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Spiritual Grounding of the Displaced


For people from cultures in which spirituality is inextricably linked to nature, the damage can be profound when a believer is wrenched from his or her motherland. Memory may be the only path toward healing.

"In the act of remembering, you claim what you have lost," says Amalia Mesa-Bains, curator of an exhibition exploring these issues through works by Latinos whose cultures repeatedly have been severed from their homelands.

"Ceremony of Spirit: Nature and Memory in Contemporary Latino Art," opening Saturday at the Fullerton Museum Center, is a multimedia show featuring 16 artists, all living in the United States, who were born in Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Puerto Rico or the American Southwest.

"Even after years of displacements--which have occurred through war, devastation, migration or colonization--people whose cultural basis has been tied to a certain geography have maintained their spirituality," Mesa-Bains says. "Their spirituality is thus tied to a resistance against cultural domination. The issue of land and spirituality has formed a new aesthetic among Latino artists in the U.S."

Sculpture, installation and paintings in "Ceremony of Spirit" allude to such ancient and modern displacements as the Spanish conquest of the New World, colonization of Puerto Rico and Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet's violent rule, which resulted in the flight or death of thousands.

Imagery includes depictions of the beloved Virgin of Guadalupe, to whom the displaced have prayed for centuries, a green, cactus-like maguey plant that prevails in harsh surroundings with scant sustenance, and lands left behind by immigrants.

Each work explores the idea of reconstructing the past through memory, as Mesa-Bains writes in the exhibit catalog:

"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."

"Many of us from groups that have had histories of domination in the Americas haven't really had the traditional educational access to history," Mesa-Bains said in a recent phone interview from her Monterey, Calif., home. "We have the history of the victor, never the vanquished."

Photographs of an arid, barren Chilean landscape-cum-graveyard are provided by Chilean-born artist Ishmael Frigerio in an installation from his "Nature Our Neverending Witness" series (1993).

The bodies of miners murdered in a turn-of-the-century land battle and those who were murdered by Pinochet's government were found at the site, said Mesa-Bains, a MacArthur fellow, artist and art-theory instructor at Cal State Fullerton, Monterey Bay.

"Pilgrims discovered the mummified bodies and make animitas or roadside shrines" in their memory, she said. "But the piece isn't about the bodies or people. It's about the site itself, so the images Frigerio has framed in small wooden crosses are not of the dead, but of the land that will always remember the dead."

A homage to women who have lost loved ones through civil war or other unrest throughout the Americas is offered by Ester Hernandez in "Tejido de los Desaparecidos" ("Weaving of the Disappeared"). Her 1993 installation, which critiques "the death and devastation of native life," borrows patterns from a rebozo--an Indian shawl--representing helicopters and skeletons, symbols of war and death, Mesa-Bains said.

"It takes a very intimate, domestic garment and transforms it into a text of history" that is often repressed, she said. As a public-school teacher in New Mexico in the early 1980s--when traumatized children of immigrants fleeing death squads and civil war in El Salvador were flooding classrooms there--Mesa-Bains couldn't talk openly about the situation. Discussion of the U.S. government's then-unpublicized backing of the El Salvador government was "too political," she said.

"So sometimes it's the artist who, through a language of allegory, can talk about the circumstances of others who are not as able to" communicate freely, she said.

Puerto Rican artist Pepon Osorio conveys the struggles, also sometimes fatal, of immigration. Osorio's 1990 installation, "A Mis Adorables Hijas" ("To My Adorable Daughters"), tells the story of an elderly Puerto Rican immigrant living in New York City who kills herself, overcome by the pain of disillusionment, alienation, poverty and racism.


The piece, inspired by a newspaper account, is composed of a lush velvet couch modeled after the one to which the woman was said to have pinned her suicide note.

"It stands as a statement about the struggle of many people," Mesa-Bains said, "who come into a new country imagining that life will be better but find out soon enough that the struggle is really the same, and perhaps worse because they don't have the familiar signposts of life back home. Every immigrant family has someone in that family who didn't survive [relocation], who got lost in alcoholism or violence or desperation."

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