When we talk about Chicano muralists, we often go to Diego Rivera and his generation of artists who spoke for a Revolution below the border. However, one Chicana artist has made the mural her workhorse during the last decades of the 20th century.
We are talking about Judy Baca, an internationally recognized artist whose works intervene in public space on a large scale and have forever changed the artistic landscape of Los Angeles.
Judith Francisca Baca is not just an artist. She is an activist and professor of Chicana/o studies, world arts, and cultures at the University of California, Los Angeles. Baca is co-founder and artistic director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) in Venice, California, and directs the mural project that created the Great Wall of Los Angeles, the largest community mural project in the world.
Like so many Latinas, Baca’s story begins in an all-female household, consisting of her mother, aunts, and grandmother, who was also a healer.
Baca was not allowed to speak Spanish in elementary school and struggled with English. In her early years, she began to draw and paint, discovering her passion.
Baca attended California State University, Northridge (CSUN) and earned her bachelor’s degree in 1969 and a Master of Fine Arts in 1979.
After temporarily abandoning her studies to try to survive financially, Baca returned to the books, immersing himself in modern abstract art and discovering the inaccessibility of art to communities like her own.
She then discovered muralism at the Taller Siqueiros in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
In the 1970s, Baca began creating her first large pieces, starting with the mural “Las Vistas Nuevas” in Boule Heights. The mural was done in collaboration with the community and depicted images of Mexican-Americans living in the neighborhood.
After her first major works, Baca received an offer to direct a new citywide mural program, with whom she would go on to paint over 500 murals.
The controversial themes of her pieces were subject to censure by the local government, but over time, her tenacity and commitment to the community earned her a place in the art books.
Today, the artist and activist’s work is finally being recognized by hegemonic institutions.
As The Guardian reported, the Museum of Latin American Art (Molaa) in Long Beach, California, is organizing the first major retrospective of her work. In September, a major exhibition is planned at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca) in Los Angeles.
“I never expected to be part of the 1% that would live on my art,” Baca, 75, said in a recent interview. “This is the first time in my career in which people are seeking to buy my work, to own pieces of the Judy Baca collection.”
“My work has been ignored a lot in LA … and the men here have been pretty profoundly unable to see women as their peers. That’s been the struggle of my whole life as a Chicana activist and feminist. It’s created a devil-may-care attitude for me. I had to just perceive what I was doing as significant for myself and my community and move ahead with willfulness and belief, buoyed by the community people I worked with – not by the arts,” she added.