Mujeres de Maíz: A Lifetime of Social Praxis

9.1 / Public Sense

Mujeres de Maíz: A Lifetime of Social Praxis

By Gilda Posada January 16, 2018

Social practice has gained popularity in the last few years, as a medium that allows artists to “freely blur the lines…creating a deeply participatory art that often flourishes outside the gallery and museum system”.1 Social practice (or socially engaged art, or participatory art) has been defined as engaging with publics, communities, or institutions through curatorial practice, exploration of archives, activism, and other social forms in order to bring art into the public sphere.2 In her book Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, Claire Bishop outlines the emergence of “rethinking the artist’s role in society” and “democratizing art,” Post-World War II. However, this reevaluation of art did not include artists or communities of color in the U.S. at the time.3 

In examining the role and erasure of the Chicanx and Indigenous artists in the U.S. who have long been engaging in social practice to achieve social change, I look to the collective Mujeres de Maíz, whose artists and projects challenge European and U.S. Western academic concepts of a “participatory aesthetic” and take on social practice as a praxis (a reflection and action directed at the structures to be transformed) and way of life, rather than a one-time event or project.4 Not only does the work of Mujeres de Maíz allow for a decolonization of the white/Western art world, which has historically promoted oppressive, xenophobic, and primitive notions of Indigenous peoples; it also allows for a recovery of pre-colonial knowledges that have been lost through the ongoing process of colonialism. Mujeres de Maíz’s social practice, or rather social praxis, therefore accounts for the past, present, and future of Indigenous womxn and womxn of color at large, by centering pathways towards survival and the healing of mind, body, and spirit. In Trump's America—a current low point in the long history of settler-colonialism and imperialism—this resistance to oppressive colonial and capitalistic structures is needed more than ever. Rethinking social practice as a social praxis can provide us with the tools to surmount challenges in today’s society where many face an unsustainable future—politically, socially, spiritually, and environmentally.

Zapatistas. EZLN/ Xican@ Encuentro Banner, 1997; canvas and paint; 15 x 5 ft. Photo: Carlos F. Jackson.

Mujeres de Maíz, which translates from Spanish to “women of the corn” (though I will use “womxn” throughout for its inclusivity of varied gender identities), is an artist collective that seeks to empower diverse womxn and girls through the creation of community spaces that provide holistic wellness through education, programming, exhibition, and publishing.5 In 1997, Mujeres de Maíz assembled in Highland Park, Northeast Los Angeles, at the Popular Resource Center (PRC)/Centro Regeneración. Although Mujeres de Maíz was rooted in communities with ties to Civil Rights and Feminist movements, co-founders Felicia Montes and Claudia Mercado found that womxn of color's voices were recurrently absent from the platforms of representation that existed. Inspired by womxn of color feminist writers of the late 1960s and 70s, along with the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, Montes and Mercado decided to create a sacred space within the broader socially active artists’ movements happening in Los Angeles, “where womxn of color poets, painters, and performers could express themselves and share their works privately and publicly.”6 Mujeres de Maíz emphasized becoming holistic (healing mind, body, and spirit together) as their praxis, and used education as a tool for consciousness-raising that can ultimately lead to unity, healing, and change—a method they continue to employ today. For this reason, I position the work of Mujeres de Maíz at the forefront of social praxis and label it indispensable in the era of Donald Trump.

To begin the process of dismantling white supremacy and decolonization, it is vital for practitioners, scholars, and cultural workers to acknowledge the historical erasures that the art world has created in relation to artists of color and womxn of color in particular, and recognize how the art world has been complicit in promoting white supremacy by constantly overlooking the works of Chicanx and Indigenous artists. (The Guerrilla Girls have been one of the sharpest critics of art institutions’ role in promoting this marginalization; I think of Top Ten Signs That You’re An Art World Token, from 1995.) It was not until November 2017, when the world witnessed the resurgence of white supremacy, hatred, and intolerance through the presidential election of Donald Trump, that many people and organizations turned to artists to create images of protest culture that would rally against the Trump administration and its racist, misogynistic policies. However, even in this moment, national organizations and non-profits chose to go with “political activist” artists such as Shepard Fairey, a white man, overlooking the work of those social-cultural practitioners and artists who had invested decades of their love, spirit, and labor into life-long, community-based projects that fight for social change and chart a path toward healing.

Mujeres de Maíz. Felicia "Fe" Montes performing at nail salon in East L.A. as part of Poetry Procession, 2011. Courtesy of Mujeres de Maiz.

Mujeres de Maíz is amongst this group of social-cultural practitioners and self-defined “artivists” who have invested their lives to working from, by, for, and about Chicanx and Indigenous communities. This year, Mujeres de Maíz celebrated two decades of being an inter-cultural, inter-generational, intersectional, and multi-discipline womxn’s art collective, as well as network of support for emerging Xicanas and womxn of color cultural workers. To celebrate and reflect on their work, praxis, and way of life they hosted a 20th Anniversary Live Art Show Festival and exhibition last March, at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Los Angeles. The event featured performance offerings of music, spoken word, dance, artisans, and vendors, all womxn and queer/trans people of color. This show compiled many types of Mujeres de Maíz’s ongoing annual programing into a series of events. One was Poetry Procession for the People, an event that has been occurring regularly over the past eight years.”7 This version was a collaboration between Mujeres de Maíz and Chulas EnCholadas, who gathered at Mariachi Plaza to walk and share poetry on their way to LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes.8 Through this journey the womxn stopped to (re)connect with communities from Boyle Heights to La Placita Olvera, making an ofrenda, or “offering,” of poetry/words/song/voice to the city and the people who inhabit it.9 Previous processions have stopped at various places around the city including historical sites and community businesses such as barbershops, nail salons, and auto shops.10 Montes emphasized that for Mujeres de Maíz it became important to physically go to multiple locations in the community and share these poetic offerings. As someone who had worked in cultural spaces and non-profits, she understood the difficulty of attracting people to events, as well as the many possible barriers to access cultural workshops, such as money, transportation, and time restrictions.11 One of the assertions theorists make of social practice is that it is revolutionary, political, and defies hierarchies by “democratizing art,” and yet the legacy of social practice’s institutional formation, which excluded communities of color, carries through today with a dominant narrative that continues to marginalize womxn of color, Indigenous womxn, and trans folks. In this context, Mujeres de Maíz’s Poetry Procession as a way to honor and promote the well-being of womxn, regardless of their class, age, race, location, or occupation, is in fact a revolutionary and decolonial act.

The exhibition portion of the 20th Anniversary retrospective highlighted objects that had been created for, by, and about womxn’s issues from the local scene to the global scale, informing past, present, and futurities based on the urban Indigenous social praxis that is invested in healing the mind, body, and spirit. I will focus on two artists, Felicia “Fe” Montes and Gina Aparicio. Like the many other womxn of Mujeres de Maíz, these two artists create work not simply to be used in a one-time event or exhibition, but rather that is informed by what they practice and what they want to recover of pre-colonial knowledges and leave behind for future generations.12

Felicia "Fe" Montes. Botanica del Barrio: Rolling Remedios Mobile Medicine Cart, 2016. 35 x 42 x 26 inches. Photo: Carlos F. Jackson.

The works in the exhibition all had an element of ceremony and wellness that linked back to the relationships between womxn of color and the Earth. Such traces can be seen in Felicia Montes’s Botanica del Barrio, which highlights “indigenous and people of color traditional, experiential, cultural and holistic knowledge and aims to make it accessible.”13 Montes designed a cart that is influenced by paletero carts that are found in Chicanx urban settings, but instead of a monetary exchange for popsicles, Montes exchanges traditional botanica knowledge of herbal or holistic remedies with those that approach her. The mobility of the cart allows her to change the location of her sharing and teaching; she can enact these exchanges on the street or in the gallery space, disrupting the white-cube mentality that looks down on touching or interacting with a piece once it is on display. Furthermore, the Botanica del Barrio eschews hierarchal forms of learning. Botanicas are often high-priced, private, and withholding of what goes into the remedies, but Montes has created a space where knowledge is shared, free, and practiced in public. She thus reimagines how healing is defined and enacted, while simultaneously challenging Western constructions of technology and medicine. In our current national situation, in which the Trump administration has dedicated itself to healthcare repeals, works such as Botanica del Barrio offer a different vision of health and wellness, and become vital to the survival and well-being of many.

Aparicio’s assemblage of objects are created with the intention to elicit an encounter

Gina Aparicio works with ceramics to create objects that are informed by her spiritual journey and teachings from Mujeres de Maíz mentors such as Yreina Cervantez, Celia Herrera-Rodriguez, and Roxanne “Rocky” Rodriguez as well as the spiritual and artistic works left behind by her ancestors.14 Aparicio’s assemblage of objects are created with the intention to elicit an encounter or guide the viewer into an alternative space, spiritually, mentally, and physically.15 Her work is concerned with a planet-wide movement spearheaded by Indigenous peoples that seeks to raise consciousness about our relationship to the natural world. In the Mujeres de Maíz show, she installed four ceramic sculptures of naguales—in Mesoamerican spiritual beliefs, human beings who possesses the power to turn into an animal during ceremonial rituals—each positioned at a cardinal point in the four directions. Aparicio states that ceremony allows for a connection to be created with the nagual that guides us on our journey to understand our relationship to the natural world.”16 The sculptures depicted an Owl, Jaguar, Deer, and Bear, clothed in the four colors of the Lakota medicine wheel (red, black, white, and yellow), encircled by colored stones and holding an instrument (medicine).17

Through the assemblages of earth and materials that each nagual carried, the exhibition space welcomed and placed the viewer in ceremony with Mujeres de Maíz, rather than as a spectator. In Indigenous communities (specifically those along the west coast), a territory acknowledgement and welcoming recognizes the history of colonization and violence that happened on the physical land that is the site of a given gathering; thus, it is a small step toward remembering and healing a violent act.18 Applying this idea to Aparicio’s work, the “welcoming” of the naguales becomes a reclamation and a decolonization of place, relationships, knowledges, sacredness, and histories. Thus, like Montes’s Botanica del Barrio, Aparicio’s naguales are re-shifting Western concepts of power and space, as well as challenging notions of valuable and sacred knowledge.

On another level, Aparicio’s social engagement through objects recovers pre-colonial knowledges that have been lost through settler-colonialism. The naguales exert political consciousness and resistance to the physical and spiritual genocide of indigeneity (for human and more-than-human forces such as animals, earth, ancestors, etc.). One example is the Bear nagual, which stands in the East with yellow cloth wrapped around its neck and arms and carries a drum made of buck hide. The East is the direction from which the sun rises; it represents birth and all beginnings and guides through its light, thus invoking understanding and wisdom. In combining the East with the drum, Aparicio is referencing the heartbeat of Mother Earth as well as the heartbeat of the people, and bringing the spirit world and Creator into the exhibition space. Aparicio’s work therefore offers an opening to a sacred, ceremonial space that aligns itself with Indigenous calls to change our relationship with the Earth. In one of its most recent attacks, the Trump administration has moved to open up protected federal lands in Bears Ears National Monument to mining, logging, drilling, and other forms of extraction. Now more than ever, the praxis of Indigenous and Chicanx artists is needed if we are to begin creating a sustainable world. The work enacted in the NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock, La declaración universal de los derechos de la Madre Tierra (The Law of the Rights of Mother Earth) in Bolivia, and the Idle No More movement in Canada, as well as by artists such as Aparicio, show that Indigenous cosmovisions can be carried out in social and political work without removing the relations of mind, body, and spirit.

Perhaps it is naïve of me to think that social praxis can be the solution to these problems...

Aparacio states that “Making Art is my prayer. It is my ceremony for the people. It is my hope that I will leave something of value for future generations. It is my promise to the ancestors not to forget.”19 These words leave me wondering about the world of social practice and what it means for it to become institutionalized. Is social practice going to be just another medium and commodity in the art world, called on in times of crisis, or is the field going to value life-long praxis? Today, there is a growing awareness that people of color’s limited access to the arts and erasure from the dominant art-historical narrative is tied to the colonial project, slavery and exploitation, settler-colonial institutional violence, and oppressive capitalistic structures. Perhaps it is naïve of me to think that social praxis can be the solution to these problems, but what I do see is that the social praxis of artists is building the way for present-day and future generations to rethink, remember, reconnect, and heal from imposed U.S.–European structures and values. I see the work of Mujeres de Maíz at the forefront of combating these patriarchal, heteronormative, racist, and capitalistic social structures and moving beyond them to create a new center. The Western art world and policy-makers can learn a lot from Chicanx and Indigenous artists who are reviving and employing ancestral knowledges in order to elevate our consciousness mentally, spiritually, physically, and technologically. If we as a society want to make progress — and if social practice is to help us get there — then we should begin by engaging with the multiple cosmologies, ontologies, and epistemologies that Chicanx and Indigenous artists are offering.

Notes

  1. Randy Kennedy, “Outside the Citadel, Social Practice Art Is Intended to Nurture,” New York Times, March 24 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/24/arts/design/outside-the-citadel-social-practice-art-is-intended-to-nurture.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1. Accessed December 2017.
  2. Here I am referring to how historians, curators, and writers such as Nato Thompson, Grant Kester, Nicolas Bourriaud, and Claire Bishop have tackled the field in attempts to define it, most of which have emerged in the last decade.
  3. Communities of color were excluded from the transformation Bishop describes, as they were fighting to achieve civil rights, to end segregation and Jim Crow laws in the U.S.
  4. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. (London and New York: Verso, 2012); 163.
  5. Mission. Mujeres de Maiz Mission. http://www.mujeresdemaiz.com/. Accessed December 2017.
  6. Lara Medina, "Reflections on Mujeres de Maiz" Published October 15, 2015. https://sacredmattersmagazine.com/reflections-on-mujeres-de-maiz/. Accessed December 2017.
  7. Other workshops include a Full Moon Circle, which a monthly womxn’s gathering based on contemporary Indigenous teachings, Live Art Shows, Exhibits and Zines.
  8. ELA (Rebecca Gonzales from East LA) NELA (Iris De Anda from Northeast LA) y SELA (Xitlalic Guijosa-Osuna Southeast LA). They are Los Angeles based poets, writers, and performers.
  9. Mike Sonksen, "News and Venues for National Poetry Month 2014, Part One" KCET April 4, 2014, https://www.kcet.org/history-society/news-and-venues-for-national-poetry-month-2014-part-one. Accessed December 2017.
  10. Skype interview with Felicia “Fe” Montes on December 2, 2017.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Botanica del Barrio, https://feliciamontes.wordpress.com/arts/public-art-practices/botanica-del-barrio/. Accessed December 2017
  14. Email exchange with Gina Aparicio on December 3, 2017
  15. I am using Jane Bennett's idea of active matter assemblages in her book Vibrant Matter and Shelley Niro and Salma Monani’s “Resistance and Hope in Mohawk Cinema.” In her book, Bennett proposes that assemblages are not governed by any center and that no one material has enough ability to determine the impact of the group of materials. The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties, and constantly in change (See Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things. Durham: Duke University Press, 2010. 24). Yet, I consider Métis scholar Zoe Todd’s critique that citing European thinkers who discuss the “more-than-human” and do not give credit to the Indigenous contemporaries who are writing on the exact same topics is perpetuating white supremacy of the academy and knowledge. (See Todd, Z. “An Indigenous Feminist's Take On the Ontological Turn: ‘Ontology’ Is Just Another Word For Colonialism,” Journal of Historical Sociology 29. 2016.18). In this spirit, I look to Indigenous artist Shelley Niro and writer Salma Monani, who challenge Western modes of creating binaries as a way to understand the world. Salma Monani states that in the West, nature is seen as an inarticulate object without political say; furthermore, she points to how indigenous people’s recognition of natureculture and cosmovisions is often disregarded by the West as superstitious because it does not fit in the realm of binaries and science. I look to her for her contribution in uniting humanity and the environment by centering Indigenous peoples and their entangled relations to the more-than-human ways (life/forces). (See Monani, Salma and Shelly Niro, “Resistance and Hope in Mohawk Cinema: Iroquois Cosmologies and Histories” in Ecocriticism and Indigenous Studies: Conversations from Earth to Cosmos, Routledge, 2016. 155.)
  16. Email exchange with Gina Aparicio.
  17. The original piece is titled Ipan Nepantla Teotlaitlania Cachi Cualli Maztlacayotl (Caught Between Worlds, Praying for A Better Future). In it, the sculptures are standing before an 8 x 8 ft. woodcut of the moon goddess coyolxauhqui (not featured in the Mujeres de Maíz 20th Anniversary exhibition). During this installation, participants were invited to roll tobacco ties while silently saying a prayer or offering an intention. The tobacco ties were then pinned to the wall to create a communal prayer, as a way to enter into ceremony together.
  18. Lecture given by Jolene Rickard, "Indigenous Thought Recentering the World," hosted by The Institute for Contemporary Maternities on November 1, 2017, Cornell University.
  19. Email exchange with Gina Aparicio.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content