Califas Legacy Project: Amalia Mesa-Bains

Geography of a homeland: displacement and cultural reclamation

By Museo Eduardo Carrillo

Photo of Amalia Mesa-Bains (2020) by Aubrie PicMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Amalia Mesa-Bains

 Artist, Scholar, MacArthur awardee, Amalia Mesa-Bains speaks with poetic knowledge about her work. Throughout her long career she has imbued her heritage into her artwork, championing the emergence of Chicana identity and spirituality. Scholar Tomas Ybarra Frausto said, “She is a wonderful example of an ‘organic intellectual,’ one who negotiates community and communal concerns with personal acts of the imagination.”

Cihuateotl (view from the front) (1997) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Cihuateotl (Mother Nature)

In the poem, “Sleeping in the Forest,” Mary Oliver wrote, “I thought the earth remembered me, she took me back so tenderly.”

Mesa-Bains said, “In my own work the landscape is referenced to reveal our histories and our conflicts. My installations for over the last two decades have addressed nature  through themes of spirituality, stewardship, and balance.

Cihuateotl (back view) (1997) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

In many of my pieces nature and landscape are metaphors for the balance of life, healing and death in family, and labor narratives.”

Private Landscapes/Public Territories (2011) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Private Landscapes/Public Territories

Deeply moved by the layering of environmental crisis, historic inequity found in social/ cultural contexts Mesa-Bains’ art responds by grappling with how we can use art in service of our beautiful planet Earth.

Botanical Prints with Book (2011) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Botanical Prints with Book

The practice of Curandurismo or healing through natural means and ancestral methods is explored her Botanical series.

With reverence for the life of the mid 1600s Mexican nun, Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz, Mesa-Bains underpins her work with tribute to the lives of Mexican women. 


Sor Juana’s room in the monastery was filled with evidence of her erudition: maps, books, mathematical and scientific instruments, gems, art objects and her own writing. 

Curandera's Botanical (2011) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Curandera's Botanical

First in her family to attend college Dr. Mesa-Bains incorporated themes of cultural reclamation, feminism and ecological urgency through utilizing the traditional formats of altars and ofrendas found in her family home.

In 1983 Mesa-Bains was credited with developing a new art format – the altar installation. For this she was recognized with the MacArthur Prize.

Amalia Mesa-Bains: Dia de los Muertos and altars (2020) by Museo Eduardo CarrilloMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

New World Wunderkammer (main installation piece) (2013) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

New World Wunderkammer

Given unlimited access to use the holdings in the Fowler Museum collection at UCLA, Mesa-Bains created the New World Wunderkammer and a series of 8 digitized prints.

In the specially built cabinet are objects representing Africa, the indigenous Americas and the Colonial mestizaje (racial mixture).

The Wunderkammer Collection: Nuestros Antepasados (Our Ancestors) (2013) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

The Wunderkammer Collection

The series of prints based on the objects from the Fowler, reflects a fusion of botanicals, maps, and photographic references to the historical objects and images. Drawing from her own heritage’s blending of cultures, of la tercera raiz or the third root,  she was able to bring images together to explore her own actual history and that of many others. 

The Wunderkammer Collection: Battle of the Gods for Tenochtitlan (2013) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Battle of the Gods for Tenochtitlan

Against the framework metizaje—the blending of the races which occurred when the Spanish colonial invasion caused catastrophe loss of life among the indigenous people, followed by importation of enslaved Africans to the Americas—Mesa-Bains finds a reflection of her familial blended roots and within her own marriage to an African-American man.

The Wunderkammer Collection: Journey to Mictlan (2013) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Journey to Mictlan

In the Aztec world view the post life journey lasts four years, overcoming nine obstacles in return for eternal life. The Journey to Mictlan starts with crossing a great river, in a place of total darkness illuminated only by the guidance of a vermillion or whie colored dog which is the only light.

The Wunderkammer Collection: Map of Loss (2013) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Map of Loss

For Mesa-Bains the quincentennial in 1992 marked the beginning of the age of invasion.  Using the Fowler objects she has re-contextualized their meaning , confronting the themes of memory, struggle, loss, and ultimately wonder. 

The Wunderkammer Collection: Bill’s Haida Memory (2013) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Bill's Haida Memory

Narrative sculptures conveys core beliefs, philosophy and history in the Haida. Mesa-Bains examines her own and others sense of origin and belonging to this place and geography.

The Wunderkammer Collection: Women’s Ceremony of Passage, (2013) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Women's Ceremony of Passage

The Africans stolen from their homelands and forced into labor in the Americas had long developed systems for all facets of life transitions. Here Mesa-Bains shows us the attire worn during ceremonies of rites of passage along with a stylized painting of an African American woman from the 1800s.

The Wunderkammer Collection: Power, Authority and Truth (2013) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Power, Authority and Truth

Pounding metal nails and spikes into the wooden figures is a representation of power and potential. The adding of shells and color amplifies the strength of the central piece. Behind him stands the ancestors and a map giving a sense of historic and geographical progression.

The Wunderkammer Collection: Women’s Yoruba World of the Divine (2013) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Women's Yoruba World of the Divine

Ceramics that reflect a deeply embedded experience of the spiritual world view is depicted against a map of a place of origins.

Amalia Mesa-Bains: Geography and identity (2020) by Museo Eduardo CarrilloMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

The phrase cultural reclamation is very important to Mesa-Bains as someone whose cultural has historically been made less than, and as a cultural philosopher and academic as well as artist she has seen a huge shift in Chicano/a Latinx communities to reclaim their cultures. She lives on a promontory in the rolling hills of central California, which is named after an Anglo military figure, as it if was non- existent before. That is why the geography, mapping and reclamation is so important. The land was not vacant.

Yaqui Map (2018) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Yaqui Map

Burned into the maps of their ancestral regions are images of the Yaqui peoples.


Mesa-Bains wrote, “To understand the art work that is inspired by sacred sources it is important to establish the concept of memory...


... The relationship of memory to history is the connection between the past and the present, the old and the new.”

Tohono O Odham Map (2018) by Amalia Mesa-BainsMuseo Eduardo Carrillo

Tohono O Odham Map

In overlaying maps of the land with historic images of the people who lived there, Mesa-Bains has said, "Memory can be seen as a political strategy in work that reclaims history for the community...

...In a sense the art making inspired by the remembrances of the dead, the acts of healing and the reflections of the sacred can be seen as a politicizing spirituality.” 

Credits: Story

The Califas Legacy Project grew out of the recognition that our region represents an opportunity to fill in a missing piece of American art history. The Project features the art and ideas of our region’s Chicano/a/x and Latinx creative leaders, our elders in the movement and the next generation artists across the Monterey Bay Crescent.

Visit our website for more information about the Califas Legacy Project and full schedule of events.


The Califas Legacy Project is supported by the Arts Council of Santa Cruz County. The nine organizations participating in the Project are:


Museo Eduardo Carrillo
Monterey Museum of Art
Moving Parts Press
Santa Cruz Art League
Santa Cruz Public Libraries
Watsonville Public Library
UCSC Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery
UCSC Institute of Arts and Sciences
UCSC Library Special Collections & Archives


Story content designed by Vicki Winters of V-Link Studio.
Videos by Wallace Boss.Translation provided by Irene Rodriguez.
All photographs courtesy of the artist and the Fowler Museum

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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