus Envy Chapter II: The Harem and

Other Enclosures” (detail), 1992/2022, mixed media installation

Mesa-Bains’ expansive body of work also includes codices and digital collages addressing, among other things, the friction at the U.S.-Mexico border, and the artist’s recovery from a serious car accident through traditional curandera treatments. “Cihuateotl with Mirror in Private Landscapes” and “Public Territories depicts Mother Earth,” both on view in the Berkeley retrospective, feature a voluptuous woman, perhaps a sister to those zaftig Neolithic Venuses, but here she is covered in moss inscribed with Aztec glyphs for fertility, reclining on a carpet of verdure while admiring herself in a large, ornate hand mirror. It’s an environmentalist/feminist take, with perhaps a poke at property-as-theft rights, on traditional love goddesses inspecting themselves, the pre-eminent version being Velásquez’s “Rokeby Venus.” 

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Amalia Mesa-Bains, “Emblems of the Dead: Borders,” 2023, mixed media installation. Courtesy of Rena Bransten Gallery

A specific landscape, that of the Rio Grande, is the impetus for “What the River Gave to Me,” the title alluding to Frida Kahlo’s elegiac 1939 painting, “What the Water Gave Me.” Mesa-Bains’s large sculpture reconstructs the river demarcating the border between the United States and Mexico as a luminous channel cutting through mountainous terrain carrying irregularly blue glass globes or bubbles, each bearing the name of a person who completed the perilous crossing, an illegal or undocumented alien in the eyes of many Americans, but perhaps someday one of the “job creators” that we champion so fervently.

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Amalia Mesa-Bains, “Cihuateotl with Mirror in Private Landscapes and Public Territories,” 1998-2011, mixed media installation, 10 x 20 x 25’. Photo: Michael Karibian

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