Date of Interview: Dec 01, 2004|
Topic: Interview with Sandra de la Loza
Interviewer: Jennifer Flores Sternad
LatinArt: How does your identification as a Chicana relate to your work?
Sandra de la Loza: I feel that my work is part of a larger conversation, one that started with earlier generations of Chicano artists. I don't rehash what earlier generations have done, but I think that some of the initial questions raised are still relevant and we are just beginning to explore them. I also understand the significance of what was done in a historical context. I definitely have benefited from the work of that first generation. It has given me a certain freedom, I am able to go deeper and to begin to address questions that earlier generations didn't address and search for new strategies. They had a huge responsibility because they were the first generation. If you look at ’Mexican-Americans’ history since the U.S. occupation of Mexican land, that colonialist history, and the identity that sprung from that, which is now called Chicano identity: we have had a very long history of racist representations in the dominant culture, a real negation of Mexican cultural identity. So obviously the first generation had to address that. They struggled to develop new forms of representation to counter simplistic, negative and racist portrayals and searched for an iconography that would better represent our experience. Yes, that was a very bold project and attempt, and I agree that there are problems with it. There is a lot of criticism from younger artists of the older generation, but I don't agree with that criticism when it becomes a polarization. One of the criticisms you often hear is that a new ideology is being created that is also stereotypical and simplistic, or questioning if an iconography can encapsulate all of our experience. Many younger artists address the heterogeneity, and the diversity of the "Chicano experience". But those ideas of resistance, of defining oneself outside of individual identity and of a more collective consciousness, definitely are in my work.
LatinArt: You have mentioned these two approaches: using art to challenge specific representations by creating new ones, or questioning the premise that art can or should represent a group at all. These questions make me think of your work with silhouettes. You began with old family photographs, images of specific individuals. By making the images of their bodies into silhouettes you have erased some of the visual cues as to who these people were. Yet, as a result, other cues become more prominent. For example, their clothes and faces are erased, but their poses become extremely evocative.
Sandra de la Loza: In my series dealing with family photos I'm definitely addressing the whole concept of representation. I'm addressing archetypes, especially through looking at the specifics of my own social location: as a working-class Chicana who grew up in L.A., whose parents were born and raised in LA, and part of a certain historical moment.
I was really interested in knowing my family history and dealing with larger ideas of colonization and racism and hegemonic notions of race, family, gender and how we begin to internalize those notions. My parents grew up at a time when Mexicans couldn’t live in certain neighborhoods, when they were physically hit in schools when they spoke Spanish. I was very conscious of how they internalized that and learned that their Mexicanness was something that they should erase and how that was passed that on to my siblings and me.
I was interested in family photos and how we image ourselves because of what photography is: it is democratic in the sense that it's accessible, it's affordable, and so, in the twentieth century it became a major means by which the masses image themselves. I was interested in TV and Hollywood and all the archetypes that were being created during that time of what a family was supposed to be and how we came to imitate those images. A lot of my images were taken from photos from the fifties and early sixties. Now, if we look with historical hindsight, we know that the aesthetics of the fifties-- the optimism, the huge cars, the new track homes, and very clean cut and very pristine and this kind of "Leave it to Beaver" look-- was such a façade and such a lie, and there was so much going on beneath that. I'm very conscious of that personally, not only with my family but beyond, through the community I grew up in and the larger society. I think racism is violence, and I think our whole economic system, capitalism, is based on a certain violence for working people, a violence that is internalized and gets played out sometimes through very self-destructive means like drug addiction or psychologically through weird, sick power plays in the home and in family relationships. On one level, I'm very conscious how that was played out within my own family, but also I’m interested in that façade in general and how we would see that façade unravel later in the sixties or seventies. So I was interested in archetypes-- what a mother is supposed to be like, a father is supposed to be like, all these roles-- as a means of finding ways to represent the self, to create more open possibilities for identity and also as a way to talk about Chicano identity in more complex terms.
LatinArt: Those images are familiar because we immediately recognize them as family photos, but, because the individualizing features are erased the conventions of the family photograph as a medium become very apparent. It denaturalizes those conventions. It also denaturalizes the poses that the photograph elicits and they become visible as poses.
Sandra de la Loza: I think my work poses questions about representation and about the problems of representation. On one level, it's questioning representation by deconstructing the photo, but on another, there is an attempt to represent at the same time. But I try to emphasize that it's something in process, that it's not ever really resolved.
LatinArt: The silhouettes bring out a certain tension between the specific and the archetypical. There is the particularity of the photo as an index, but it also can signify a whole era, or a place...
Sandra de la Loza: There’s all this information about a certain historic place and I think a lot of people-- not just Chicanos-- have identified with it on certain levels, because it's about the family, about a certain era, it's about architecture, what that architecture signifies, what the cars and the design signify. I fill those silhouettes with a lot of textures and most of them are from L.A. So there's an allusion to it being Southern California, but at the same time, it's not fixed to being Southern California. It's not even fixed to being Chicano or Mexican, but at the same time, I do get those readings.
LatinArt: What do you understand to be the importance of Chicano/a art now?
Sandra de la Loza: On one level, if we look at the whole discourse of Diaspora that has become really prominent within the last decade, we have a lot to contribute to that discussion. Our displacement is a big part of our experience, and it is significant if you think about how we created an identity and a language from a place of dislocation while having our language and culture attacked. It is also really important because it was a very grass-roots development that truly was born outside of the art world, and I think that is really significant if we look at the historicization of art because so much of what's avant-garde is supposedly what questions "the establishment". I think Chicano art is important because it's one of the few forms that truly sprung up outside of that world, and because of it's working class roots. I think that's really rare and really significant and it doesn't get the credit it deserves.
LatinArt: Both within the discourse on avant-garde art and Chicano art, there is the issue of art having the potential to cause social change. What is your attitude about that possibility?
Sandra de la Loza: I think too many people think of social change as something more immediate. No, I don't think art's going to keep the US from bombing Iraq. No, I don't think Siqueiros’ murals were going to make the working class rise up and overthrow bourgeois society. I think that's just a simplification of what social change is. I think social change happens through small advances; the impact of an act, a poem, a discourse isn't known until maybe, one, two, three generations afterwards. If I look at some of my teachers and some of the people who have influenced me most and what they did-- they created their own space. They articulated an experience that hadn't yet been articulated, and in doing so, in just naming it they created a space that didn't exist before. That is especially true when I look at that what most immediately impacted me: the woman of color feminists, especially the Chicana feminists. They were the first generation to be very critical of Chicano nationalism, critical of white feminism, critical of homophobia and they found a voice and articulated who they were, created something that has allowed the next generation to have a space that already exists for them. And yeah, the totality of what's going on in the world seems overwhelming, but I think those acts are really important in the long run.
LatinArt: Do you see the influence of women of color feminism in your work even now?
Sandra de la Loza: Definitely. I don't think I overtly say, "I want to create Chicana feminist art," but I experience the intersection of all these different levels of identity...I've integrated it into who I am, in my sensibility and how I live, so it does enter my work. But I don't have to be so conscious about how it enters my work.
LatinArt: Can you tell me a little bit more about your guerilla art?
Sandra de la Loza: I created a fake historic society called the Pocho Research Society. In that project I'm dealing with history and what's remembered and what's not remembered and who's history is remembered and not remembered as erected by public monuments. I made historic plaques that honor different moments in history in LA that are erased, and I made them and I put them in public spaces.
Monuments are like the erection of history of the winner, the colonizer. In LA, Mexican history is so integral to this place yet it's not recognized. We don't have a museum; we don't have institutions that honor our historical presence and our experience. So our memory has been survived in very guerilla-like ways or through art history or through songs, culture, or through activism, like those Chicano academics. That first generation were all activists; it was really a political battle to just write those histories, to make that experience be recognized as significant.
LatinArt: The different media you use can imply different audiences, or kinds of access to the work. How does this issue of accessibility inform your work?
Sandra de la Loza: I am very fortunate because I think I have these choices that earlier generations don't have. On one level, I've been in many gallery shows and a couple museum shows. It’s fine, but who goes and sees those shows? The process of creating work for those shows is really helpful, but I especially don't want to solely exist in galleries and museums. I want to engage people outside, and I like that dynamic. For me, probably the most important thing, besides what I gain from the process itself, is dialogue. I think it's great when art enters spaces that are not contained, when it's not safe, when you push things and it's put in places where people can stumble on something unexpectedly, that's why I like guerilla art: the whole concept of putting it in the public sphere and you have no idea what's going to happen. That's nothing new, but something that by far hasn't fully investigated. That is definitely something I want to explore and continue to do.