Sunday, March 15, 2015

Finding Nepantla in _Ofrenda: Liliana Wilson's Art of Dissidence and Dreams_

"My images come from the subconscious. Many of the figures I create appear in 'other-world' environments: their outward composure in direct contrast to their inner turmoil," writes artivist, Liliana Wilson on her website. With the publication of Ofrenda: Liliana Wilson's Art of Dissidence and Dreams, we are offered Liliana's paintings, drawings, silkscreens, along with essays by various scholars and friends who focus on the many aspects of her work. The book also includes song lyrics by well-known singer, songwriter, and composer, Lourdes Pérez that describe the intertwining of pain and joy in Liliana's art, (example of one line:  "They say that/With only one brushstroke/You drew yourself an exit"). As well, an essay by Gloria Anzaldúa, (author of Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza), describes Liliana's paintings through the lens of nepantla: "In her most successful paintings, the conscious aspects never overwhelm the unconscious elements, but are held in nepantla, the midway point between the conscious and the unconscious, the place where transformations are enacted" (essay originally published in this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation).  

Born in Valparaíso, Chile, Liliana Wilson began drawing at a young age. She didn't go to art school right away.  Instead, she attended law school in Chile. Her studies were interrupted in 1973 when military leaders took over the democratically elected Allende government and thus began the 17-year Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. As a result, Liliana never received her law degree. In 1977, she left the country, arriving in the U.S. and settling in Texas. Liliana never returned to Chile.  In Texas, she turned to her art, depicting her memories of Chile (historical and personal), the immigrant experience, her observations of the human experience. Her work has been exhibited in museums and galleries throughout the U.S.

Dr. Norma Cantú, author of Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera and professor in the Department of English and Latina/Latino Studies at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, is the editor of Ofrenda: Liliana Wilson's Art of Dissidence and Dreams.  In an interview with The Kansas City Star, Cantú says, "I like to promote others, to put the flashlight on people who have been in the dark.  Like all good art, Wilson's work touches viewers subliminally.  Her work is subtle, pleasing to the eye, but it still can change the way one sees the world."  Today, Dr. Cantú gives us a "back-stage" glimpse into the making of this impressive book.  

Amelia Montes:  Tell us how about this book was conceived.

Norma Cantú:  When I first met Liliana through our mutual friend, Gloria Anzaldúa, I was impressed by her artwork, but I had no idea that almost 30 years later, we would discuss putting together a book of essays on her work.  But that’s how it happened.  After Gloria died, we saw each other several times and the subject kept coming up.  I first submitted it to Palgrave but they couldn’t include color images and so we pulled it and submitted it to Texas A&M. 

Amelia Montes:  The title of this book is “Ofrenda” and the title of your introduction is “Finding Nepantla.”  How do both titles complement each other? 

Norma Cantú:  In the introduction, I speak of how the book is an offering, an ofrenda, with its other meaning too, an altar.  I also speak about the in-between state, Nepantla, where we exist as mestizos, as immigrants, as mujeres and lesbians in the United States.  These two concepts complement each other and are emblematic of the work itself. The  art and the essays work in tandem to render a view of Liliana, the person, Liliana the activist, and Liliana the artist. 

Liliana Wilson (left); Dr. Norma Cantú (right)
Amelia Montes:  In your introduction to the book, you describe Liliana as an “Artivist.”  What do you mean by “Artivist” and how does Liliana fit the description? 

Norma Cantú:  The blend of Artist and Activist is not my coinage.  It has been around for a while to describe art with conciencia—with a social justice aim.  In many ways, Liliana’s activist work in the community, with her teaching and her prints, is an outgrowth of her art.  So it seems a very fitting term for who Liliana is as a committed artist and advocate for change. 

Amelia Montes:  When did you first become acquainted with Liliana’s work? 

Norma Cantú:  As I mentioned earlier, I met Liliana through Gloria Anzaldúa sometime in the 1980s, but it was in the 1990’s, and more specifically, after the Third Woman Press edition of This Bridge Called My Back that I became more interested in her work, attending her exhibitions, and talking to her about the conceptual background to the paintings.  After I moved to San Antonio in 2000, I saw her more frequently either at the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center events or in Austin.

Amelia Montes:  How would you describe Liliana Wilson’s impact on Chicana and U.S. Latina art? 

Norma Cantú:  Her impact is tremendous in terms of influence.  First, the influence of Chicana and Chicano art on her is tremendous as she will tell you.  She studied art at Austin Community College and became friends and hung out with the artivists in that community.  Her association with Las Manitas and MexicArte, both Austin institutions that promoted and promote art and artists, had a profound impact on her.  Then, through her teaching and her example, she has had an impact on younger artists.  Art is at the center of her life as an activist in Texas and, I would say, she thus impacts the artists just as they impact her—both working from a social justice perspective and with aims of educating and in some ways politicizing audiences through the work. 

"Muerte en La Frontera" by Liliana Wilson (Color pencil on paper)
Amelia Montes:  Tell us about Liliana’s connection with Gloria Anzaldúa.

Norma Cantú:  Well, for me, the connection was critical as I met Liliana through Gloria.  Perhaps the greatest connection was forged during their work together in the Nepantla workshops where they and two other Chicana artists came together to explore and create art around the concept of borders and Nepantlism.  I know that when Liliana moved to California, their friendship deepened, and that often Liliana would visit her and stay for extended periods, and it was very fruitful for both of them.  Moreover, if you notice, many of the essays reference Liliana’s connection to Anzaldúa’s ideas and concepts.  I see that there is a deep connection at that level of how they see the world, how they analyze their role in the world, if you will—the level of the conceptual and intellectual engagement with the world.  In Anzaldúa’s case, it is manifested, obviously, in her writings.  In Liliana’s, it is in the artwork. 

Amelia Montes:  Tell us about the essay contributors to the book.  How did you go about choosing them to write for Ofrenda.  What do you feel they bring to the text?

Norma Cantú:  When Liliana and I first met to discuss the project, we drafted a rough Table of Contents:  mostly what we wanted to see, including Anzaldúa’s essay. We then added contributors based on the rough skeleton of the book.  We knew we wanted Marjorie Agosín as a fellow Chilena.  We felt it was important to have her voice included.  So the first section was set—it is a more imagist reaction to the work and not the more academic treatment that we find in the other essays.  I learned of Ricardo Romo’s fascination and admiration of Liliana’s work, so I asked him for an essay that became the preface.  I also invited Patricia Ruiz Healy whose work I knew from being on her MA committee at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  She was a doctoral student at UT Austin at the time, and she had conducted an interview with Liliana.  Her piece fit just right with George Vargas’s whom Liliana invited, as he had also interviewed her.  The others were invited because of their connection to Liliana’s work or because we felt they could contribute significant perspectives.  Guisela Latorre, Laura Perez, Kay Turner, and Alicia Gaspar de Alba fit this category.  There were a couple of other contributors that we invited but it just didn’t work out.  I was more than pleased, though, when those we invited agreed and then turned in essays.  I then grouped them into the three parts. 

Left to Right:  Norma Cantú, Lourdes Perez, Annette D'Armatta, Jordana Barton,
Gloria Ramírez, Liliana Wilson, Gloria Lopez. 
Amelia Montes:  Yes, I find this a really well, thought-out design. Part one, two, and three, contain the essays.  What is the significance to each section?

Norma Cantú:  Part two gathers the essays that specifically treat the artwork using particular scholarly approaches.  In other words, the authors take a particular lens to talk about Liliana’s work.  For instance, Part I is a more personal reaction to the work by two friends who obviously love and admire Liliana and her art.  Part two is a more academic treatment, and the essays reflect the author’s critical approaches.  As an academic, I was thrilled to see the level of sophistication of the analysis, and the intellectual engagement with the artwork.  The essays in Part three, while also academic and scholarly, are more grounded in the interviews conducted with Liliana and thus provide a slightly different analysis that employs the information from the interviews to conduct the scholarly analysis.  Now, the inclusion of Lourdes Pérez’s "Tango" constitutes a blending of genres—something I am very fond of doing in my own work.  I take the task of editor very seriously as a creative endeavor, and in this particular book, especially perhaps because of the connection with Anzaldúa, I wanted to leave my own mark.  I did something similar in Moctezuma’s Table:  Rolando Briseño’s Mexican and Chicano Tablescapes where I included personal essays along with academic essays and poetry.  When Liliana clued me in and shared Lourdes’s beautiful song dedicated to her and her work, I just had to have it in the book.  I consider it a variant, a kind of Anzaldúan mixed genre kind of text. 

Amelia Montes:  And it works beautifully.  You also placed the artwork at the end as if it would be Part IV.  It reminds me of Anzaldúa placing her poetry in the second half of  Borderlands/La Frontera. 

Norma Cantú:  Right.  It is Part four – a continuation of what the essays have prepared you for, although the essays refer to the artwork and the process should be interactive and recursive as the reader can easily flip back and forth from text to artwork. 

Amelia Montes:  Wonderful. I'm hoping many of our La Bloga readers will enjoy reading the essays, and appreciating the important and poignant artwork Liliana has offered us throughout the years.  Is there anything else you would like to share with our La Bloga readers?  

Norma Cantú:  Only that Ofrenda has a long publication history and that I am extremely grateful to everyone involved in it for their patience.  We are very happy to be part of the Joe and Betty Moore Texas Arts Series at Texas A&M University Press.  Altogether I think it took almost 10 years for this baby to be born, but I for one think it was worth the labor and the long wait.  So I guess the lesson is to be patient and allow the process to happen as it must. 

1 comment:

Norma Cantu said...

Gracias, Amelia! It is a lovely book thanks to the contributors and to Liliana's amazing art work.