Born in Santa Clara, California to parents who fled the Mexican Revolution, Amalia Mesa-Bains is a Chicana artist, activist, educator, and scholar whose site-specific installations pay tribute to Mexican home altars or ofrendas. Her works comprise dozens or hundreds of objects, often incorporated from museums’ permanent collections, which she puts into her installations which are imbued with the memory of the dead.
Mesa-Bains graduated from San Jose State with a B.A. in painting in 1966 and exhibited her work at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco. She joined the California Teacher Corps, working for the San Francisco Unified School District where a mentor encouraged her to make ofrendas for Day of the Dead celebrations. Her first home altar was dedicated to artist Frida Kahlo.
She studied for her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at the Wright Institute in Berkeley, California. For her dissertation, she interviewed ten Chicana artists, one of whom was Judith Baca, who was working on her monumental mural, The Great Wall of Los Angeles and who would become a close friend. Mesa-Bains received her Ph.D. in 1983 and had a creative breakthrough while building an altar installation at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco the following year for the late actress Dolores Del Rio. This altar installation used a woman’s vanity as its base rather than a traditional three-tiered structure. In 1991, she revised this piece by adding a picture of her mother next to that of the famous actress. This piece was collected by the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of its permanent collection.
In the 1970s, Mesa-Bains was a feminist leader of the Chicano Art Movement, and in the 1980s she was an administrator for the school district, art commissioner for San Francisco, producer and host of a local TV show, artist, and writer. In 1992, she won a MacArthur Genius grant and remains the only Chicana artist to ever receive this prize, and one of only three Chicanx artists. In 1995, she relocated to Monterey to run the Visual & Public Art Department at the newly formed California State University, Monterey Bay. She taught there for more than 20 years.
Her folk art maps the strength of women across time. One installation is a re-creation of the music room and scientific laboratory of the Mexican nun and poet Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz. The installation contained gloves, photographs, medical instruments, and a skull, among other things. For Mesa-Bains, Sor Juana is “the first feminist in the New World.”
Her 2001 “Transparent Migrations” is a mirrored armoire, containing a small gauze dress and Mesa-Bains own lace wedding mantilla. It is flanked by blown-glass cactuses as a symbol of immigrants’ resilience. It reflects the experience of working-class immigrants, particularly that of women who are often invisible to society.
For a 2013 show at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, she created a cabinet of curiosities, “New World Wunderkammer.” She used artifacts from the museum mixed with her own items. She gave equal value to the histories of the indigenous people of the Americas, people from Africa, and colonial mixed race (‘mestizaje’) people “to restore spiritual meaning” of these objects.
Her work has been shown at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the New Museum, and international museums in Sweden, England, France, Spain, Ireland, Mexico, Colombia, and Venezuela. She is the author of “Ceremony of Spirit: Nature and Memory in Contemporary Latino Art.”
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will show her “Transparent Migrations,” which she set up herself rather than using assistants in spite of injuries, including a broken neck, from a 2003 car accident, for which she had many surgeries.
There will be an exhibition of her work at Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum in 2021. She will have a retrospective that will premiere at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive in the spring of 2023.