Published on October 6th, 2013 | by Apuntes LJ
On Art, Activism, and Social Justice
An Interview with Juana Alicia
Apuntes: Tell us about your childhood, before you came to California.
JA: I grew up in the inner city of Detroit, an area that’s pretty devastated now. My childhood home was later turned into a halfway house, in a neighborhood full of crack houses. Detroit has experienced dystopia, shall we say. It’s an interesting historical moment for the city now. I am going back there next month to help my godmother, Dr. Cledie Collins Taylor, with an exhibit she’s doing at her gallery, Arts Extended. She’s 85 now, and she has been a major inspiration to me. She’s a sculptor, a jeweler, a curator, and an art historian that focuses on African and African American art. So I grew up in the middle of Motown, down the block from The Four Tops and listening to Stevie Wonder.
Apuntes: I read somewhere that you met Paul Robeson [famous African-American civil rights activist who was also a lawyer, professional football player, singer, and actor].
JA: Yes, I mentioned that in my oral history interview with Paul Karlstrom, for the Archives of American Art of the Smithsonian Institution. However, my mother subsequently read the interview and corrected my memory. It was actually another great African American opera star, George Shirley. When I was a child, we lived next door to a family that had lived in Europe and knew him. George Shirley came to visit, and he sang at our house, because my father played the piano. I was very young at the time, maybe eight or nine. I was exposed to a lot of beautiful culture in Detroit: Black American culture and activism, the work of Romare Bearden, the Black Panthers, jazz at Baker’s Keyboard, the booming world of Motown. We lived down the street from Duke of The Four Tops. My younger sister was friends with his daughter, and got to hang around rehearsals in their living room.
Apuntes: Not much Latino influence at that time?
JA: Not too much, no. At that time, there weren’t that many Spanish-speaking families in Detroit, more in Pontiac. There were some in southwest Detroit, in an area called La Sed. But we lived in northwest Detroit. There has been a growing Mexican presence in the last twenty years, but back then the latinos were mostly Puertorriqueños. Now something like eleven Spanish language newspapers are published in the Detroit area! But when I was growing up, there was an Italian newspaper called La Voce Del Popolo (1910-1970), which we could read [laughs]. But yeah, it wasn’t really until I moved out to California that I got immersed in the Chicano movement.
Apuntes: How old were you then?
JA: I was 19 when I met Cesar Chavez. I was making posters for the grape and A&P boycotts and met him at one of his speaking engagements, on one of his national organizing tours. He recruited me right there, on the spot. He said, “I want you to come to California and work for El Malcriado,” which was the farmworkers’ newspaper. So I came out to Salinas at his invitation, but ended up working in the fields instead, learning about the world and participating in UFW organizing campaigns. I wasn’t interested in a desk job or an office job. It was much more vibrant and interesting to suddenly be in the middle of Mexican culture, outside and in “nature”. Although the farm work was an industrialized “factory in the field,” the Salinas Valley itself was incredibly beautiful. And the workers were animated by the recent triumphs of their movement. Culturally, linguistically and politically, it was a profound education for me. That experience inspired my first monumental mural in San Francisco, “Las Lechugueras.”
Apuntes: Were you “the güera” [Mexican nickname for light-skinned people]?
JA: Yeah, “La Güera” or “La Gata.”
Apuntes: And when did you decide to become, or realize that you were, an artist?
JA: Well, I think it was actually as a teenager, because I grew up near the Diego Rivera murals at the DIA, the Detroit Institute of Art. I heard recently that the city might be selling off the DIA collections, but I don’t think they can move those murals. There are four terrific murals in the middle of their patio, in the museum, that were really the greatest inspiration for me as I was dropping out of high school and dropping into activism and art. During my junior year, I spent a lot more time at the murals than I did in high school. I was also strongly influenced by Dr. Cledie Collins Taylor, who I mentioned earlier. She has supported me in my growth and we are close to this day.
Apuntes: Enrique Chagoya [Mexican-born artist and professor of art and art history at Stanford University] told me when I interviewed him that he became an artist because that was the only thing he could not stop doing.
JA: Yes, very good. Well, you know, I do believe we are driven. I don’t really have that much of a choice. I mean, I could try to choose other things, but really the art chooses me. I think it was Wynton Marsalis [Artistic Director of Jazz at New York’s Lincoln Center] who said there are two alarm clocks that go off in your life, the one that wakes you up in the morning and the one that stirs your spirit when you realize what you’re supposed to do. And I definitely heard that alarm clock when I walked into the atrium of the Detroit Institute of Art and saw the Diego Rivera murals. I must have been very young when I first saw them, maybe ten or so. But when I was about 15 or 16, I realized that this was part of my legacy, part of the chain of generations I was connected to.
Apuntes: And what shaped your art? Why muralism, printmaking, painting?
JA: Well, it brings me a lot of joy to do large paintings and large pieces of art. I think the physicality, immediacy and visceral nature of a monumental piece in a public place really moved me from the beginning. As well as the idea that the artist can communicate in the public square with massive audiences, even before the internet! Now the web is making it easier, you know. But it’s still different to be at the concert than to listen to the recording; it is different to stand in front of a site-specific piece in public than to see it on a screen. I love the screen, its luminous stained glass effect, and the idea that these images can travel anywhere and be seen. They are probably being seen on other planets right now, we’re just not aware of it. But still, the visceral immediacy of a large piece really, really stirs me.
Apuntes: Xavier Viramontes [prominent printmaker profiled in Apuntes] told me that the reason he went into printmaking was because he got too attached to his paintings and didn’t want to part with them. Does that happen to you? Do you get attached to pieces?
JA: Yes I do, I get very attached to some pieces. But having so much work in the street, I am also used to giving them to the community. And yes, I love to do printmaking because of the multiples, and again, the public access. We’ve used the print from the times of Daumier in France, during the French Revolution, to the “Calaveras” of José Guadalupe Posada from the times of the Mexican Revolution, El Taller de la Gráfica Popular of the 1930’s in Mexico, to the 1960’s and the Haight Ashbury, the farm workers movement, and the civil rights movement.
Printmaking is a relatively cheap and great way to reach the masses. The print can travel far and be wheat-pasted to walls. I’m working on a project in which there are going to be some monumental street prints done by women. Female graffiti artists have been doing a lot of wheat-paste prints in the last 20 years. They need prints that go up quickly, because it is dangerous for anybody to be on the street doing graffiti, but particularly for women. I really love the idea of being able to roll up a wheat-paste print and leave it there like a monument, so I am going to be working on a new set of images for the street. They will be “guerrilla” pieces, but they’ll be easy to throw up. Maybe you can publish some of them.
Apuntes: Yes, definitely. Could you tell a totally artistically challenged person (me) about the process of creating a work of art? How does it happen? I’m an engineer and don’t know anything about art.
JA: I think engineering is an art form. My oldest progeny (my only son; I have a gaggle of creative daughters) is an engineer, a very creative one, so I think engineering is a creative form of expression. I think you could probably relate to the creative process: it starts with a vision or a dream.
Apuntes: Or a commission?
JA: Depending upon the commission. I accept work that fits my own principles and don’t design by committee or for commercial purposes that run contrary to my values. Like the Fifth Avenue situation, I wouldn’t want to do something like that.
Apuntes: You mean Diego Rivera’s commission for a mural at the Rockefeller Center [where Rivera’s commission was cancelled when he included a portrait of Russian communist leader Lenin in his mural]?
JA: Right, that was a disaster. My fresco teachers, Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff, were Rivera’s assistants on that mural as well as on the Detroit Art Institute murals, and they recounted the story of the demise of Man at the Crossroads many times.
Lucienne was the photographer that shot the last images of the mural before it was destroyed, and the couple found it smashed and trashed into dumpsters on the street, after the mural crew was rounded up and escorted out of the building by Burns security guards.
If somebody wants my work, they respect my vision and ability. I work from my own vision, though I am open to dialogue and to learning from the community or person commissioning the work. As it will exist within a certain context, we might agree on the way that it’s site-specific, or conceptually specific, but beyond that, it’s got to be from my own imagination, or what’s the point? The imagery comes from a vision, a dream, a conversation, from literature.
Apuntes: So you conceptualize and then do drafts?
JA: Yes, I do many drawings, I do sketches, sometimes create maquettes. You might have seen some of the sketches I did for the Stanford mural as documented on the site. In that case I have to give my husband Tirso Araiza a byline. We often give each other ideas for work. We are working on a graphic novel together right now that he’s written, La Ixtabay. Do you know that story?
JA: It’s like a Yucatecan version of the Mexican Llorona story, in the sense that it centers around a strong, mythical female character. But the story is different. Her spirit inhabits a Ceiba tree, and the sacred Ceiba connects heaven and the underworld. Tirso has written an updated version of the traditional Ixtabay, a contemporary version of the story.
But to return to the Stanford mural designs, Tirso and I had a lot of conversations and inspired each other to imagine the possibilities for El Centro Chicano de Estánfor. Initially, I wanted to do an exterior relief mural for the Stanford Center, a cement or ceramic sculptural mural of a big nopal [from the Nahuatl, a prickly pear cactus]. I was going to put quotes from literature on each of the pencas [leaves of the nopal], and we were going to work on it together. We had recently created another sculptural mural together in Yucatán at the Universidad Tecnológica Metropolitana (UTM).
When the Stanford piece evolved as a painted work, I ended up doing the big nopal, but didn’t put any quotes from literature on it. The literature became the subtext of all of the imagery. At first I thought I was going to letter quotations into the imagery. I worked with Eduardo Galeano’s writings [prominent Uruguayan writer] for a while. On some of the preliminary sketches for the frieze at the bottom of the stairs, there are whirls and spirals at the bottom of the foliage and the roots of the nopal, originally designed to contain a quote from Galeano’s Patas Arriba [a book by Galeano about the world’s societies being upside down]. But because of some bureaucratic issues with Stanford, it didn’t work out. Nevertheless, Galeano’s voice is the subtext for all of the imagery: it ended up that the narrative was depicted with pictures instead of words.
Apuntes: When do the colors come in? Do they change in the process?
JA: Oh, you can actually see that in the evolution of the nopal drawings on the site (http://juanaaliciaatcentro.wordpress.com/gallery/). I began with a large charcoal drawing and it evolved into a painting. Did you see that?
JA: Sometimes things start immediately in color, and I don’t even bother with a drawing. I go right to the paint.
Apuntes: Do you paint right on the wall, or do you paint it elsewhere and then paste it to the wall?
JA: The one at Stanford was pasted on, installed like wallpaper. But very frequently I paint directly on a wall. I like to do the work on site if possible, because I have more contact with my audience and there is a performance aspect to the work.
I paint in acrylic, watercolor and fresco, having learned traditional fresco [dry pigments painted on a wet lime surface] from Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff, Diego Rivera’s assistants. I painted the “Sanctuary” mural at the San Francisco Airport, for example, on panels built for fresco; it is actually removable in case of a seismic event exceeding a magnitude of 7.0!
Apuntes: Once I met surrealist (Gordon) Onslow Ford and told him I could not understand his paintings, did not “get them.” He told me he didn’t care: the paintings meant something to him and that’s what mattered. Is it enough for art to move its creator or should it move people as well?
JA: Well, I guess history decides that. Some artists say they do what they do only for self-satisfaction, but sometimes there are massive audiences that enjoy the work and understand it or think that its interpretation is pertinent to their lives. I think artists who have a social vision and are not doing art for art’s sake or just for personal fulfillment may have something to say that might be a little more valuable. It depends on how much ego and self-satisfaction is mixed in with that response.
Apuntes: So there can be misinterpretations?
JA: Of course, everything can and is misinterpreted. I can’t assume that people understand my intention, and I’m not sure I am always able to communicate specifically what I want to express. In some ways, I feel like a vessel, that there’s some kind of vibration pouring through me. Whether it’s spirits of our ancestors, or some kind of static from the internet, I’m not sure. But I think we are channeling things: we are products of our social environment, upbringing, cultural influences, political forces, conditioning, even of things we’re not aware of. Then we have our conscious intent, and all of those things get mixed into making the work, right?
I pour intention into my work. Sometimes, I feel like a bruja [witch], you know. I have a vision, and I collect my ideas, information, dreams, inspirational literature, imaginings, visions from the street, and multiple impressions, and I try to align them all to achieve that vision. Of course, everything changes as the work evolves and begins to talk back to me. I try to create a set of images that others can understand. I try in some ways to move a discourse forward in the world so that our conversations about environmental contamination, or the status of women, or the status of immigrants, or human rights . . . so that these conversations become more sophisticated, more sensitive, and more productive, in terms of creating a society that’s more peaceful and just. I am often working towards something very specific, but doing the work is also satisfying at a sensorial level, I’m getting a lot out of it at the same time; it’s not just altruism that motivates me.
Apuntes: You’ve been an educator for many years. Can art be taught, or do you have to be born an artist?
JA: I think most people are born artists. I think most children have talents, many talents. In the nineties, I studied an Italian approach to early childhood education called Reggio Emilia (named for the town where it was developed), where the founder, Loris Malaguzzi, said that children are born with a hundred languages. Then, by the time they are in elementary school, all but five of the languages (also known as learning modalities) have been processed out by society and the educational system. I do feel that we are socially conditioned away from creativity and our own natures in our industrialized, competitive, corporate capitalist, top-down society. I see that part of my work is to encourage creative expression in young people and create space for their creative character to be expressed and developed.
Apuntes: Art is important in many cultures. How important is it in the Latino community in the US?
JA: I think it’s quite central; it is interwoven into our experiences. Poetry, dance, theater, music, visual art, and literature are very, very important forms of expression for us, particularly in our social movements to attain a voice and rights within U.S. society. We’ve had to carve out a space for ourselves. We have rich cultures coming from all parts of Latin America, and we bring those legacies with us, continuing to develop them in a society that doesn’t provide a lot of space for anyone to pursue the arts. Our experiences are not much different from, say, Black Americans who have fought for and won the social space for intellectual and creative expression in the arts and sports, but have not had as much success in science or politics. Historically, institutional racism has kept so-called “minorities” out of the sciences, politics, business and technology. We come to the U.S. with myriad cultural traditions. We access those traditions as a vocabulary for coping with North American society. And our cultural traditions have been a vibrant source of revolutionary spirit that has helped shape our social evolution in this country.
Apuntes: You are an activist for social justice, human rights, and environmental health. Tell us about some of your struggles in those areas.
JA: I’ve been involved with the farmworkers, the peace movement, the environmental movement and the women’s movement for a long time. In 2007, I wrote a chapter for a CODEPINK [women-initiated grassroots peace and social justice movement] book on how to stop the next war. I have marched, done community organizing, and some writing, but mostly I use my visual art as my activist expression. I am inspired by the ideas, policies and documents have been coming out of Evo Morales’ Bolivia in the last several years, such as the Law of the Rights of Mother Earth [Spanish: Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra]. I’m interested in the rights of all living beings and the earth, and nature itself, not just specific political ideologies. I think that all life forms are quite threatened at this point.
Having had a personal struggle with cancer recently, I feel that cancer is an environmental issue. I’ve worked a long time in the area of environmental justice, with my images, and I feel that we are at a critical moment: we’ve hurt the planet in a way that is irreversible, in ways that our children and our children’s children will be coping with for a long time.
Climatic changes are so dramatic that we probably won’t recognize our planet in 20 years. We are really at the brink of disaster. It is more urgent than ever for artists, engineers, designers, politicians, and everybody else work together to shape a new social vision for how to interact with nature, the earth, and each other. It is a mandate. I see it as absolutely vital and essential to our survival and our children’s survival and that of all species. I don’t see that there’s much choice, really. The artists’ job is to be in tune and sensitive to what is going on.
Apuntes: And again, as an educator, I presume you support art education. It seems to be getting cut a lot.
JA: The arts are the first things to go. And it is essential to the development of human beings to practice music, art, dance, theater, and all other art forms from a very early age.
Apuntes: So what would you tell young aspiring artists? If they think they have artistic potential, what should they do?
JA: I think they should form a community of peers. They should look for mentors whose work they admire and want to learn from. They should form a circle of friends who also like to create and help each other, critique and build each other’s work. As an educator I’m a follower of Paulo Freire, who believed that the student had as much to teach as the teacher. Every student comes into the learning environment, or the practice of art, with a volume of information and experience that is important. It is the teacher’s job to evoke and bring out that information, so that the student can access it. There can be a rich exchange between that circle of peers and mentors.
I don’t necessarily think it [art education] has to happen within academic institutions. But I do think that institutions and an infrastructure for progressive art education are very important. What we are seeing now is a lack of infrastructure for unions, for artists, for anything that benefits the public. The infrastructure has been eroded, and we have to learn to preserve the existing institutions and build other communities as well.
Apuntes: Whom do you admire in the art world?
JA: Well, I admire my community of peers, really. You mentioned a couple of them already: Xavier and Enrique. There are other Chicana artists, women artists, Latina artists, Black artists, European artists that have inspired me. People like Frida [Kahlo], Maria Izquierdo, Kathë Kollwitz, the artists of Mexico’s Taller de la Gráfica Popular (Alberto Beltrán, Elizabeth Catlett, Alfredo Zalce) and Harlem Renaissance (Charles White, John Biggers, Zora Neal Hurston), Paul Cadmus. . the list is so long. Goya, Georgia O’Keefe . . . it is a very, very long list of people from all over the world . . . Masami Teraoka, Hung Liu, Ai Weiwei, Banksy, Swoon, Kara Walker.
Apuntes: Is photography an art form?
JA: Definitely. There was Imogen Cunningham, Lorna Simpson, and Edward Weston, and so many incredible photographers. I also need to work with photographers to document my work and see my work in different ways. They provide incredible resources. There’s a wonderful photographer here in Berkeley, named David Bacon, who has done a lot of great documentation of immigrants and farm workers, and shared those resources with me for resources in my murals.
I also get inspiration from music and from poets. Juan Felipe Herrera, who is my compadre [godfather to one’s child, or best friend-made-family through baptism, marriage or other rituals] and currently poet laureate of California, named the mural at Stanford and wrote a poem about it. He has written poetry about my murals, and I’ve made images from his poetry. The poetic sketches he made for the Stanford murals were the following:
Spiral the word
Unto my consciousness galactic &
Unfold toward the sun peace of all
Beauty & truth
Spiral the Word Unto My Consciousness Galactic & Unfold
Toward the Sun Peace of All Beauty & Truth —
From those phrases came the title, The Spiral Word.
Apuntes: That makes me think of the multimedia that technology makes possible. Laura Ezquivel, the author of Like Water for Chocolate, did a book with a CD attached, and pieces of music would go with certain chapters.
JA: I have a friend in Mérida [Yucatán, Mexico], Raul Ferrera-Balanquet (currently a PhD candidate at Duke University), who has created an interactive museum/gallery online: Arte Nuevo Interactiva (http://www.cartodigital.org/), and also does installations. He also organizes a Bienal interactivo in Mérida, in various museums and galleries, in which I have participated. Raul invites multimedia artists from all over the globe to present video, performance, visual art, sculpture, and film. I love that! In terms of media, I also want to move into more architectonic forms, whole spatial urban areas, more sculptural work. I’ve been doing relief sculpture for the last ten years or so. To wit, I have a new ceramic tile relief piece that’s three-quarters installed for Satellite Senior housing near here [in Berkeley], at Sacramento and University Avenues.
I still enjoy just making a painting or a sculpture, but I feel like everything in the public square is potentially a performance or interactive. In May, Brava Theater of San Francisco presented an event called Baile en la Calle [Dance in the Streets]; they had several different dance companies compose pieces to be performed in front of the Mission murals. And Kim Epifano’s Epiphany Productions Sonic Dance Theater did a modern dance piece in front of my Llorona mural at 24th and York Streets http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7I2lNysFrVE). The live dance performance just made the mural come alive in great ways.
Apuntes: Do you have a favorite period, or favorite piece, or favorite group of pieces? Or are they all your babies and you can’t choose?
JA: They are all my babies, but I do have some favorites. I think the MaestraPeace mural on the Women’s Building tops the list. It was collaborative piece with six other women.
JA: Yeah, well, it was a negotiation, and we have now worked together for almost 20 years, adding different iterations of the mural to different parts of the architecture and extending the mural into the interior. We just restored the exterior murals last fall.
So, we have a five-story-high building that is a “standing ovation to women’s liberation”, as my colleagues Miranda Bergman, says. I feel that mural is so iconic: it has resonated with people from around the world. Because of the mural’s wide impact, because of the depth of our collaboration, and because it has become a vehicle for training young women artists in muralism, it has become one of my favorite pieces.
I also have a deep relationship with my llorona piece (La Llorona’s Sacred Waters), the one that’s at 24th and York [in San Francisco].
Apuntes: I wonder why her legend seems to be so important, in many countries. I am from Colombia, and my grandmother used to tell me the story, over 50 years ago. I’m amazed at how she’s transcended borders and cultures.
JA: It’s incredible. As a woman, I feel a deep relationship with that story: a rebellious woman as the protagonist/victim/scapegoat and her mixed-race children as the lost peoples. I think it’s really important for Chicanas. There is a lot of feminist writing about turning the story around and taking her out of the victim role to set her as an actor in a more positive light, historically. She wasn’t responsible for the conquest, right? And she responded in the best way her circumstances allowed her to. Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved; have you read that?
JA: When the mother is trying to save her child from the slave master, the only thing she can do is try to kill her child, right? It is insanity, but it is responding to an insane situation. I just think the story is so poignant, and that’s why so many people relate to it.
Apuntes: One final question, about the teaching of art: is there a particular age when you become more receptive?
JA: I think children are always receptive. And the sooner you put the tools in their hands the better, because they are able to use them, they need very little instruction. In fact, at the beginning, less instruction is better, so that they can experiment.
I have taught students of every age, from kindergarten to graduate school. I think society tries to beat creativity out of us, so the sooner children are exposed to art, the better. The sooner they are encouraged to use their own talents, the better. The more they’re exposed to art in the broadest sense of the word, the better. But I also see people who are 60 years old who suddenly decide they are going to be visual artists, and the fortunate thing about visual art is that you don’t have to be a young child to develop it. I think there’s sort of an opening in the soul, a receptivity that can occur at any age, and people can begin to develop that part of themselves. It just depends on the person, but that being said, I think that the younger we are when we develop these skills, the more “oficio” we can accrue in terms of being able to be eloquent with them. We don’t want technique to get in the way of ideas either. Some art education in the academy is more about “oficio” than it is about intelligence, or imagination, and that’s unfortunate. What our society now needs is visionary creativity, new ways of using our imaginations to repair and rejuvenate a damaged environment and a world out of balance with nature. Artists have an important role to play in bringing about a more balanced and just way of relating to each other and the natural world.