This section will explain concepts surrounding the art exhibitions titled CALAFIA: Manifesting the Terrestrial Paradise, which took place in 2018 and continued into early 2020. Click here for more information about this guide.
Las Sergas de Esplandian was a chivalric romance written in the early sixteenth century as part of a series of novels titled “Amadis de Gaula” by the Castilian author Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo. The book tells of the mythical Island of California and its inhabitants, Black Amazonian warriors, who kept trained griffins to eradicate any man who set foot upon the isle. Their queen, Calafia, was a brave, ambitious fighter and a powerful leader who yearned to explore the world. The story describes - in almost cinematic detail - the isle of California, which many scholars believe is the true etymological source of the state’s name. Montalvo wrote:
Know then, that due east of the Indies there is an island called California, very near the locale called the Terrestrial Paradise. It was populated by black women, with no men among them, for they lived in the fashion of Amazons. They possessed strong and firm bodies of ardent courage and great strength. Their island was the strongest in all the world, with steep cliffs and rocky shores. Their arms were decorated with gold, as were the harnesses of the wild beasts they tamed and rode. Throughout the whole island there was no other metal but gold. 1
The story centers upon a great battle for Constantinople. Queen Calafia, her warrior women, and her menagerie of mythical beasts set sail to the city where she and her allies beat back the defending Christian forces. After releasing man-eating griffins to attack the enemy’s soldiers, Calafia gains the upper hand in the battle, only to realize that the creatures were also attacking her male allies - Montalvo’s metaphor for the destructive, godless disorder of her female power. The story ends with the Christians defeating the invaders, Calafia converting to Christianity, and being married to a Christian knight.
This narrative is Montalvo’s reaction to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. This event was a catalyst for the Age of Exploration and, ultimately, the colonization of the Americas and Africa. Although Montalvo would never set foot in the Americas, his myth would inspire Spanish conquistadores during their expeditions.
Before the Virgen Morena revealed herself to Juan Diego in 1531 on a hill in Tepeyac, there existed a predecessor in Extremadura on the Iberian Peninsula, also named Guadalupe. Among the hundreds of Black Madonnas worshipped across Europe, the Virgin of Guadalupe (the Guadalupe of Extremadura) was central to the Reconquista and was venerated as a sacred object by Isabel and Ferdinand, representing an intersection of religious and political power. Calafia and Guadalupe of Extremadura, the Queens of California, contributed to the origin myth by traveling across oceans to the Americas, their respective mythical stories laying the foundation for the futures of the continents. Cortes carried a replica of his homeland’s Virgin of Guadalupe’s figure across the Atlantic to the New World, believing the sculpture contained the sacred properties of the original image of the Black Madonna. Riding alongside this icon would have been copies of Las Sergas de Esplandian and its accompanying legend of the isle of California and its powerful queen, Calafia, creating a connected sisterhood between the two queens.
The myths of Calafia and the Black Madonnas of California reveal how colonial power shaped the visual culture of indigeneity and Blackness and circulated it across time and space. These visual concepts would be used to reinforce structures of border-making in the New World. Colonial-era maps based on conquistador accounts portrayed California as an island detached from the mainland. This idea persisted over centuries through cartographic works that reinforced and circulated this image across the Americas and Europe. Early notions of Calafia constructed and conflated Black and Indigenous otherness in California that paralleled knowledge formation on land and territory in the Americas. This image culture reinforced the “Sacrality of Blackness,” a concept born in the Iberian peninsula and brought to the New World as a tool for conquest.
Colonial myths and icons reveal crossborder circulations of ideas and images in the Californias. They also reveal the tension between cultures at contrasting ideological, time-based, and place-based borders. Centering on Calafia as part of a continuum of California's colonial mythologies, the MexiCali Biennial team curated a series of binational exhibitions that spanned from Los Angeles (U.S.) to Mexicali (Mexico). For Calafia: Manifesting the Terrestrial Paradise, artists and cultural creators were invited to reflect on the colonial structures of knowledge, religious and gender iconographies, and practices of demarcating borders that have shaped the art and culture of California and Baja California. Artistic reimaginings of Calafia engaged and challenged colonial conceptions and imaginings of land, territory, and borders.
Calafia: Manifesting the Terrestrial Paradise showcased contemporary artists who challenge the US-Mexico divide and who are recuperating indigenous and African pasts and futures in California.
“Artists reclaimed the myth and created a different narrative based on their own roots. I believe that Calafia facilitated a reimagining of California as an extended region, one that expands beyond the border,” stated Curator Daniela Lieja Quintanar.
The artists and cultural creators featured in the Biennial created and imagined a world free from colonial oppression, one that also broke through geographic and disciplinary boundaries. The following is a selection of artists who developed decolonial art strategies for challenging or transcending the physical and conceptual divisions between both Californias.
CHRIS CHRISTION'S HISTORIOGRAPHY OF CALIFORNIA / Artists included in this exhibition series presented diverse perspectives and processes engaging Calafia's complexity. In the short film The Unauthorized Histography of California Volume 1, artist Chris Christion uses appropriated video clips, images, and audio to digitally collage a narrative of the state from the fictional Calafia's point of view. In the film, the artist chose the persona of Diouana, the protagonist from the 1966 film La Noir de (Black Girl) directed by Ousmane Semene (known as the father of African cinema), to represent the mythical queen. Christion's Calafia explores California's historiography, or interactive history, through sound clips from orators, who speak on the state's segregationist policies toward myriad marginalized peoples throughout the region's history.
The video begins with a discussion on California's often overlooked history with slavery before expanding into such topics as the Gold Rush as a foundation for an ethos that progresses consistently through the LA Riots. Christion juxtaposes images of the city of Compton as a Black Paradise with trains and covered wagons, representing the migration towards California's siren song. The video is interspersed with images of the heavens overlayed with news clips of violence, snippets from Disneyland's Golden Dreams, a (now defunct attraction) in which Calafia told the history of California to hordes of tourists. Christion's film ends with activist and poet James Baldwin's pin speech:
One has used the myth of Negro and the myth of color to pretend and to assume that you were dealing with, essentially, with something exotic, bizarre, and practically, according to human laws, unknown. Alas, it is not true. We’re also mercenaries, dictators, murderers, liars. We are human, too. 2
Through a humanizing lens, Christion argues that the foundation of the institutional structure of violence within a community in order to maintain power and stability is bound to fail; this hyper-masculinist model ultimately leads to instability. Violence and oppression, a legacy of colonization, facilitate the construction of borders, both physical and social.
Here are some resources to continue research surrounding these topics:
CARMINA ESCOBAR'S FREE SPACE OF PROCLAMATION / For Carmina Escobar, Calafia was the trigger to develop a project that would facilitate invisible travel across borders. Escobar is an experimental vocalist, performer, and intermedia artist born in Mexico City and currently based in Los Angeles. Her performances reflect her interest in the body, sound, myths, and interactions between people, spaces, and symbols. Escobar explores a wide range of vocal techniques, using the voice as a tool for investigating these concepts and for producing captivating live performances at locations throughout the world.
Ritual of Propagation was installed and performed on either side of the U.S.-Mexico border fence between Mexicali (Mexico) and Calexico (CA). The artwork was part-installation, part-sound performance, and required viewer engagement and community participation in order to be activated. The installation consisted of two wooden megaphones facing each other on opposite sides of the border fence. In Mexicali, the megaphones were installed at a community park, while in Calexico, their installation took place in a parking lot that was minimally populated. Both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border possess distinct environments in which sound is transmitted and received. Sound is shaped by the physical realities of the border zone which is marked by contrasting politics, power dynamics, and historical experiences of the US and Mexico. Bystanders and border-crossers were encouraged to write messages on the megaphones, vocalize their message through the instruments, and have it transmitted to the other side.
Escobar created a “free space of proclamation” for community members and border-crossers to amplify their voices and messages, challenging the limits of physical space and borders. The proclamations voiced by participants ranged from friendly statements to political exclamations. With every vocalization, the sound traveled across the border fence, transporting a part of the person with it. The result was an ontological and conceptual art piece in which sound, and those who vocalized it, traveled beyond physical geographies and transmitted their beings beyond the spatial limitations of the border zone.
Escobar’s work is influenced by concepts of Cosmovision and Cosmogonies, or collective worldviews, in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.
Here are some Library of Congress resources to continue research surrounding these topics:
[SANDY RODRIGUEZ'S MAP FOR ALTA AND BAJA CALIFAS] / The Los Angeles-based artist Sandy Rodriguez creates paintings that examine pre-conquest and post-colonial attitudes toward geography, borders, and mapmaking practices. Rodriguez recuperates the artistic traditions of Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest and Mexico. She sources dyes and pigments from plant materials, utilizes ancestral methods to create pigments, and creates her paintings on Amate paper. In this way, the artist reclaims indigenous American art forms to reveal how cultural creation in the region exists beyond borders.
For Calafia: Manifesting the Terrestrial Paradise, Rodriguez exhibited the painting Study For Mapa De La Región Fronteriza De Alta Y Baja Califas (2017-2018). The painting highlights the outline of the shape of California in its current iteration. Through her use of Amate paper and natural pigments, Rodriguez has grounded the work's multicultural visual references in an indigenous artistic practice. In developing her subject matter, the artist borrows the iconography of colonial maps, including illustrations of mythical sea creatures, a compass with no markers, and the sun and moon. Rodriguez has rendered local flora and fauna, including Joshua Trees, grasshoppers, and coyotes, calling upon their contemporary significations in Californian culture as well as their historical importance for groups native to the region. Landscapes such as lakes, mountains, and deserts also appear throughout the work, further emphasizing the value of the natural world for indigenous, colonial, and contemporary American relationships to the region and potentially producing an environmentalist statement.
Rodriguez's painting produces a critique of the legitimacy of geopolitical borders -- employing a myriad of visual references within the framing of colonial, modern, and contemporary U.S. and Mexican geography. The map that Rodriguez creates is not accurate to the geographies of Alta and Baja California in the early nineteenth century. Rather, she refers to the current shape of the state adopted in the 1850s, when the region fell under U.S. control. By filling in the map with blocks of varied earth tones, Rodriguez further demarcates the region into counties and districts. In reference to modern political issues, vertical towers plotted in the map represent ICE checkpoints, a reference to border surveillance conducted throughout the state. Notably, the edges of the Baja Peninsula and Arizona are covered in bold red paint. This bright red color invokes that of an open flesh wound. This reference recalls Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldua's notion of the borderlands/la frontera as an "herida abierta" (open wound) where the First World meets the Third World.
Here are some Library of Congress resources to continue research surrounding these topics:
Here is a selection of images from the Library of Congress archives curated by the MexiCali Biennial research team that exemplify the concepts discussed above: