With an extraordinary material richness, including swaths of brilliant color, delicate scents, and mirrors everywhere, each of the works in Amalia Mesa-Bains’s long-overdue museum retrospective, “Archaeology of Memory” (on view through August 13, 2023), tells a series of stories about Latinx/Chicanx culture and its place in history and in the American present. For more than 40 years, Mesa-Bains has created evocative installations in increasingly sophisticated, elaborate, and frankly theatrical forms. A leader in the movement that sought recognition for Chicanx history in the ’60s and ’70s, she comes from a long line of storytellers and object-makers. These forebears include powerful and gifted women, some of whom are celebrated in pieces that take the form of ofrendas (offerings).
Traditionally, a family altar would be the site for such displays, commemorating relatives on the Day of the Dead. An Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio (1983/1991) incorporates photographs of the actress and of Mesa-Bains’s mother, placed around and among a constellation of various objects, including jewelry, figurines, a fan, and candles. Like a theater curtain pulled back to reveal the stage, pink satin drapery frames the main display; behind, a large mirrored pedestal mimics the form of a typical ofrenda, topped with a second tier of objects and pictures. On the floor in front of it all, a half-circle of rose petals, visually amplified in the altar’s mirrors, adds a sweet perfume to the overall atmosphere of glamor and veneration.
Vividly painted walls physically and psychologically delineate many of the installations. Sometimes Mesa-Bains creates another frame within this frame, hanging swags of satin on the wall and extending the work’s footprint through careful arrangements of flower petals, sand, crushed glass, or dried lavender that spread outward across the floor in curving shapes. She has often spoken about how scent is a powerful trigger for memory; in many instances, she doubles down on such devices for stimulating the recall of emotions with her Wunderkammer-like collections of objects and images, adding layers of complication. The mirrors, which are everywhere, often carry printed imagery on their surfaces so that viewing them means seeing yourself through and with these evocative images.
Mesa-Bains deploys fabric elements most spectacularly in Venus Envy Chapter 1: Holy Communion, Moments Before the End (1993/2022), in which an entire wall of swagged white satin crowned with frothy tulle serves as the backdrop for a white vanity table and chair covered with outsized “pearls,” artificial flowers, and a collection of photos, perfume bottles, and found objects. Paradoxically, this almost overpowering visual layering may be part of why Mesa-Bains’s work is not as widely known as it should be. Difficult to see in photographs, many pieces (as with other spectacular, immersive installations) are impossible to experience fully except in person. This is the only way to get viewers to see themselves as part of the scene—to convey the sense of being mirrored back—which is central to her goal. The mirrors that cover the armoire in Transparent Migrations (2001) and form the backs of the chairs in Circle of Ancestors (1995), for example, are direct reminders that each viewer is implicated in the stories told here about the historical role of women, and most especially of Chicanx/Latinx women.
Another important piece, Venus Envy Chapter IV: The Road to Paris and Its Aftermath, The Curandera’s Botanica (2008/2023), features a striking backlit image of Mesa-Bains’s grandmother, skilled in healing with herbs. The “aftermath” in the title refers to the artist’s car accident in 2003. It took her five years to recover enough to start making work again; her healing was aided not only by Western medicine, but also by traditional practices. Glass retorts and test tubes cover the surface of a long metal table, but its lower shelf holds dried plants representing the herbs used by a curandera. Both, Mesa-Bains seems to suggest, have roles to play. On the floor, rows of lavender stalks connect the table visually to a tall stainless steel cabinet that holds an assortment of powerful objects—shells and figurines, playing cards and photographs.
Curator María Esther Fernández, in her catalogue essay, makes it clear that the title of the show—“Archaeology of Memory”—is more than a way to describe a kind of art-making. Mesa-Bains, who holds a PhD in clinical psychology, is also a formidable scholar of art and art history; she has written or co-authored several books as well as countless articles and essays. Taking her deep knowledge and experience into account, it seems essential to “read” the details of her works, even as we take them in as spectacle. These artistic interventions delve into—and revise—white-dominated and constructed disciplines and approaches not only to art, but also to psychology and history. There is another way to see the past, they tell us. In fact, there is another past, and artists like Mesa-Bains will recover it, piece by piece, until the true stories have all been told.