Art on Our Minds
after bell hooks
by Sarah Rafael García
At Irvine Valley College, my first Mexican American teacher told me I could be a writer. Ms. Alvarez had long dark hair and often wore manta skirts. She always affirmed my words and reminded me of my aunts. I still remember her feedback on essays about Malcolm X and Virginia Woolf, stating I made great points in my comparisons and criticism. But writing was not a career, at least not for my immigrant family, nor I at age eighteen. Not many in my family understand what I do now, even with over fifteen years of experience as an arts administrator and various titles: author, award-winning artist, bookstore owner, and most recently a self-made gallery director. No one in the familial generation before me understands how I make ends meet. I was raised believing books and museums were pastimes only white people could afford, not careers that paid the bills or fulfilled my grandfather’s purpose as a bracero worker. To them, I couldn’t be a writer because I didn’t have great stories to tell like white people. I had not traveled to a big university, nor could I share our hardships. Sharing my father’s upbringing as a migrant worker, tree cutter, labor worker at the Orange County Register and early death at thirty-six because of stress would’ve brought my family much shame. And even though Ms. Alvarez told me losing my father at thirteen, moving out of my mother’s house at eighteen, and taking a journey across Orange County as the first in my family to go to college was a story worth telling, I didn’t believe anyone would read it. I hadn’t read such a story by anyone that looked like me back in 1992.
Life taught me that being a Brown woman meant no one would acknowledge me. Just like it took half a lifetime for me to recognize that Lisa Alvarez was a writer herself, and possibly the first I’d met who resembled someone in my family. I can say this now because we have come to be good friends over the last three decades. In fact, recently I hosted her first multimedia, collaborative exhibition in my own gallery. Taking our cues from mainstream white culture, she would tell you she’s usually a performance artist protesting on the streets, and I would say its impressive that we both continue to offer counternarratives for our Mexican American female identities. We felt we were defying art etiquette because we were both over forty, hanging a mannequin found on the side of the road dressed in newspaper headlines and various upscaled materials to re-present the Ayotzinapa students who disappeared in 2014.
However, Orange County native and artist Albert López argued that we are bonafide artists who need to continue to challenge the mainstream norm. He also said our ages didn’t matter and the exhibition dates didn’t necessarily have to coincide with Día de los Muertos in downtown Santa Ana, California. López said we are more than the imposed identities created by the dominant group in Orange County and across the nation. We all agreed these ideals are put into place to keep us typecast not just in the art world but in society. After all, we each have multiple degrees, we’re over forty and still often felt unacknowledged by the powers that be.
In Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New Press 1995), the late bell hooks wrote: “Representation is a crucial location of struggle for any exploited and oppressed people asserting subjectivity and decolonization of the mind.” Similarly, many artists of color in Orange County don’t see themselves featured in local art spaces or established museums in the region because the dominant group has labeled them as unsuccessful or untrained artists or simply stated the work is not our aesthetic. But what plenty forget is that the white gatekeepers who make those decisions and help fill arts administrator positions in the region are also the dominant group which sets the precedent for the regional arts landscape.If only one institution took a stance to always feature local artists of color on the walls rather than the back of the house staff or part of community engagement initiatives featured during outdoor events or in the lobby simply to attract the 60% demographics, then and only then will Orange County art spaces begin to represent most of the residents in the region.
We need more efforts to cultivate local artists of color to reach national and global representation. One initiative is to add their work into collections, as gallery director Jennifer Frias has done at the Nicholas and Lee Begovich Gallery located at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF). Recently the Begovich acquired work from 2014 undergraduate alum and Anaheim artist William Camargo, and the gallery’s upcoming exhibition features ‘95 MFA alumna and artist Ann Phong. Being an on-campus gallery, these direct actions in support of CSUF alumni cultivates a greater understanding of the politics of seeing – how we perceive the visual, how we write and talk about it, and in this case how we cultivate local artists.
About sixteen miles south from the Begovich Gallery, curator Virginia Arce started her own initiative at the Irvine Fine Arts Center, a city-funded entity. In 2019, prior to the pandemic and elevated discussions about racial inequities in the headlines, Arce, born in Mexico and an MFA graduate in critical and curatorial studies from UC Irvine, started a conversation with Albert López. Arce hadn’t known López beforehand but after approaching him about exhibiting his work, one conversation led to another. With each discussion, they covered more shared concerns about the arts industry and considered how López’s own work could be included in an exhibition. I know this because I was brought into the conversation as a local writer to cover the “A trace is not a map” exhibition (February 2020), which included López and Camargo. I covered the exhibition in a local publication not anticipating that I would host López as an inaugural artist in the gallery I opened a year and I half later (August 2021). This conversation of ideas led us all to prioritize local artists by providing opportunities for them to exhibit close to home and find ways to make sure their works are archived through publications and digital platforms. Through such purposeful curation we are independently — yet collectively — choosing to support local, provocative, artists of color and relevant art history.
When we consider the place of the visual arts in Orange County’s people of color lives, most of us think of murals and images of radical protests. We do not speak of the diverse art forms like light and space installations, organically sourced dead species rearranged on canvases, or transmedia storytelling. We fail to acknowledge the joy in the privilege and all those who already fought past battles for us to be able to criticize the art industry today. Recently, López said, “You know what I asked my daughters the other day? I asked them if they thought I was an asshole because I had to correct someone when they mislabeled my art as rasquachismo.” This familiar experience lay heavy on my mind, first as a Chicana, then as an artist of color, because I knew what he meant. We are products of our generation — from the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s — where our “broken” English was always the topic of conversation with our elementary teachers, and our parents were laborers who sometimes didn’t have the words to praise our efforts in this society. We couldn’t cry when we were doubted or compared to our white counterparts in grade school or the MFA. We were the firsts to go through this education system and find ways to defend ourselves in society and at home. Now we’re being compared to generations which have more liberties than we could ever imagine. Hell, some held cell phones in their hands before they could walk.
I responded, “Well, ask them again in twenty years. They might understand you better because situations for people of color don’t change as quickly as technology. I’m first generation with a twelfth-generation iPhone and I’m still made to feel irrelevant in society.”
He then asked, “How do we get beyond all this political stuff? We’re constantly defending our work because of our skin color and last name. I’m a heterosexual Brown man with a misogynist upbringing, raising four daughters. We have had these battles. Why are people still resisting to acknowledge we’ve done the work?” I had no answer to that, because I had yet to have an art conversation that didn’t revolve around race, gender, or my family’s culture. I paused to hold myself accountable. Then, I prodded, “What did your daughters say?”
López responded, “One asked why I am still seeking affirmations.” We both sighed heavily and looked away from one another. Then, moments later, he added, “When can we just talk about beautiful art? When can we talk about the styles that resonate with us and how we can use them to evolve as artists?”
By then I was thinking along the same lines. I strategized on ways to challenge myself, to do something for the sake of art and joy, like bell hooks wrote, “to live as free subjects in an unfree world.” This time I took a breath in and slowly exhaled, “Hey, tell me about ‘Espacio Despacio’ that opens this week at Cerritos College (February 7, 2022 – March 31, 2022), those overlapping vertical and horizontal forms with LED lights and buckets as sculptures. How in the world did you come up with that concept…?”
Sarah Rafael García is an author, community educator, curator, and performance ethnographer born in Brownsville, Tejas and raised in Santa Ana, California. She’s the founder of Barrio Writers, LibroMobile and Crear Studio — all art programs initiated as a response to build cultural relevance and equity for BIPOC folks in Orange County.