Organized by Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Amalia Mesa-Bains: Archaeology of Memory is the first major retrospective to explore the historically significant work and career of Amalia Mesa-Bains, a pioneering Chicana and feminist multimedia artist. The exhibition brings together nearly 60 works created over 45 years, including the artist’s renowned altar-installations and her lesser-studied handmade books and palimpsest prints characterized by a signature archeological aesthetic of layering and excavation.
Born in 1943 in Santa Clara, California, to immigrant parents, Mesa-Bains is an artist, activist, educator, and scholar who has explored the experiences, spiritual practices, and histories of Mexican-American women and the colonial erasure and recovery of Mexican, African-American, and Indigenous Californians. In the mid-1970s, she first innovated with sacred forms rooted in Mexican Indigenous practices of honoring one’s familial ancestors, including altares (home altars), ofrendas (offerings to the dead), and descansos (roadside resting places). These works—now considered her signature altar-installations—also honor the memories of the artist’s cultural predecessors, including Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Santa Teresa de Avila, Frida Kahlo, and other women whose lives defied societal norms and expectations of the times. Mesa-Bains eventually expanded her installation-based works to explore more public environments such as laboratories, libraries, gardens, and landscapes.
Altogether, the artist’s work offers an archeological examination into the politics of space, highlighting both the complexities of domestic life for immigrant and Mexican-American women across different historical periods, as well as the many ways colonial narratives erase Mexican, African-American, and Indigenous identities from mainstream American media and culture. Through her practice, Mesa-Bains has blazed a trail for feminist Chicanx art, bringing it to wider global audiences and carving a place for it more broadly within the history of contemporary American art.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website