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Chicana Art: The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Altarities (Objects/Histories)

Chicana Art: The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Altarities (Objects/Histories)

by Laura E. Pérez

ISBN: 9780822338680

Publisher Duke University Press Books

Published in Arts & Photography/History & Criticism

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Sample Chapter


Chapter One

Spirit, Glyphs

Fruto del diálogo sostenido con su propio corazón, que ha rumiado, por así decir, el legado espiritual del mundo náhuatl, el artista comenzará a transformarse en un yoltéotl, "corazón endiosado," o mejor, movilidad y dinamismo humano orientados por un especie de inspiración divina.

—Miguel León-Portilla, Los antiguos mexicanos a través de sus crónicas y cantares

But what, or who, can emerge intact from such traumatic crossings, in response to the passionate call of the originary language, figured by the drum? Only the black trickster.

—Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey

The journey of this writing is as much a journey into the past as it is into the future, a resurrection of the ancient in order to construct the modern. It is a place where prophecy and past meet and speak to each other.

—Cherríe Moraga, The Last Generation

Making Spirit Opposition

It seems that what individuals and groups represent as the spiritual—that having to do with the s/Spirit(s)—is a field of differences and contention, resonances, and crossings. Notions of the spiritual circulate unevenly, and with differing political significance. Thus, though we might be able to generalize about the nature or meaning of the spiritual, doing so runs the risk of collapsing cultural differences when that conversation is a cultural monologue rather than a dialogue with perspectives rooted in different cultural assumptions. The notion of the spiritual that I wish to discuss here, as it is invoked in contemporary Chicana writing and visual art, derives its inspiration primarily from Mesoamerican, other American Indian, African diasporic, and feminist critiques of traditional religiosities emphasizing the belief that there exists an essential spiritual nature, and thus an interconnectedness, of all beings, human and nonhuman. Interestingly, this view is also present in "mystical" and esoteric traditions of Christianity and Judaism even as it has been ascribed significant cultural difference in more orthodox or culturally mainstream Euroamerican thought.

Beliefs and practices consciously making reference to the s/Spirit(s) as the common life force within and between all beings are today largely ignored in serious intellectual discourse as superstition, folk belief, or New Age delusion, or when they are not, they are studied directly as exemplars of "primitive animism" or previous ages of gullibility. To speak about the spiritual in U.S. culture, even approaching it as a field articulated through cultural differences, is risky business that raises anxieties of different sorts. Yet the very discomfort that attends talk of the spiritual outside authorized and institutionalized spaces alerts us to a tender zone constituted by the clash of culturally different and politically significant beliefs and practices.

To speak of the spiritual with respect to the cultural practices of politically disempowered communities, particularly the work of women, is perhaps even more fraught with dangers. Given this loaded landscape, the invocation of the spiritual in the work of contemporary Chicana writers and visual artists, as a part of an oppositional politics, is especially provocative and ambitious. As Ana Castillo writes in Massacre of the Dreamers: Essays on Xicanisma,

our long-range objective in understanding ourselves, integrating our fragmented identities, truly believing in the wisdom of our ancient knowledge is to bring the rest of humanity to the fold. That is, today, we grapple with our need to thoroughly understand who we are—gifted human beings—and to believe in our gifts, talents, our worthiness and beauty, while having to survive within the constructs of a world antithetical to our intuition and knowledge regarding life's meaning. Our vision must encompass sufficient confidence that dominant society will eventually give credence to our ways, if the world is to survive. Who, in this world of the glorification of material wealth, whiteness, and phallic worship would consider us holders of knowledge that could transform this world into a place where the quality of life for all living things on this planet is the utmost priority; where we are all engaged in a life process that is meaningful from birth to death, where we accept death as organic to life, where death does not come to us in the form of one more violent and unjust act committed against our right to live? (1994, 148–49)

The linkages within imperialist and racist thinking between the spiritual, the female, and peoples of color are what make the conditions for talking about women, particularly women of color, and the spiritual, especially difficult. For, as Marianna Torgovnick writes in Primitive Passions: Men, Women, and the Quest for Ecstasy, "bit by bit, thread by thread, the West has woven a tapestry in which the primitive, the oceanic, and the feminine have been banished to the margins in order to protect—or so the logic went—the primacy of civilization, masculinity, and the autonomous self " (1997, 212). Regardless of intention, then, it might seem that connections made between the spiritual and women of color reproduce dominant narratives about these as inferior opposites to the rational, Christian, Western European, and male.

The stakes involved in the struggle over these narratives are not small. With respect to the ascription of the magical to Indians in the Putumayo region of Colombia, Michael Taussig has commented: "This magical attraction of the Indian is not only a cunningly wrought colonial objet d'art; it is also a refurbished and revitalized one. It is not just primitivism but third-world modernism, a neocolonial reworking of primitivism" (1987, 172). Nonetheless, addressing the politics of spirituality from the perspective of the "Indian," as an other of Eurocentric cultures, and of reclaiming a belittled spiritual worldview, is crucial to many, particularly if it is a personally and socially empowering worldview, and especially so for women. In the work of the Chicana artists under study here, citations of the spiritual, whether Western, non-Western, or in newer, hybrid forms, are brought into view as social discourse, for their manifest effects in the social and human bodies, and the natural environment. Spirituality in this work is inseparable from questions of social justice, with respect to class, gender, sexuality, culture, and "race."

The "spirit work" of Chicana visual, performing, and literary artists studied here counters the trivialization of the spiritual, particularly of beliefs and practices from non-Western traditions, as "folk religion," "superstitious," or "primitive." It attempts to derail Eurocentric cultural evolutionary arguments in the sphere of religious belief or disbelief that demean that which is culturally different as inferior. Cultural evolutionist thought helps to rationalize social and economic inequities as the "natural" outcome of "developed" and "underdeveloped" cultures or peoples. In the work of the women studied here the "spiritual" is not an abstract or romantic notion, reproducing the idea of a binary split between a baser material, physical, and social reality and a nobler, separate realm of spirit, ideals, and intellect. For some, the references to the spiritual function as a metaphor of that which is spectral, neither fully present, nor absent, such as memory, or marginal social being. Chicana artists whose work concerns itself with the intersections of the spiritual, the political, and the aesthetic call attention both to what counts as respectable religion and to the more ghostly status of egalitarian forms of spirituality in U.S. culture.

Conjuring and reimagining traditions of spiritual belief, traditions whose cultural differences have been used by discourses of civilization and modernization to justify subjugation and devaluation, are conscious acts of healing the cultural susto: that is, the "frightening" of spirit from one's body-mind in the colonial and neocolonial ordeals, the result of which is the "in-between" state of nepantla, the post-conquest condition of cultural fragmentation and social indeterminacy. Put in more familiar terms, these conscious acts work toward the reintegration of the psyche fragmented by the internalization of loathing of the native self, which Frantz Fanon described as vital to decolonizing practice in Black Skin, White Masks (1967). In responding to the fact of cultural discontinuity with ancestral Amerindian traditions, and opposing a history of vilification and attempted destruction of the "pagan" Indian, African, and Asian philosophical and spiritual worldviews, many contemporary Chicana writers and artists seek to remember, reimagine, and redeploy ideas and practices culled from these as critique and alternative to male-dominated, Eurocentric, culturally or religiously Christian, capitalist, and imperialist cultures. As Norma Alarcón puts it:

For many writers the point is not so much to recover a lost "utopia" nor the "true" essence of our being, although, of course, there are those who long for the "lost origins," as well as those who feel a profound spiritual kinship with the "lost"—a spirituality whose resistant political implications must not be underestimated, but refocused for feminist change. The most relevant point in the present is to understand how a pivotal indigenous portion of the mestiza past may represent a collective female experience as well as "the mark of the Beast" within us—the maligned and abused indigenous woman. By invoking the "dark Beast" within and without, which many have forced us to deny, the cultural and psychic dismemberment that is linked to imperialist and sexist practices is brought into focus. (1990, 251)

From this perspective, the Chicana artists whose work is studied in the chapters that follow engage in curandera (healer) work, reclaiming and reformulating spiritual worldviews that are empowering to them as women of color and reimagining what a more serious social role for art and the artist might be. In this spirit work, Chicana writers and artists interrupt the reproduction of gendered, raced, and sexed politics of spirituality and art. From a perspective of concern for social justice and environmental responsibility, and a belief in the political effects of art practices, this kind of artwork rejects politically disempowering modern and postmodern Western narratives about the socially useless (i.e., economically unproductive) and thus generally marginal role of the writer/artist (Bürger 1984); the commodification of sanctioned art as signifier of cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984); and artwork as potentially high-yielding economic investment.

In numerous ways that include the invocation and reworking of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican notions of art and art making represented in glyphs, codices, and the Mexica ("Aztec") figures of the tlacuilo (glyph-maker) and the tlamatini (sage, decoder of the glyphs), these artists are "spirit tongues" of a metadiscourse of art whose social role is more broadly conceived and engaged than that of much presently celebrated contemporary art in hegemonic Euroamerican and Euro-dominated cultures. The writers and artists studied in the pages that follow structure their work like the painter-scribes of Mesoamerica, particularly those of the immediate aftermath of the Spanish invasion, in that the glyphs they trace, like those painted by the Nahua tlacuilo, are signs that always point beyond the sign system itself to things that cannot be fully figured. Chicana work inscribing culturally different and politically challenging views of art and spirituality points beyond Euro-dominated languages and worldviews to the necessity of a more complex hermeneutics, one that is cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, and beyond racist, sexist, and heterosexist myopias.

What is particularly relevant and unique to the "spirit glyphs" of Chicana artists citing or constructing culturally hybrid spiritualities in their work is their mapping of pathways beyond the alienation and disempowerment of the nepantlism of today's cultural and geographical deterritorializations. Indeed, they map pathways back, not to some mythical Eden, sign of a hierarchical, jealous, punitive, and male God, but to an essential sense of personal wholeness, communal interdependence, and purpose in the social, global, and cosmic web. The conscious identification with the culturally "different" spiritual beliefs and practices of socially marginalized and politically disempowered peoples enacted in some Chicana art is hardly nostalgic or reproductive of racialist essentialisms, as some fear. It is part of a broader attempt to interrupt unbridled capitalist and imperialist visions of reality that benefit crucially from our exile from the field of spiritual discourse.

'Membering the Spirit

The politics of the spiritual for many Chicana/os is linked to a politics of memory. This tactic of remembering has been understood in the work of the women in this study not as a politically paralyzing nostalgia for the irretrievable past but as a reimagining and, thus, as a reformulating of beliefs and practices. It is perhaps more precisely a politics of the will to remember: to maintain in one's consciousness, to recall, and to (re)integrate a spiritual worldview about the interconnectedness of life, even if it is fragmented, circulating, as its pieces have, through colonial and neocolonial relations. Amalia Mesa-Bains, an artist, art critic, and scholar, perhaps best known for her altar-installations, considers that

It is through memory that we construct the bridge between the past and the present, the old and the new. The spiritual memory reflected in the works of contemporary Latino artists is a memory of absence constructed from losses endured in the destructive project of colonialism and its aftermath. This redemptive memory claims a broken reality that is made whole in the retelling. In this context, contemporary art is more than a mirror of history and belief, it is a construction of ideology. Art becomes social imagination through which essential worldviews and identities are constructed, reproduced, and even redefined. Memory becomes the instrument of redefinition in a politicizing spirituality. (1993c, 9)

The hybrid spiritualities evident in the work of some Chicana artists, paradoxically, are themselves appropriations. And while the traditional or contemporary practices of American Indian, broader U.S. Latina/o, Latin American, and African diaspora cultures from which they draw are also politically oppositional to (neo)colonizing cultural and religious systems, they may not have been received directly or fully through their own families' cultures. And bearing in mind nonetheless that some of these traditions have not been altogether interrupted in the memory or practices of Chicana/o culture itself, such cross-cultural borrowing and refashioning is the effect of a kind of a "minority"/third-world, post-nationalist environment from which kindred forms are recycled from (neo)colonization's "waste" to give expression to what is perceived at heart to be a common pre-Christian worldview: the spiritual nature of all being, and thus its unity. Such a view is ultimately at odds with European imperialism in the Americas and elsewhere in the "third" world, and now with the reigning transnational practice of extreme exploitation of the planet and of an unskilled labor force that is disproportionately female and "of color."

For Gloria Anzaldúa, in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, a "new mestiza" spirituality is inclusive and affirming of her multiple positionings as a feminist Chicana lesbian writer. The spiritual worldview, like the aesthetic of her book, "seems an assemblage, a montage, a beaded work with several leitmotifs and with a central core, now appearing, now disappearing in a crazy dance" (1987, 66) of diverse American Indian, African, and African diaspora beliefs and practices, recoded patriarchal Christian and Aztec symbols and translations of archetypal psychology (expressed in her formulation of "the Coatlicue state"). Similarly, in the face of traditional, patriarchal Catholicism, Ana Castillo speaks of the right to craft spiritual practices from any traditions that make us "feel better, that is, stronger willed and self-confident" (1994, 147), including elements from that same belief system. In his essay in Ceremony of Memory: New Expressions in Spirituality among Contemporary Hispanic Artists, Tomás Ybarra-Frausto observes:

Creative reorganization of traditional religious systems from Indigenous and African religions continues in a dynamic process throughout the Spanish-speaking world. Within the United States, artists accentuating spiritual domains re-examine, reinterpret and redefine ancestral religious forms with multiple impulses; as counterparts to sociopolitical commentary, as symbolic and iconographic systems united to autobiographical exploration or as primal icons that illuminate and foreground social conditions. Contemporary artists reworking spiritual canons augment their power and beauty. Newforms of spirituality reverberate with the presence and potency of an ancient living ethos expanded with modern signification. (1988, 12)

Whether remembered through surviving traditional practices, or reimagined and fused together from chosen traditions, the invocation of the spiritual in the work of Chicana artists studied here is politically significant, socially transformative, and psychically healing. We are pushed by such work beyond the increasingly familiar, if still relevant, observations about the survival, resistance, and opposition of the socially abject other. For what also calls for reckoning in the work of these and other Chicana tlamatinime, as many of them are redefining this word, is the relevance of the spiritual, whether understood as the sacred and interconnected nature of self and world, or conversely as the beliefs and practices of politically oppressive religious institutions. In such work, the reality of a socially and materially embodied s/Spirit is consciously re-membered, which we are called to witness and act upon, alongside other historically specific and related issues of "race," gender, sexuality, and class.

(Continues...)

Excerpted from "Chicana Art: The Politics of Spiritual and Aesthetic Altarities (Objects/Histories)" by Laura E. Pérez. Copyright © 0 by Laura E. Pérez. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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