Judy Baca still remembers the day in the 1970s when the curator of an exhibit featuring the work of emerging Los Angeles artists told him she couldn’t include Baca in the exhibit. “They’re just people touched by an angel,” Baca recalls saying of the group of all-male performers she selected. The message was clear: Baca was not worthy of a museum.
Fifty years later, Baca is an internationally acclaimed artist, whose large-scale public works of art have left an unparalleled mark on the Los Angeles art landscape. And the Chicana muralist, scholar, and activist is now receiving long-awaited mainstream recognition. The Museum of Latin American Art (Molaa) in Long Beach, California is holding the first major retrospective of his work, and a major exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca) in Los Angeles is scheduled for September.
“I never expected to be part of the 1% who would live off my art,” Baca, 75, said in a recent interview. “This is the first time in my career that people have been looking to buy my work, to own pieces from the Judy Baca collection.”
For years, Baca said, the white, male-dominated art industry didn’t care about her. “My work has been ignored a lot in Los Angeles…and the men here have been quite profoundly unable to see women as their peers. This has been my lifelong struggle as a Chicana, activist and feminist. This created an indifferent attitude for me. I just had to see what I was doing as important to me and my community and move forward with will and conviction, supported by the people in the community I was working with – not the arts.
Baca was born in Watts, an LA neighborhood known for the 1965 uprisings, and grew up in Pacoima, near the LA River. His grandparents came from Mexico to La Junta, Colorado during the Mexican Revolution, a story told in his Denver airport mural, La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra, and at the entrance to his Molaa retrospective..
“This was the first mass migration of Mexicans to the United States…even though in some ways we didn’t cross the border, the border did cross us,” she said.
While her mother worked in a factory in her early childhood, her grandmother raised her and had a huge influence on her creativity: “My grandmother had a special relationship with the spirit world. She would start my day by saying, “What did you dream of? … I realized there was more to experience than just what was visible, tangible.
Her grandmother’s indigenous identity also shaped her: “People couldn’t take ownership of their indigeneity, because it wasn’t seen as attractive or good. But my grandmother was native and she looked like Apache. Baca’s grandmother practiced a kind of “curanderismo”, that is, people came to see her for advice and healing.
Baca’s mother feared she was not making a living as an artist and encouraged her to pursue a degree in education – a path that led her to muralism.
Baca created her first mural while working in a Catholic high school, to channel students’ interest in graffiti. (She was later expelled from school after marching against the Vietnam War.)
In 1974, she started the City of LA’s first mural program, which produced over 400 murals and shortly thereafter co-founded the Social and Public Art Resource Center (Sparc), a community organization of public art, housed in a former prison.
Baca began building the Great Wall of Los Angeles in 1976 along the Tujunga Washhouse in the San Fernando Valley with the idea of painting a “tattoo on the scar where the river once flowed.” Originally named The History of California, the mural is one of the longest in the world and depicts forgotten histories of people of color in California.
For five years, she worked with hundreds of young people – some of whom were diverted from the criminal justice system – to paint a visual history of stories that disappeared with the river, from prehistoric times to the 1950s.
Accounts of the 2,754-foot mural include a little-known massacre of Chinese in Los Angeles in 1871; the mass deportations of Mexican Americans in the 1930s; and a portrait of Luisa Moreno, a farm worker organizer in the 1940s.
“What I learned from the young people who participated was that it forever changed the way they saw themselves,” Baca said. “We were in segregated communities… but they were all kind of ‘outcasts’, seen as young people who will never make it. But this mixture with each other, which lasted a lifetime, was a remarkable change.
In 1980, Baca became a professor of studio art at the University of California, the only Chicana with a tenured position in visual arts and one of the few senior Chicana professors in the public university system.
The Molaa exhibition includes more than 110 works by Baca, highlighting the history of the Great Wall and featuring ancient paintings, sculptures and drawings. There are portraits of her dressed as a “pachuca” in the 1970s for Los Angeles’ first all-Chicana show; his striking Josefina: Ofrenda in the Domestic Worker print; a vendor cart painted with stories of the criminalization of undocumented migrants; and study the drawings of the world wall, his mural that has traveled around the world.
Gabriela Urtiaga, Molaa’s chief curator, said in an email that Baca “always has [been] and continues to be a central figure in search of new alternatives to speak of silent voices and the figure of women as an essential part of her creative work”, adding: “Judy rethinks a collective memory and identity as a fundamental link in building women’s power – Chicana, Latina, women of color.
Some of the most compelling exhibits capture the obstacles she overcame. On a draft drawing of a mural commissioned for the University of Southern California in the 1990s, she wrote criticisms of trustees who tried to censor the painting, which depicted conflict, violence and the movements of resistance involving Latinos in Los Angeles: “Judy, we believe that this mural is not comprehensible to an English-speaking audience and is too negative. The history you represent is depressing.
“I don’t make history, I just paint about it,” she replied of the mural project.
The exhibit also chronicles the reaction to Danzas Indigenas, a monument she created in 1994 at a Los Angeles train station, intended to honor the region’s indigenous history. In 2005, an anti-immigrant group, Save Our State, protested the monument; the images on display closely resemble the white supremacist rallies of recent years and the growing pressure to erase the teachings of racism in America.
“I hope the show reminds people that we face the same thing over and over again, and if we don’t fix it, we have to keep reliving it,” Baca said, adding that seeing decades of his work organized in a museum format has been validated.
“I always thought that I would do a work and it would pass into the ether, never to be seen again or talked about again,” she said. “But I realized that when I did, I was dealing with my hands and with my art. I was finding a way to live with the truth that was hard and difficult. It was a way to keep myself sane and to keep myself in the process of healing and healing those around me…and I learned that my instincts were right.
Why does she believe she is finally getting proper recognition?
“Maybe they think I’m going to die,” she laughed, adding that recent social justice uprisings have forced the arts to come to terms. For so long, she said, “It was the gatekeepers and the remarkable failure to deal with the Latino community in a real way. I think it’s a lot about references and metaphors that define a people as “outsiders”.
Last year, the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art acquired the Great Wall-related archive, and the Andrew W Mellon Foundation awarded Sparc $5 million to expand the wall to include stories from the 1960s to 2020. The 1960s section will feature a “generation on fire” fighting Jim Crow and Alabama firefighters hosing down protesters. The 1970s will begin with the occupation of Alcatraz, with a quote from Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud: ” They made a lot of promises to us…but they only kept one, they promised to take our land, and they did.
While Baca is optimistic about her future plans, she is discouraged by the state of the art form: “Muralism as a whole has been diminished in Los Angeles. It’s completely commercial. The only things that can be done are those paid for by the companies that want to decorate the buildings.
She lamented that the city doesn’t have the kind of public program it started in the 1970s, noting how the murals can shape our understanding of history and “create sites of public memory” when they are made with communities: “Murals can do amazing work in the world. , because they live in the places where people live and work, because they can be made in relation to the people who see them, because the people themselves can have their say, if it is done in a profound way. And that’s what I intend to continue to do as long as I’m here on earth.