Back in February, I sat down (virtually) with my close family friend and talented Chicana artist, Elizabeth Perez, to talk about her work. In our interview, we discussed the reimagining of LA’s urban landscape, particularly on the Eastside of LA, with Chicano artists using large murals and public installations as counter-narratives to the discourse and perceptions surrounding their communities.
While art fortified the cultural identities of many Chicanos, it refused to depict women in their unique complexities, therefore stripping them of their power.
One Chicana artist who challenged the traditional stereotypes of womanhood through her work is Yolanda Lopez: the young, resilient raza woman wearing running shoes as she appears as the Virgen de Guadalupe in her 1978 painting Portrait of the Artist as the Virgen of Guadalupe.
An ardent feminist, artist, activist, and mother, Lopez is regarded as one of the most influential figures of the Chicano art movement. She was born in 1942 and grew up in San Diego’s historic Barrio Logan neighborhood, home to the country’s largest collection of Chicano murals, before moving to the Bay Area to live with her uncle and her boyfriend.
In 1965, she enrolled in San Francisco State College (now known as San Francisco State University) and became involved in activist groups including the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a multi-ethnic coalition of student groups that fought for accessible education for students of color. She also participated in a 5-month long strike which resulted in the establishment of the school’s first autonomous ethnic studies college and Black studies department. Translating her political passion into art, she created a poster titled, “Free Los Siete” which depicted the faces of seven Latino men who were arrested after being unjustly accused of killing a police officer.
Eager to see Yolanda’s work for ourselves, Elizabeth and I took Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner to downtown San Diego to the Museum of Contemporary Art. A three hour trip, the train ride passed through coastal cities with steep bluffs and tiny bays, depositing us a mere 800 feet from the museum doors. Housed in what was formerly the Santa Fe Depot baggage building, the exhibit features high ceilings with art thoughtfully placed to tell the story of Yolanda’s lifelong practice.
Upon entering the exhibit, I felt a looming presence nearby, one that possessed an intangible power that radiated through the room. My eyes were soon met with those of three women: Yolanda, her mother, and her grandmother, depicted in six, 4-foot by 8-foot life-sized drawings as part of Lopez’s Tres Mujeres series, where each woman is mimicking the pose of the other.
The portraits, unadorned and done in grey and black charcoal on rough butcher paper, capture the movement and anatomy of each woman, as well as their unique style and personality.
Yolanda is in work pants and a loose blouse appearing self-assured, her mother more traditional in her demeanor and clothing, and her grandmother maintaining a humble stance and a tender, almost apologetic expression.
The choice to use charcoal exposes the rough contours in each woman’s face, a testament to the strength and labor of Chicana women. Elizabeth remarked, “They are bigger than life-sized. They approach being monumental in spite of the humble materials used to create them.” Rather than drawing attention to the women through their sexual appeal or objectification, Lopez uses scale and form to highlight their power.
Our reaction to Lopez’s portraits was visceral. The women are honest and true to themselves. They don’t try to fit the mold that has been cast for them.
On another wall, her Portrait of the Artist as Virgin of Guadalupe triptych, which is done with oil pastels on paper, is presented in thick gold frames which augment the stars and rays of light emanating from each woman as well as the skin tones of the women themselves. In this series, Lopez takes the Virgen de Guadalupe, the embodiment of purity and virtue, and liberates her as a way of reconciling the seemingly contradictory realities of her religious significance and feminist conceptualization.
While the Lady of Guadalupe is traditionally marked by her passive disposition, her eyes downcast and hands fixed in prayer, Lopez’s self-portrait transforms her into a powerful, confident woman. She is running cheerfully, her robe reworked to expose her legs and Guadalupe’s starry mantle slung across her back like a cape, her foot stepping on an angel representing American capitalism with its red, white, and blue wings.
In Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe, Lopez’s mother is depicted sitting hunched over a sewing machine, stitching Guadalupe’s gold stars on her own robe. She is beautiful in a non-stereotypical way: an autonomous, working-class woman who challenges mainstream beauty standards.
Guadalupe: Victoria F. Franco, on the other hand, features her grandmother sitting on the starry mantle as she clutches a rattlesnake she has just skinned, with the knife she used in her right hand, demonstrating agency and self-reliance. Instead of rejecting the Virgen for her colonial, patriarchal roots, Lopez embraces her by maintaining many of the characteristics traditionally associated with her, while redefining her role as a woman.
Lopez’s work reimagining the Virgen de Guadalupe extends beyond her portraits of her mother and grandmother, as can be seen in her 1981 painting titled Nuestra Madre. This piece fuses elements from the Virgen de Guadalupe with the Aztec goddess Coatlicue de Coxcatlán, uniting them under the name “Our Mother.” Coatlicue is the mother goddess of the sun, the moon, and the stars, or the “Mother of Creation” and is thought to have protected indigenous people through the traumas of colonization and oppression. In this piece, Lopez reveals the Virgen de Guadalupe as Coatlicue de Coxcatlán, with the sun rays showing behind her, her body wrapped in the starry mantle, and the black crescent moon at her feet.
Sadly Yolanda passed away at the age of 78 on September 3, 2021 shortly before seeing her first solo museum show. If you have the time and means to visit this exhibition, words don’t do justice to the energy that emanates from its walls.
Please take the opportunity to see Yolanda’s work while it is still up. She was truly a gift to this world.
Here are some more photos I took from the exhibit at the museum:
Ines is studying Geography and Environmental Studies at UCLA and is a contributor for withitgirl. She enjoys surfing and writing poetry in her free time!
Portrait of the Artist exhibition will be open through April 24, 2022, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, 1100 Kettner Blvd., Downtown. Hours: 10 am to 4 pm, Thursdays through Sundays. Free admission for timed entry with reservation. Visit mcasd.org for more information.
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