Sunday, April 24, 2022

Social Commentary by Judith F. Baca

An exhibition called “Poetic Justice” currently at the New Mexico Museum of Art and runs through June 19, presents three artists who deal with social issues in very different ways, a Native American Artist Juane Quick-To See-Smith, African American Mildred Howard and Chicana Judith F. Baca. Merry Scully, chief curator at the New Mexico Museum of Art has hung the works of each artist separately as an exhibition within an exhibition. I was so intrigued by Baca’s work that I thought would write about it this week.

Baca was born and grew up in Los Angeles to Mexican-American parents, hence she can be termed a Chicana. She trained in Cuernavaca, Mexico at the Taller Siqueiros with the students of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, the greats of Mexican mural painting.

Los Angeles like many towns and cities was founded on a river. It started out more like a creek and ebbed and flowed with the seasons but sometimes flooded so that entrances to houses were left 5 feet off the ground. Eventually, they controlled the river in the San Fernando Valley by building a cement channel with walls over 13 feet high that contained the flooding.

In 1974 the Army Corps of Engineers contacted Judith Baca about the possibility of painting a mural there depicting the history of Los Angeles. The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), founded by Baca and others, raised funds for supplies and some recompense for the artists from various government agencies as well as the private sector. It included funds from the governmental juvenile justice funding sources where some of the artists came from.


The team of 80 youths and ten artists that Baca began with in 1976 grew over the years to 400+ collaborators. The mural, extended by 350 feet a year, grew to 2,754 feet. Since 2011 the required restoration from the weather and the river has been carried out. The project, now known as the Great Wall of Los Angeles, will continue to bring the history up to the present day for a total of one mile in length. Here is a digital image of a section of the great wall that is in the exhibition. You can imagine the size from the 3-seater bench in front. This segment represents “Division of the Barrios and Chavez Ravine” symbolizing how highways and even Dodger Stadium divided families and friends.


A digital image of the 1940’s section of the wall represents the 442nd Infantry Regiment of the United States Army that fought in World War II. It is known as the most decorated regiment in U.S. military history and was composed almost entirely of second-generation Japanese American soldiers. At the same time as so many Japanese were interned in California and other states as enemy aliens!


One image has personal significance to me in that I remember, as a little boy, my parents and grandmother transfixed in front of our small television screen watching the McCarthy Hearings. Here is a lithograph from the exhibition replicated in the 1950’s section of the wall called “Red Scare and McCarthyism”.


Further social commentary by Baca can be seen in a sculpture made with acrylic paint, mixed media, Urethane on Styrofoam forms (2006) titled “Primero de Mayo, ‘Big Pancho” and the other “Winged Pancho’” The sleeping figures with sombreros represent a conventional, but derogatory image of Mexicans, the kind sold at the border in the form of souvenirs like salt and pepper shakers. To counter that, Baca has applied to one of the figures images of proud workers in the international workers day parade.


An object we can all relate to is Baca’s ice cream cart, “Paletas de la Frontera” (2021) created with funds from the New Mexico Museum of Art. In my photo you see on the front a young girl enjoying her ice cream: while on the sides are images of families gathered on either side of the border fence and good Samaritans handing bags of food to young people who have climbed atop a freight train which provided dangerous transport from the south to the U.S. border.


Judith F. Baca creates social commentary that everyone can understand.