So much can be said of the abundance of beauty in Amalia Mesa-Bains’ work. Adorned by pearls and candles, draped fabrics and dried flowers, the exhibition Archaeology of Memory showcased at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) is nothing short of a pure delight for the eyes. But beyond its beauty, Mesa-Bains’ self-proclaimed feminist art is a rich archive of heritage, memory, family, ancestry and the self. As described in Mesa-Bains’ introduction to the exhibition, her art is “retrieving lost histories, creating space for others to dream and imagine.”
Hailed as one of the key figures of Chicanx art, this long overdue retrospective finally puts Mesa-Bains’ art front and center stage, displaying over three decades of the 79-year-old artist’s work. Among almost sixty works is the four-part installation series Venus Envy, displayed for the first time in its entirety. The breathtaking series, which includes work made between 1993 and 2023, beats at the heart of the exhibition, recounting the pain, power and limitations of the lives of immigrant and Latinx women.
The first installation in the series, Venus Envy Chapter I: First Holy Communion, Moments before the end, which was first presented at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1993, is particularly haunting. The installation explores the characters of the virgin, the nun and the bride through collections of found objects including photographs, rosary beads, bridal lace, hair and passports. Through this debris of beauty and ruin runs stories of women loved and lost, now re-embodied through their belongings. The empty vanity dresser that stands as the focal point of Chapter I acts as one of the altars, or ofrendas (offerings to the dead), that appear frequently throughout Mesa-Bains’ work. Its half open drawers and slightly rotated chair give the chilling impression that whoever once owned the vanity dresser is soon to return.
Chapter I was not the first occasion in which Mesa-Bains diverged from the traditional altar formation; the technique can be seen again in Venus Envy IV: The Road to Paris and Its Aftermath, The Curandera’s Botanica. This section of the exhibition recounts a near-fatal car accident that Mesa-Bains was involved in, an event that caused her to reflect on indigenous Mexican healing traditions that were practiced by her family. Part of the piece includes a large medicine cabinet that Mesa-Bains stated had a shelf for every member of her family that has now passed. These shrines work not only to celebrate the dead, but the rich culture from which she has descended, using the story of her family to comment on issues such as migration, womanhood and survival through difficult times.
The experience of walking through the exhibition feels almost like a treasure hunt. New details offer themself to the viewer — new layers of the narrative to peel back. Mesa-Bains uses repeated imagery and materials throughout much of her work that subtly laces all her art together. One of the most prevalent examples of this is her use of mirrors, which cleverly draws the audience into each piece. Mesa-Bains also encapsulates a sense of memory by playing with the senses, incorporating the scents of the dried flower petals that carpet the floor around some of her installations.
Mesa-Bains’ work truly exemplifies her dedication to bringing Chicanx and Latinx perspectives into the art world, with her work as a curator, author and educator uplifting and inspiring others to do the same. Archaeology of Memory finally celebrates the work of a woman of color in a community that has neglected and marginalized people like her for so long. Exhibition co-curator Laura E. Pérez summed it up, saying, “studying Amalia’s work has been an apprenticeship in courage, compassion and commitment.”