AMALIA MESA-BAINS: My name is Amalia Mesa-Bains. I am a first-generation Chicana movement. I’ve been making art for around 35 years, and the Dolores del Río piece is one of the primary pieces I made during the 1980s. I met Dolores del Río, a Mexican and American film star, in 1983 and began the work in ‘84. The piece that is in this show is a recreation of the original. Dolores del Río was someone I watched with my mother. She was not from my generation. When I began the piece, my mother helped me collect some of the objects that might represent her. She was a bicultural figure that played glamorous and exotic movie stars in the western movies of Hollywood and simultaneously in the Mexican movies of the scena. She played heroines, people who were abandoned – one of her most famous, “María Candelaria,” she plays an indigenous woman. So I felt that for people in my generation who sought constantly to find images of beauty that related to us, she was an extraordinary figure and when I met her in 1983, she was well into her late ‘70s, and she was still incredibly beautiful.
I did the piece as an homage, an homenaje, which is done during the Days of the Dead, and instead of doing the traditional altar of three tiers, it was my first moment of transforming and innovating on the tradition of the altars, or ofrendas is the more realistic way to talk. It is an offering. I decided to make it into a woman’s vanity, and I used mirrors as a way of engaging the audience of seeing themselves within her life, and I developed two sides to the altar: one that had to do with her American side and one that had to do with her Mexican side. She was quite well known for having scandalized her very upper-class family by going to Hollywood to be in the movies, but in her older years she returned to Mexico and developed a school for women who wanted to go and film at a day care center so that women who had children could continue their work.
I’m very proud of the Dolores del Río piece because it reminds me of my mother, who was the person who introduced me to her. My mother saw her and some of the famous actors of the Scena de Oro or the Golden Age of cinema in Mexico, in Los Angeles in the ‘40s. My mother passed away in 2004, and the museum was kind enough to let me have my mother’s image next to Dolores del Río. So when people are looking at the altar and they see the image of Dolores del Río in the silver dress, the beautiful, young girl next to her is Maria Gonzales Mesa.
Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art presents the rich and varied contributions of Latino artists in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, when the concept of a collective Latino identity began to emerge. The exhibition is drawn entirely from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s pioneering collection of Latino art. It explores how Latino artists shaped the artistic movements of their day and recalibrated key themes in American art and culture.