Topologies of Knowing: The Libraries and Laboratories of Amalia Mesa-Bains

The artist Amalia Mesa-Bains has long explored the relationships among women, colonialism, the Catholic Church, and indigenous cultures of Mexico. Some of her interests stem from the experience of growing up in the United States during the 1970s and 80s as a Mexican-American. Her aesthetic vocabulary was influenced by the Chicano civil rights movement in its efforts to celebrate and revive folk and fine art traditions from Mexico such as mural painting, printmaking, and the building of home altars for Dia de Los Muertos and other ritual or religious occasions.

Read More of the essay by Jennifer A. González

In its rich combination of images and objects that are placed in evocative juxtapositions, Mesa-Bains’ work offers a feminist reinterpretation of the Catholic home altar and capilla (yard shrine) traditions, and the parallel but distinct display practices of museums and cabinets of curiosity.

Installation art is notoriously difficult to document because it is meant to be experienced in the space of the gallery; viewers are expected to walk through it, to feel the full scale of the exhibition and also to linger on specific elements of the display following their own interests and curiosity. Seeing this kind of installation art through photographs and slides, whether online or off-line, rarely gives a sense of the three-dimensionality of the artwork, or the pleasure of discovery when looking at a particular detail. Instead we must rely on images made by others to do this work for us. I therefore invite you to imagine yourself in a quiet gallery space discovering these objects the way one would find rare treasures in an antiquarian museum or in the cluttered, personal space of a private home. For these are really the reference points for the artist, who is interested not only in reviving the private altar tradition of Mexican Catholicism, but also intrigued by spaces that are designed to contain and display knowledge, such as the library, the laboratory, and the museum—a place where the muses dwell.

There is an intriguing confluence of histories in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries linking the Spanish discovery and conquest of the Americas, the emergence of new systems for organizing knowledge, and early museums that took the form of cabinets of curiosity or private collections of rare and beautiful objects. Scientific laboratories for experimentation, and specimen displays of flora and fauna in adjacent rooms and gardens were frequently part of aristocratic private homes—displaying to visitors the intellectual prowess and access to global wealth of the duke or prince who owned them. Indeed, the so-called “age of discovery” revealed to Europeans that its previous concepts of many things (animal, vegetable, mineral) would have to change. New kinds of humans—the American “Indians”—also seemed to trouble the minds and souls of those who encountered and eventually killed them. Their destruction and enslavement made it possible to steal the gold figurines, exquisite feather work, stone sculptures and exotic plants that eventually adorned the private collections and gardens of European aristocrats and, some centuries later, public museums and botanical conservatories.

Mesa-Bains’ Curiositas: The Cabinet (1990), which appeared in the exhibition (Re) (Un) (Dis) Covering America, restages the interior of an imagined sixteenth-century collectors’ study, adorned with a Persian carpet, display cabinet and gilt armchair. [Fig.?] But this is not a facsimile; it is merely a reference point for other domestic interiors of collectors across the centuries. Ghostly pencil drawings hanging from the walls depict American Indian chiefs who have long since disappeared. The cabinet contains a motley array of symbolic objects from pre-Columbian figurines to iron bear traps and commercial boxes of corn with the imprint of indigenous bodies. Dry earth and gold-colored stones are scattered in front of the cabinet to serve as the ground for a miniature tableau: three tiny ships (symbolizing the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria that were part of the first Spanish exploration of the Americas) and a handful of figurines representing indigenous populations (all painted gold) are staged in their moment of contact. The armchair is ripped and torn like a wounded body, and possibly stands in for the indigenous bodies subsequently destroyed by the Spanish conquerors in their hunger for wealth. Both metaphorical and metonymical, the objects and artifacts stand as witnesses to this complex, tragic, and unequal interweaving of cultures.

Women’s contributions have frequently been excluded from historical accounts of science and the arts. Much of Mesa-Bains’ work has gone into recuperating women’s histories in order to invite us see feminine space and female daily activity as a site of power, healing and revitalization. Sor Juana’s Library, [Fig. ?] from the Venus Envy Chapter II (1992) installation, stages the artist’s imaginary vision of the private rooms of this illustrious seventeenth-century writer, scholar and Catholic nun Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, who lived in New Spain (today Mexico). Well known for her exceptional library and erudition, Sor Juana became notorious in her own lifetime for being ahead of many of her male contemporaries in the sciences and letters. She even made a famous plea to the male-dominated church for the better education of women—but was rebuffed. Her private collection of books and scientific equipment was confiscated by the Church, and she was forced into silence. The artwork is both an homage to Sor Juana and a revisionist restaging of learning environments for women. Williams College, who hosted the exhibition, had recently been the site of female student protests requesting the hiring of a Latina faculty member. The artist included images and articles from the student protest on her “reading table,” along with histories of Sor Juana, and texts by both indigenous and Spanish writers, thus inviting audience members to consider the links between past and present efforts by women and ethnic minorities to find access to institutions of learning and power. With the reading table, the installation also became a quiet sanctuary where anyone was welcome to sit on the stools provided to examine the contemporary literature and historical materials; if the art installation was a pedagogical space, it was also a contemplative space that changed the duration and the terms of the audience’s relation to art.

In line with her general interest in the possibilities of art to address the injuries of history and to achieve a kind of healing effect for herself after a serious accident, the artist installed the Curandera’s Botanica (2008) for the exhibition NeoHooDoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith in New York at the PS1 gallery and Geography of Memory at the Fresno Art Museum. A “curandera” is a traditional healer or shaman in indigenous communities of the Americas; a “botánica” is typically a retail store where one can find religious candles, folk remedies, varieties of herbs and natural medicines and other alternative healing talismans. Just as her earlier installations staged the intersection of Western European interests and systems of knowledge with those of indigenous cultures, the Curandera’s Botanica displays artifacts from two techniques of healing; the shimmering glass beakers and test tubes of medical chemistry laid out on a shining stainless steel surgical table, and below, the plants and grasses, feathers, religious icons, silver milagros glued to the table legs, shells and eggs, bones and incense that are all tools for alternative strategies to heal both body and spirit. On the ground lies another field of cut grass and evergreen branches, gravel and straw. Against one wall another cabinet, this time a tall metal pharmaceutical cabinet, holds a collection of personal mementos and objects appearing in previous installations: pre-conquest figures, family photographs, glass jars of earth, bottles of perfume and personal mementos. Atop the cabinet stands a statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe. An over-sized Catholic rosary and what looks like a giant stethoscope, both painted silver, are draped over the top and down the side. Taken as a whole, the cabinet appears as a material topography of an individual life shaped by these two discourses of healing the body. It is a portrait—an autotopography—of the artist. It offers us a vision of conflicting cultural and medical systems that are here presented as a syncretic synthesis that gains power from the sum of its parts.

The power of Mesa-Bains’ installation work is to be found in the material details and their rhetorical juxtaposition in a carefully choreographed topology. Staged as libraries and laboratories they occupy a liminal place that invites us to think about the ways these two sites of knowledge production and dissemination are always culturally, historically and politically inflected. The viewer who takes the time to read the available texts and to look closely and carefully at the available artifacts will be rewarded with an astute critical vision of the long history of cultures—indigenous and European—who have been in conflict and collaboration for over five hundred years. From a distinctly Chicana perspective, Mesa-Bains’s installations offer temporary sanctuaries for considering this complex past, for mourning those who have been lost through violence and injustice, and celebrating those who survive.

—Jennifer A. González

Jennifer A. González teaches in the History of Art and Visual Culture department at the University of California, Santa Cruz and at the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program, New York.

Text © Jennifer A. González, all rights reserved.
Artwork © Amalia Mesa-Bains, all rights reserved


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