The Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive is hosting the first major retrospective of the works of 79-year-old Chicana feminist artist Amalia Mesa-Baines. Called “Archeology of Memory,” it runs through July 23. (Read Emily Wilson’s interview with Mesa-Baines and the curators of the show here.)
Mesa-Baines was part of an important movement of artists who began bringing the cultural-religious practice of the Mexican altar—la ofrenda—into the realm of Californian art practice and art object. Beginning in 1975, Mesa-Baines began making ofrendas from found materials, debuting this work in San Francisco at the Mission District’s Galería de la Raza. The gallery became an epicenter of West Coast United States altar work when it began hosting Día de los Muertos community celebrations in the early ’70s.
Photographs, beads, costume jewelry, rosaries, postcards, fabric, tools and instruments all feature in Mesa-Bain’s installations. These individual objects are disassembled and re-assembled to form new pieces—constantly evolving, ephemeral versions of her work. At any one time, Mesa-Baines has several suitcases of items on hand for this purpose. In the past, she has joked that she would never be able to hold a retrospective of her work because she reuses so many of her materials. And yet, and after 50 years of activity, just such a retrospective is here.