“Sometimes you need to get this anger out in your art and sometimes you need to be gentle with yourself.”- Sarah Castillo
In her book Chicana/o Remix, Karen Mary Davalos discusses the apparent dualism between early Chicano art, made from 1968–1975, that acted in total service to a purpose, a political art, and a second period from 1975 to the mid-1980st, that is seen as less political, more personal, more commercially motivated, and perhaps most importantly, less dedicated to “The Cause”.. Davalos puts forward the notion that this reading of, essentially, two Chicano arts, minimizes the scope of investigation of Chicano art as a whole.
An artist that exemplifies Davaloz’s repudiation of this dualism between agitprop and personal work is Sarah Castillo. Recently, I sat down with Castillo and spoke with her about her current practice and how it is closely tied to acceptance and rejection. In regards to acceptance Castillo now perceives her earliest experiences of creation, like those with her mother and sister using everyday materials as valid and now rejects lessons taught to her that those moments were never good enough to be considered “Art”. And that only after years of art education, when she came upon the writing of authors like Amalia Mesa-Bains in Domesticana: The Sensibility of Chicana Rasquachismo, with its affirmation of the artwork of the domestic, did she begin to see her art experiences as valid.
Castillo explained to me that her work exists in the flux between a rejection of people’s worst impulses, pointing notably, to the current presidential administration in a work like Tyrant Be Gone (Figure 1) and an embrace of the healing and self-care rituals that it takes to face such a formidable foe like in Full Moon Intentions (Figure 2). She echoes Davalos with these two, seemingly contrasting impulses, attacking and healing, stating that they are not separated, but are actually tied together, in lockstep, each dependent upon the other for success.
In Tyrant Be Gone, we are confronted with an image of President Donald Trump superimposed by a prayer that asks for the president to treat the world and its people with the best care:
Spirit of our Mother Earth, I pray to you make him denounce ecological destruction, global conflicts, misogyny, Islamophobia, xenophobia, white supremacy, anti-lgbtqia discrimination, an economic crisis, police brutality, and the wall dividing Mexico and the United States. Please cleanse him with the power of your spirit. Amen.
This prayer, filled with the hope of equality, justice, and peace, stands in stark contrast to the work’s title, creating a vitriolic denouncement of what the president is and proclaims to be. All at once, Castillo is able to bring together the traditionally feminine claimed/placed work of embroidery, Chicana/Chicano art’s razor-like political critique, and a pre-Colombian spiritual practice that Castillo has pointed to as important to her in Mesa-Bains’s essay.
In Full Moon Intentions, we again see the influence of Mesa-Bains on the work of Castillo presented as both rebellious and resourceful within a domestic sense. Here, Castillo also puts forth her message with the domestic medium, embroidery. In contrast to Tyrant Be Gone, but with no less intensity, Castillo puts forth an incantation of healing, pointing this time to herself, instead of Mother Earth:
I release what binds me to aggression. I release what binds me to self-doubt. I release what binds me from listening. I release what binds me to control.
During my conversation with Castillo, she said that of her introductions to Chicana Art one of her lasting memories was paintings by Carmen Lomas Garza depicting her great grandmother and grandmother’s traditional medicinal methods. Here, Castillo has created a different sort of medicine pointed at herself, with affirmations to be kinder, more assertive, conscientious, and peaceful. Although the title of this work is much gentler than Tyrant Be Gone, it is clear that this work comes from an extremely personal place, and with that Castillo asks even more of herself than she does of the president.
Talking to Castillo and being around her work gives credence to the words of Mesa-Bains, stating that this work is successful because of, not in spite of its personal nature. What Castillo and those that she points to as influences, both artists and “non-artists” alike have been able to do is expand the definition of Chicano art, mixing the quotidian with the highly charged political. When asked how she defines Chicana, she made it a point to say it is important to “Love ourselves through the awareness of hegemony and its dominance in every part of life.” She and those mentioned have had to sacrifice nothing in doing this, and have allowed themselves the strength and bravery to take what has been deemed commonplace into a new space where their backgrounds, experiences, and stories can be put forth honestly without having to bend, futilely, to the hegemony of “accepted” art forms.