“I’m more known for my color and murals, but I also really love printmaking, lithography and etching,” said artist Juana Alicia. Her recent scratchboard pieces—some of which illustrate a contemporary retelling of the Yucatecan folktale, “The X’tabay,” written by her husband and artistic collaborator, Tirso Araiza—are on view at Alley Cat Gallery in San Francisco from June 1-July 31.
“I like the limited palette and stark black and white,” Juana Alicia said of her latest creations. “It lends itself to the story’s noir, magic realist feel.”
Set in the jungle and centered on a strong female character, “She’s a very hypnotic spirit,” explained Juana Alicia. “All kinds of otherworldly occurrences happen in the story.”
Told from an eco-feminist perspective, and delivered in dispatch or letter-writing style, Araiza’s text plays with the Spanish language classical literature of Cervantes and Molina.
“He’d been telling me his version of the X’tabay story for a long time and I told him, ‘Would you please just write that down?’” said Juana Alicia, explaining the inspiration for the couple’s collaboration. “He’s an excellent printmaker and visual artist as well and we thought we might collaborate on the illustrations, but I got so far into it, it ended up that I would do the execution of the illustrations and he’d do the writing,” she said.
The exchange of ideas came naturally for the couple, who’ve known each other for more than 30 years since they met at the Mission Cultural Center working together on Central American solidarity efforts in the 1980s. “We dialogued our way through the project. We share a lot of ideas and critique the work between us,” she said. “At this point in the relationship, It’s hard to say where his brain ends and mine begins.”
“The Yucatán is a very magical place to begin with,” continued Juana Alicia who, with Araiza, spends about half of the year living and working in Mérida, Yucatán’s capital and largest city.
“I’m Mexican American from the U.S. but I’ve spent much of my life in Mexico. My husband was born there and we live in the house he was born in,” she said. “We’re surrounded, immersed in these stories and that place.”
When not in the Yucatán, Juana Alicia and Araiza are in their East Bay home and studios. “We have a bunch of kids and grandchildren here in the U.S. We want to see them and we come here for that. And there is opportunity to work here, of course,” she said.
There are few names more associated with Bay Area muralists than Juana Alicia who grew up not far from the Detroit Institute of Arts, home to Diego Rivera’s world-famous Detroit Industry murals.
“I’m very lucky to have studied with Lucienne Bloch and Stephen Dimitroff,” said Juana Alicia, referring to the artists who served as apprentices to Rivera; the couple also made public art throughout the U.S. Bloch also served as a confidante to artist Frida Kahlo, whose husband was Rivera.
“There’s a portrait of Stephen in that Detroit Industry mural,” she noted. “I was seeing the face of my teachers, many decades before I met them.”
Juana Alicia had an uncle who was a printmaker and she observed him and his wife at work, though it was her high school art teacher, African-American gallerist Cledie Collins Taylor, who had the most impact on her life as a young artist.
“She really inspired me to do my work, push on against the odds, through graduate school, through resistance around gender and culture,” she said.
After attending a rally, Juana Alicia was recruited by Cesar Chavez to make posters for the farmworker cause. “He told me I should come to Salinas and work for the union and for the newspaper,” she said, but she was far more interested in the work of organizing than she was in print media.
“I went to work in the fields. [But] after I had my first child and had to stop working in the fields. I became a teacher and transferred to U.C. Santa Cruz. I’ve been a college professor since 1984,” she said, though she has now retired from the profession. “It was a circuitous work to becoming a muralist, but they’ve been parallel paths. One informs the other, though sometimes, one competes with the other.”
With no female mural makers to speak of to guide her (“painters yes,” she said, naming Maria Izquierdo and Leonora Carrington, but “no women muralists”), “The first women muralists I observed were the Mujeres Muralistas. I met them in the ‘70s,” said Juana Alicia. “I wasn’t part of them, but was thrilled to see them up there on the scaffolding.”
Shortly after seeing the groundbreaking Chicana art collective at work, Juana Alicia embarked on her first mural project: “La Lechugueras,” which was inspired by her experience in Central Valley fields. Though her first piece at 24th and York no longer remains, Juana Alicia has contributed massively to the creation, restoration and continuation of mural work for which the neighborhood is known.
“I’d like to restore my mural for the SF Mime Troupe, ‘For The Roses,’” she said. “I’d like to redo the mural that was painted out at 21st and Mission, ‘Alto Al Fuego,’ that was so badly graffitied.
I’d like to do it in ceramic steel,” she said. “I’d like to redo the little murals at 21st and Valencia on the Dolores Street Project.”
In 2016, she was gratified to have worked on the restoration of “Spill,” her large scale work at Emerson and Adeline at the Ashby BART station in Berkeley. And she’d like to finally do that mural she’s been commissioned by Prison Radio for the defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
“We still don’t have a wall or finances for it,” said Juana Alicia. “But if people wanted to come forward with a spot…” she’s open to hearing about a San Francisco or East Bay location.
In addition to her opening at Alley Cat, which is set to feature work beyond “The X’Tabay” illustrations, Juana Alicia is preparing for the September release of “MaestraPeace: San Francisco’s Monumental Feminist Mural,” a book that chronicles the work she completed at the Women’s Building on 18th Street in San Francisco, with artists Miranda Bergman, Edythe Boone, Susan Kelk Cervantes, Meera Desai, Yvonne Littleton and Irene Pérez. With a forward by Angela Y. Davis and set for fall publication by the Bay Area’s Heyday Books, the book will also feature the poetry of Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Genny Lim, Devorah Major and Naomi Quiñonez.
“Whatever happened with my generation? We were going to save the world and people got burned out, divided,” she lamented. “There’s been a long time of apathy. There wasn’t the notion in the popular culture of intersectionality and that’s very hopeful.”
“We’re in such a frightening time with the rise of the right, white supremacy, and hate crimes on a daily basis,” said Juana Alicia. “Young people are pushing back again, fortunately, like 1968.”
She’s encouraged by the Bay Area’s persistent commitment to art and activism, and the work done around Black Lives Matter, immigration reform and the Me Too movement, as well as the youth-led Sunrise Movement (organizing around climate change) and artist collectives, like locals, Trust Your Struggle.
“We’re really facing a time limit, an hourglass on the life of our species and many other species. That, in my work, is a critical theme,” said Juana Alicia, whose “La Lechuguera” is as relevant now as it was then. “Environmental racism and environmental protection, all of these issues. It hasn’t really changed, it’s only intensified.”
For Juana Alicia, there is still work to do.
“I expect to be able to climb scaffolding again. I’m going to have my hip replaced in June.”
A muralist Juana Alicia works on the scratchboard illustration for “La X’ tabay,” a book, retelling of the traditional Mayan legend from Yucatán, México, written by Tirso Araiza in her Berkeley studio on Monday, April 29, 2019. Text and sample pages from the book and her series of screen prints from these illustrations, lithographs and original drawings in scratchboard and mixed media are on view in the art exhibit “The X’tabay, a Contemporary Vision,” at Alley Cat Books & Gallery in Mission District from June 1-July 31. (Video by Ekevara Kitpowsong @TheAperturist)
The X’Tabay, A Contemporary Vision:
Graphic Works by Juana Alicia
Alley Cat Books and Gallery June 1-July 31
Opening reception, June 1, 7 p.m. – 10 p.m.
3036 24th Street
June 15, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.
For registration, contact Alley Cat Books
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