Decades after she created one of the longest murals in the world, the Chicana artist and scholar is receiving long overdue mainstream recognition
by Sam Levin
Judy Baca still recalls the day in the 1970s when the curator of an exhibit showcasing the work of emerging Los Angeles artists told her she couldn’t possibly include Baca in the show. “These are only people touched by an angel,” Baca remembers the woman saying about the the all-male group of artists she had selected. The message was clear: Baca was not worthy of a museum.
Fifty years later, Baca’s an internationally celebrated artist, whose large-scale works of public art have left an unmatched imprint on the artistic landscape of LA. And the Chicana muralist, scholar and activist is now receiving long overdue mainstream recognition. The Museum of Latin American Art (Molaa) in Long Beach, California, is running the first major retrospective on her work, and a major show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Moca) in Los Angeles is planned for September.
“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.”
For years, Baca said, the white, male-dominated art industry was uninterested in her. “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 and 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.”
Baca was born in Watts, an LA neighborhood known for the 1965 uprisings, and grew up in Pacoima, near the LA river. Her grandparents came from Mexico to La Junta, Colorado during the Mexican Revolution, a story told in her Denver airport mural, La Memoria de Nuestra Tierra, and at the entrance of her Molaa retrospective.
“This was the first massive migration of Mexican people into the United States … although in some ways, we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” she said.