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Regional Interests

How Yolanda López Changed Chicanx Art Forever

Yolanda López, the celebrated Chicana artist and longtime Mission District resident, pioneered new representations of the Chicanx community throughout decades of work in painting, photography and graphic design. Reproductions of her images became iconic symbols of the Chicano movement, in accordance with her belief that art should serve the people.

She died from complications of liver cancer on Sept. 3 at age 79.

“Yolanda was a critical thinker. Outrageously brilliant and revolutionary feminist. Outstanding public intellectual. Painter, draftswoman, installation artist, writer, illustrator, political activist,” says Juana Alicia, an artist and one of Lopez’s close friends.

Born in San Diego to a working-class family, López moved to the Bay Area for college in the ’60s, and spent the rest of the decade participating in the social justice movements that rocked the nation. In the Mission, she became involved with the Third World Liberation Front’s fight for ethnic studies departments and the Los Siete movement’s agitation for the release of seven Chicano men accused of killing a white police officer.

Her political awakening was also her artistic awakening: she learned how to create punchy images from Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party’s Minister of Culture, and pressed her talent into service by illustrating ¡Basta Ya!, a radical Mission community newspaper.

Yolanda López, ‘Free Los Siete,’ 1969. (Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego)

In the mid-’70s, feeling burnt out and alienated from activism, López enrolled in a MFA program at the University of California, San Diego, where she would have the time and resources to make her most famous work. Under the influence of conceptual artist professors like Martha Rosler and Allan Sekula, López began to incorporate and repurpose images drawn from popular culture for political purposes.

One example of her mature style was Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim? The poster, originally commissioned by the Committee on Chicano Rights, depicts a Chicano man in Aztec garb holding immigration papers in one hand and pointing at the viewer with the other, in an ironic mirroring of Uncle Sam’s famous pose.

Ani Rivera, the executive director of Latinx-centered art gallery Galería de la Raza, recalls seeing that poster reproduced and plastered on the wall of her elementary school in San Diego. “I remember seeing that and completely having a visceral reaction. Growing up during Reaganomics, during the harsh political rhetoric impacting our community … to see an image of power [like that] … it just lit up my belly,” Rivera says. “It was a moment of finding my voice, of learning I could demand the same and question.”

Yolanda López, ‘Who’s the Illegal Alien, Pilgrim?,’ 1978. (Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego)

López’s most provocative and renowned body of work, however, was her exploration of the Virgin of Guadalupe figure.

The artist explained what drew her to the Virgin in a 1993 interview for the journal CrossRoads: “In 1978 there were no images of Latinos and Chicanos in mass media. As for movement media, the Virgin of Guadalupe was the most prevalent, continuous image of women (whereas there was a variety of male images—César Chávez, Zapata, a pantheon of male figures).”

To examine how the image portrayed and confined Chicana femininity, she painted three large canvases depicting the Virgin as herself, her mother and her grandmother. It was the first painting, depicting López running in the Virgin’s garments, that became, according to Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego curator Jill Dawsey, “one of the most widely reproduced and circulated images in the history of Chicanx art.”

Yolanda López, ‘Portrait of the Artist as Virgin of Guadalupe,’ 1978. (Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego)

López, along with Patssi Valdez and Ester Hernandez, was one of the earliest Chicana artists to reclaim the Virgin as a feminist symbol. The Virgin’s heavy robes, which usually seem to weigh her down, are cut at the knee, allowing her to leap out of her mandorla and shake off the male angel at her feet.

Asked in 2007 by Chicana/o studies professor Karen Mary Davalos why that piece in particular became a touchstone for generations of Chicana activists, López mused, “Because it’s exuberant, and I don’t think there are many exuberant pictures of us within the Chicano visual library.”

After the completion of her MFA degree, López returned to the Bay Area in the ’80s, teaching at the UC Berkeley, Mills College and California College of the Arts, and regularly exhibiting her work in group shows and the Mission’s Galería de la Raza.

After the birth of her son with fellow artist René Yañez, she turned away from painting—she had limited time as a working mother—and towards photography, performances and large-scale installation. Works from this time period include Things I Never Told My Son About Being a Mexican, an installation of found children’s objects with stereotypical depictions of Mexican people on them, and the Life in the Mission series, a collection of photographs of daily life in her neighborhood.

Her dedication to politically charged art never abated. She captured headlines in 2014 when she turned her eviction from her Mission apartment of 40 years into “garage sale” performances-slash-protests held at Galería and Red Poppy Art House. (Galería de la Raza itself was evicted from its longtime building in 2018.)

Despite her long career as a major Chicana artist, López was only irregularly acknowledged by the art world at large. Her upcoming exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Yolanda López: Portrait of the Artist, is the first solo museum exhibition of her work in her entire career.

“It took almost five decades to get this type of recognition of her work that she fought for,” says Rivera. “She nurtured so many of us. That’s why organizations like the Galería were created, we felt that we needed to create spaces that celebrated and honored alternative voices. The fact that it’s taken this long to have major museums open up their doors is just atrocious.”

Dawsey, the curator behind Portrait of the Artist, says, “Yolanda was ignored by [the institutional art] world, but she also didn’t seek approval from that world. Her primary audience was always the Chicanx community … she was first and foremost committed to her politics.”

And the community gives back: a mural dedicated to her is now up near Folsom and 16th Street, and commemorative posters with her image can be spotted taped up on Mission storefronts.

“The same things Yolanda was talking about 50 years ago, we’re still dealing with them now,” says Rivera, who helped advocate for the mural. “What I feel excited about is that there’s a whole new generation that’s getting to know her work at a really important time.”

Copyright 2021 KQED