The art and activism of Yolanda López

Yolanda López's Virgen de Gualdape series. (Yolanda López)
(Yolanda López)

Many tributes have been written since Yolanda López died on Sept. 3 after a lengthy battle with liver cancer.

And while her passing mere months before her first-ever solo exhibition was set to open at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego seems unfair and unjust, the San Diego-born López leaves behind a local and international legacy that will live on for generations to come.

While not a retrospective, “Yolanda López: Portrait of the Artist” (opening Oct. 16 after being postponed over a year due to COVID) will showcase approximately 50 works she produced from 1975 to 1988, most of which were made while living in San Diego and attending the University of California, San Diego . These include everything from paintings and posters to collage and photos, some of which have become iconic and some of which have never before been displayed.

“The works that she produced at that time became her most celebrated and beloved works,” says MCASD curator Jill Dawsey. “It’s this really transformative period while she’s in San Diego producing this work. I’ve always been intrigued by this.”

With help from scholars, historians and those who knew her, we examine some of the works that will be shown at the exhibition while also acknowledging that the legacy of Yolanda López — while certainly artistically intrinsic — is decidedly not limited to what can be displayed at a museum.

Three Generations: Tres Mujeres

In many ways, the MCASD exhibition is a reinterpretation of Yolanda López’s 1978 thesis exhibition at UCSD. Inside the museum’s Jacobs Building, visitors are greeted by six, eight-foot tall portraits (charcoal on paper) of the artist, her mother and her grandmother as part of “Three Generations: Tres Mujeres.”

Initially produced in 1975 and 1976, López continued working on the portraits throughout the ’70s and saw it not only as a way to explore her Mexican-American heritage, but to, as she put it at the time, “boldly,” “radically” and “consciously work against traditional commercial stereotypes.”

“Whereas most commercially mediated female images are very young, slim and predominantly Anglo, the models in this body of work have been chosen for their variety of age, body shape and posture,” López wrote in the original catalogue of the 1978 UCSD exhibition.

In our current era of body consciousness — especially when it comes to social media and the seemingly endless inundation of posts about wellness, self-care and body positivity — the “Three Generations: Tres Mujeres” series stands as an authoritative rejection of unrealistic portrayals of the human body. What’s more, it’s a thorough examination and clapback at patriarchal portrayals of Chicana women in the era of Second Wave Feminism.

“Both series visually render a mestiza or indigenous Mexican woman (Victoria), a Mexican American woman (Margaret), and a Chicana (the artist),” wrote Karen Mary Davalos in her 2009 essay, “The Oppositional Consciousness of Yolanda M. López.”

“In the statement, López weaves in a gender analysis and expands the discussion of Chicano cultural nationalism and its privileging of patriarchy. López aimed to challenge the racist and sexist portrayals of Latinas.”

¿A Dónde Vas Chicana? Getting Through College

Yolanda López's "Runner: On My Own!"
Yolanda López’s “Runner: On My Own!” from the series ¿A Dónde Vas, Chicana? Getting through College series (1977, oil and acrylic on paper)
(Courtesy of Yolanda López)

López was already in her thirties by the time she completed her B.A. at San Diego State University and began to attend UCSD’s visual arts graduate program. López often described herself as “sluggish” and wanted to remain active while at UCSD. In recollecting her time there later in life, she would often say she meant to sign up for a calisthenics class, but instead signed up for cross-country running.

“It’s this transformative experience for her where she discovers her body could be a tool in her freedom,” says Dawsey. “She said it was a revelation that allowed her to embrace self-care and training as a feminist act. And through this, she created her largest painting series.”

Also known as “The Runner” series, the “¿A Dónde Vas Chicana? Getting Through College” paintings show López running through various areas of UCSD and San Diego.

“She uses those buildings, that architecture, to stand in for the university’s structures, often the oppressive structures, so the series becomes about her experience being the only student of color in the visual arts department at that time,” says Dawsey. “It’s an incredible series that speaks not only to our local landscape and setting, but also to issues that remain so relevant.”

One of the more iconic pieces from the oil and acrylic series portrays López seemingly sprinting up a hill, the university, ocean and the iconic Geisel Library in the background. The title of the piece, “Runner: On My Own!,” could easily be seen as simply a literal statement, but is rather a subtle reference to the artist’s feelings on the college experience, one where she was the only woman of color in her program.

“At her core, she was critical of the big institutions and the institutionalization of art and culture,” says Leticia Gomez Franco, the executive director of the Balboa Art Conservation Center and who curated a number of shows featuring López’s work. “She wanted to make sure that accessibility was at the center of what she was doing.”

It’s not only a series about feminism and female athletics, but also one that challenged the systemic patriarchal hierarchies of academia.

“At this institution that was so quote-unquote progressive, there was this antagonism that Yolanda felt that she couldn’t necessarily put into words as well as she could put into image and the art work,” says art history professor and art historian Sara Solaimani. “And that spoke volumes more than words alone could.”

The Guadalupe Triptych

Yolanda López's Virgen de Gualdape series. (Yolanda López)
(Yolanda López)

Arguably her most iconic work, the three oil pastel on paper works in “The Guadalupe Triptych” are the second thing viewers will see at the MCASD exhibition.

Produced in 1978 and part of the larger, decade-long “Guadalupe” series of works, López disseminated one of the most revered pieces of religious iconography: Our Lady of Guadalupe, aka the Virgin of Guadalupe. “The New York Times” recently characterized López’s own portrait in the series as “one of the most famous artworks in Chicano history,” and that’s not entirely hyperbolic. It’s not just a rebellion and repudiation of the social structures of the Catholic Church, but a testimony on gender inequality and colonialism.

“One of the things that I recently became aware of is that the Guadalupe pieces, which I did in 1978 were pure research. No one was talking about Guadalupe at that time except as a sacred Roman Catholic icon and a Mexican one,” López said at one of her last public interviews at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2020.

The MCASD exhibition also features some of López other works in the series, some of which have never been shown to the public. These include 15 collage pieces where she inserted not only her family and herself into renderings of the Virgin of Guadalupe, but also working-class friends and indigenous deities.

“She distills and incorporates this imagery that really talks about indigeneity. It’s not just the patron saints and Catholic imagery, but it’s also the powerful, pre-Columbian Aztec goddess,” says Mesa College professor and gallery director Alessandra Moctezuma. “That can be a very powerful image to see for students, especially Latinx students. It can help them to understand that their identity is very complex. Yes, we have that European language and religion that got incorporated, but we still have, within us, those connections to the indigenous.”

Irene Lara was one such student. Now the professor of Women’s Studies and Chicano/a Studies at SDSU, Lara remembers her first time encountering one of the pieces from the Triptych series in 1993 while perusing the periodicals room of her undergraduate library.

“Seeing Yolanda’s mother appear to me in the library, I felt seen and that I was part of a community,” Lara says. “I felt supported in my own hopes and dreams at the university. It’s still part of the power of Yolanda López’s work in creating a visual narrative about empowerment, visibility and liberation, especially for women.”

Balboa Art Conservation Center’s Gomez Franco agrees that it was a monumental portrayal, but points out that, for López, it was also a very dangerous statement at the time she produced it.

“That was bold in many ways, because you don’t mess with the Virgin de Guadalupe,” says Gomez Franco. “The takeover of the Virgin de Guadalupe wasn’t just about re-envisioning a Mexican icon to empower women; it was re-envisioning a Mexican icon that was used to remind women to be docile and to be virtuous. This idea that we didn’t have to be that, that this entire system was meant to keep women in a certain place, and that it didn’t have to rule us. We could break through that — physically, emotionally and spiritually — with our careers and education.”

Tableau Vivant

While some consider the “Tableau Vivant” photos to technically be part of the “Guadalupe” series, the pictures of López posing inside a life-size altar remain a joyous and effervescent portrayal of the artist while in San Diego. To this day, it remains one of the most reproduced and reprinted images of López.

“It was a collaboration, but it was her idea,” recalls Susan Mogul, who was López’s best friend and roommate while both attended UCSD. “She saw me making black and white photo collages, but I don’t remember how the idea came about, but I believe those photographs were taken after she made the Guadalupe paintings.”

“I remember her saying to me in a phone call I believe 20 years ago, ‘who would have thought that everybody wants to reprint this now,’ Mogul continues. “She would always make sure I was credited with taking the picture if someone was reprinting it.”

While López certainly appears to be enjoying herself in the photos, there is a determination at work in the photos. Throughout her time at UCSD and in San Diego, she was actively involved with the Chicano Federation and fought back against the exclusion of women in the mural process of Chicano Park. Only a few years after the takeover of the area by local activists, she helped a group of high school-aged women to produce an unsanctioned mural. It stands to this day.

“They went to Yolanda and she became something of an advisor. They put a sketch together and they went and painted it,” says Gomez Franco, who curated an exhibition on Chicana legacies in San Diego at the Women’s Museum of California in 2016. “Within this whole movement, there was also a movement of women fighting not just against patriarchy but specifically against Mexican patriarchy, and that’s where Yolanda’s work is so significant. She wasn’t just representing Brownness, she was representing the fight of Brown women against Mexican patriarchy.”

A legacy of activism

Just before López’s death, Jessica Sabogal, a Columbian-American “muralistx,” unveiled a vibrant, 60-foot mural of López on the side of a fully affordable housing building on Folsom Street in San Francisco.

“She told me that I would be big and ‘your work is important,’” says Sabogal, who met López at San Francisco’s Galería de la Raza in 2013. “You just have to be brave and keep doing what you’re doing.”

There’s a supposition that all art, in its many forms, is an act of rebellion. And while the collective works of Yolanda López will live on in the hearts and minds of young artists and activists, as well as to be hung in the halls of institutions all over the world, her most prescient artistic act may just be her activism — not just in her fight for fairness and equality but in her selflessness and generosity toward other artists.

And while most agree that she never received the proper credit or attention for the works she produced while here, she leaves behind a legacy to future artists, especially Chicana ones to, as Lara puts it, “act on the knowledge gained.”

“To be bold. For people like me who were socialized to dot your i’s and cross your t’s, and that’s how you will survive and be rewarded within our culture, she gave the message to balance that out and speak your own truth; to be authentic and take risks with your own storytelling,” says Lara.

From her 1978 “Who’s the illegal alien, PILGRIM?” poster (which Dawsey describes as one of the “most important pieces of protest art ever”) to her 2004 staging of an “eviction performance” at the Galería de la Raza, her artistic lineage is already evident in the young activist artists working today. Even if those artists don’t know her name, the spirit of López (whose birthday just happens to be on the Mexican holiday Diá de los Muertos) will live on in any person choosing to creatively challenge an institutionalized system.

“Whether Reagan was your president or Trump was your president or whether your mother was part of the working class, as my mother did doing laundry in a hotel,” said López in 2020. “All the things that happened at one point in time is the context in which your art functions.”

‘Yolanda López: Portrait of the Artist’

When: Opens Saturday. The exhibition runs through April 24, 2022

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, 100 Kettner Blvd., downtown

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays

Admission: Free. Tickets are available for two hour time slots and visitors must RSVP

Phone: (858) 454-3541

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