|ART | spring 2008
Barbara Carrasco powerfully mixes art with race, class, and gender politics
By Sybil Venegas
LIKE MANY CHICANA ARTISTS, WRITERS AND INTELLECTUALS, LOS
Angeles-based Barbara Carrasco is an innate, if not renegade, feminist. In
the tradition of the Mexican feminist intellectual Sor Juana Inés de la
Cruz—the 17th-century writer and poet who dared to challenge the
authority of the Catholic Church—Carrasco critiques race, class, gender
and sexuality in the face of blatant cultural contradictions.
Recently the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Vincent Price
Art Museum at East Los Angeles College, the 52-year-old Carrasco is a
painter who has produced large-scale public murals and monumental banners
for the United FarmWorkers, yet is equally recognized for her diminutive
ballpoint pen-and-ink drawings. True to her generation of artists, she
visually navigates the struggles for social justice that informed her era, as
well as the complexities of identity politics that dominated the political
landscape of the late-20th century.
|In “MILK THE PASS,” 1990 (left), and
“NAMES CAN HURT, ” 1991 (right),
Carrasco deals with her experience of being
a lighter-skinned Chicana.
Like many artists of color in the United States, Carrasco has dealt forcefully
with skin color and oppression, most specifically the impact of color hierarchies
in the Chicana/o community. Growing up in Mar Vista Gardens—
a predominantly Mexican American and African American public-housing
community in Los Angeles—she was called “white girl,” “green eyes” and
güera (light-skinned), hurtful names that challenged her identity as a Mexican
American. Yet she was also told by both Anglos and light-skinned Latinos to
take advantage of being light-skinned, and witnessed the discrimination experienced
by her much darker-skinned sister.
A BALL OF YARN,” 1978,
captures the sense of entrapment
for a young, unwed mother.
In her autobiographical 1990 painting “Milk the Pass," Carrasco
depicts a milky-white girl stuck in a bottle of milk, with heat coming from
her mouth. The bottled-up girl has probably just bitten into the hot pepper
seen in the lower left corner of the painting—a reference to the pronouncements
of Carrasco’s grandfather, who claimed that if she could eat a jalapeño
she was a real Mexican. To prove her detractors wrong, she regularly consumed
the peppers, which compelled her to drink lots of milk to calm the
fire in her stomach.
Similarly, in the 1991 self-portrait “Names Can Hurt," Carrasco
again draws on her experience of being lighter-skinned. As she applies a
darker shade of makeup to her face, she is framed by ethnic labels referring
to the skin-color hierarchy in the Chicana/o community.
Carrasco also produced a number of respuestas (replies) to the double standards
found in her religion, family and community. In her 1978 lithograph
“Pregnant Woman in a Ball of Yarn” (see page 67), she tackles the issue of
unwanted pregnancy and the inevitable invisibility, entrapment and social
isolation of young unwed mothers. One of her most renowned and haunting images, it captures the economic immobilization experienced by young,
poor women of color who find themselves pregnant with no, or very little,
emotional support. At the same time, it flies in the face of the sanctification
of motherhood by Mexican and Chicana/o culture.
|“DOLORES,” 1999 , has become the iconic representation
of legendary farmworkers’ organizer Dolores Huerta. Carrasco’s work will soon
adorn a new Girl Scout patch that will be earned by doing a project about Huerta.
While concerned with the plight of oppressed women, Carrasco has
also celebrated strong women, women who have changed the world, role
models. Her 1999 homage to her friend, labor organizer and humanrights
activist Dolores Huerta , has become an iconic representation
of perhaps the most important Chicana activist of our time.
“I did a beautiful job on ‘Dolores’ because I love her and I’ve never
met anyone like her,” says Carrasco, speaking of this work as one of her
most important to date. “There are so many icons of men, and icons of
women painted by men, that I wanted [as a woman] to create an iconic
image of Dolores to recognize her as an equal of Cesar Chavez and, historically,
the most important negotiator for the United Farm Workers.”
Carrasco mindfully selected the colors of the serigraph: yellow ocher
for Dolores’ face to represent sunshine, the essence of her energy; a
rose-colored blouse to symbolize her femininity and gentleness, combined
with her unwavering support of women. And, finally, to recognize Dolores’ lifelong commitment to farmworkers, Carrasco selected
a background of mint green to illustrate growing
plants, agriculture and life itself.
"A BRUSH WITH LIFE"(left), 2007. Carrasco depicts her 13-year-old daughter, Barbie, who she says is already artistic, and a feminist.
“SELF-PORTRAIT ” (right), 2007. This recent work
was created for a show dealing with women’s
sensuality. Carrasco stopped making art for a time
after the birth of her child at age 39 and her battle
with cancer; in this work she shows herself looking
somewhat younger than her age, and free of the
scars caused by several surgeries. “Even though I
felt for a long time that I lost my sensuality,” says
Carrasco, “I feel like I’m slowly regaining it. Maybe I
was going back in time, taking out the wrinkles and
the scars, but I still see a lot of pain in the eyes.”
The mid-1990s were transformative years for Carrasco:
marriage to fellow artist Harry Gamboa Jr., the birth of a
daughter in 1994 and then a harrowing bout with lymphoma.
Diagnosed with the disease in 1995, she underwent
a painful bone marrow transplant the next year. Her recovery
turned into a miraculous brush with life rather than death.
|“FRIDA TU Y YO,” 1991. In the 1970s, Chicana artists began to identify with Mexican artist Frida Kahlo as role model and inspiration,
preceding Kahlo’s international mass appeal of 20 years later. Carrasco’s triptych documents this intimate relationship between Chicana
artists and Kahlo: She reproduces Kahlo’s self-portrait from her painting “The Broken Column” on the left, adding her own self-portrait on
the right (“With a bra!” says Carrasco). The middle represents the viewer or another young woman, waiting for her braid to be cut.
Carrasco has been fearless in her visual discourse on cultural
and gender identity, activism, spirituality, religion and
the female body. We can rest assured that her future work
will continue to prod and entertain us with its thoughtful, articulate
mix of aesthetics and politics.
Barbara Carrasco’s work is represented by Patricia Correia
Gallery in Santa Monica, Calif., www.correiagallery.com.
|“SELF-PORTRAIT IN COFFIN FORM,” 1984. Only 5 and a
half inches high but seeming monumental in reproduction, Carrasco
represents herself in the coffin, paintbrush in one hand and United Farm
Worker flag in another. “I wanted to be remembered as someone who
contributed to the cause of the farmworkers,” says Carrasco, who
worked with them for 15 years.
SYBIL VENEGAS is a professor of Chicana/o studies at East Los
Angeles College and co-curator of the exhibit “Barbara Carrasco:
A Brush With Life.”
Images courtesy of the artist except -- Milk the Pass: Dr. Cheryl Mendoza; Names Can Hurt: Laguna Art Museum; Frida Tu Y Yo: Judy & Stuart Spence; Frida's Eyes: Patricia Correia Gallery; Self Portrait in Coffin Form: Mary & Armando Duron.