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Step Into the Shimmering World of Amalia Mesa-Bains at BAMPFA

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Collection of sparkling glass objects, including a Virgin Mary statue in a red cabinet space.
Amalia Mesa-Bains, Detail of 'Transparent Migrations,' 2001; mixed media installation. (Courtesy BAMPFA)

Sometimes I forget my own advice, which is to never accept a photograph of an artwork as a substitution for the real thing. Even the flattest painting has a different impact in 3D space, whether that comes from the interaction of colors, unexpected scale or the satisfying detail of a taped-off edge. And installation work — well, I should know better.

I stepped into the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive’s magnificent retrospective Amalia Mesa-Bains: Archaeology of Memory with a handful of static, slightly murky images in my mind. I was wholly unprepared for the reality of her work, with its luxurious textures, vibrant color choices and dense arrangements of found and cherished objects. The scent of lavender drifted through the climate-controlled galleries. The show, co-curated by Laura E. Pérez and María Esther Fernández, is Mesa-Bains’ first retrospective, and a return to the Bay Area, where she spent much of her career.

White chair in front of vanity with white fabric draped behind
Amalia Mesa-Bains, Installation view of ‘Venus Envy Chapter I: First Holy Communion, Moments Before the End,’ 1993/2022. (Courtesy BAMPFA)

Archaeology of Memory opens with Venus Envy Chapter I: First Holy Communion, Moments Before the End (1993/2022), part of a series shown here in its entirety for the first time. This is not a gradual introduction to Mesa-Bains’ five-decades-long art practice, but a sudden submersion into an arrangement of object-filled vitrines, furniture, religious paraphernalia, wall works, handwritten text, a bauble-encrusted vanity and many, many mirrors.

That first gallery effected the same feeling I have in a well-stocked bookstore: “I’m never going to live long enough to absorb all of this information.” But we are not meant to read all the text, nor see all the images. In almost all of Mesa-Bains’ work, regardless of medium, there is a process of layering and obscuring. That unknowability becomes strategic. Mesa-Bains does the work of unearthing histories — Indigenous, Mexican, Chicanx, political, domestic, feminist — and merges them with her own memories, creating evocative amalgamations of object and symbol. For as complex and powerful as the work is, Mesa-Bains’ methods signal that there is still so much to uncover: more stories, more experiences, more structures to question and complicate.

View of desk crowded with old-fashioned objects for studying and measuring, backgrounded by bright green wall
Amalia Mesa-Bains, Installation view of ‘The Library of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,’ 1994/2021. (Courtesy BAMPFA)

In The Library of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1994/2021), from Venus Envy Chapter II: The Harem and Other Enclosures, Mesa-Bains imagines the desk of the 17th century Mexican writer, philosopher, poet and nun. Among magnifying glasses, globes and petri dishes dangles a receipt-like list of Latino populations in different metro areas across the United States, followed by prison populations and COVID statistics.

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This is the type of detail those preview images will always fail to depict. In each staging, an installation takes on a new and fresh form, simply by dint of assembling in a different space at a different time. This mutability nods to Mesa-Bains’ early work, which drew from her role as an altarista for Día de los Muertos celebrations. She connected with San Francisco’s Galería de la Raza in 1971, and ofrendas became her medium of choice.

Things shifted toward permanence in the early 1990s, however, when she experienced major health issues and made a conscious move away from the ephemeral. Even so, the artworks that followed resist stillness. Objects repeat across installations (a noted challenge for the retrospective). The dried flowers and crushed glass that Mesa-Bains spreads around the bases of her pieces (a handy physical barrier that precludes the need for unsightly stanchions) are inherently unfixed.

Moss covered female figure reclines on green rug looking at giant mirror
Amalia Mesa-Bains, Installation view of ‘Cihuateotl with Mirror in Private Landscapes and Public Territories,’ 1998-2011/2018. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

After that first gallery, each section of Archaeology of Memory seems to get more and more breathing room, creating space for Mesa-Bains’ “aesthetic of accumulation” in the viewer’s own mind. The final piece in the show, An Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio (1984/1991), is a sparkling and pink-hued homage to the Mexican actress that gets its own wide wall.

Throughout the show, Mesa-Bains’ work uses intricate beauty to broach serious topics: marginalized histories, personal loss and pain. But there is also great joy and love in these pieces, as well as a scholarly rigor and a hint of the pleasure that comes from investigating diverse narrative threads. In an 11-minute documentary directed by Raymond Telles, which plays on a screen at the center of the exhibition, Mesa-Bains says, “I have no embarrassment about being a narrative artist, I have no embarrassment about telling a story, because I think that’s kind of my job.”

Framed photographs, film canisters and small objects flanked by pink curtains, ground covered in dried flowers
Amalia Mesa-Bains, Detail of ‘An Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio,’ 1984/1991. (Courtesy BAMPFA)

What’s exciting and remarkable about her method of storytelling is that it exists in tangible, sculptural forms. It welcomes viewers in, and creates space for all the archeological work to come. In her catalog essay, co-curator Laura Pérez notes that Mesa-Bains has long been known within the Latinx art scene and among feminist artists of color, and has already influenced generations of younger artists. This retrospective, coming in Mesa-Bains’ 79th year, is almost a formality. But it’s an important formality, given the chronic underrepresentation of Latinx and Chicanx artists in museums — especially in a state like California, which owes so much of its history, culture and future to its Latino population.

Don’t miss the opportunity to have Amalia Mesa-Bains’ work take up residence in your own memories.

‘Amalia Mesa-Bains: Archaeology of Memory’ is on view at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive through June 23. Details here.

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