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Patssi Valdez & Chicana Feminism – Olivia Gill

For examples of Valdez’s art, see a recent online retrospective.

A “Chicano” is ‘a Mexican-American with a non-Anglo image of himself’,[1]  and Chicano culture is multilingual, multiracial, religious, and often involves urban street culture. Artist Patssi Valdez (1951-present) turned to conceptual performance photography to circumvent and protest the oppression she experienced as a Chicana. Growing up in East Los Angeles in the sixties, Chicanas like Valdez experienced marginalisation and oppression because of their gender.

Valdez was the only female member of the interventionist, activist collective ASCO, active from 1972 through to 1987. The artwork produced by ASCO sought to promote their ideology ‘that people could be free and have the freedom of expression and be what they want without their lives being in danger’.[2] All four members of ASCO, Valdez and three other male artists,  were disillusioned with the gender politics of the Chicano Civil Rights movement, El Movimiento, because of the marginalisation, ostracism, and espousal of women’s issues within the movement.[3] Their views meant Valdez was equal within the collective.[4]

Valdez saw herself as a Chicana feminist, but outside of the Chicana Feminist Movement.[5] This separation from the Chicana Feminist Movement was because, in her view, she was ousted for how she presented herself publicly and through her art as it did not align with the movement’s image of a calm, collected Chicana.[6] Valdez has commented on aligning herself with the same ideals of the Chicana Feminist Movement, just not actively participating within it[7]. She also disagreed with the levels of machismo in Chicano culture.

In El Movimento and Chicano culture, the Virgen of Guadalupe is a key icon, central to the Chicanx movements fight for equality and is the patron Saint of Mexican people. The Virgen also acts as ‘the reigning personification of the “ideal woman”’[8] often seen in the private, domesticated female space of the family altar in Chicano culture.[9]  In Chicano culture, it is the woman’s duty to cultivate the family altar, which ‘functions for women as a counterpoint to the maledominated rituals within Catholicism’.[10] Domesticana is a defiance of the imposed restrictions of gender-identity on Chicanas.[11] In art, it celebrates women and seeks to overcome the imposition of the domestic space.

Valdez employed domesticana and performed as the Virgen of Guadalupe for ASCO’s Walking Mural (1972). She costumed herself in a black, glittery gown, accentuated her eyelids and lips in black, and wore a tinfoil silver-and-gold crown. By depicting the Virgen in domesticana, Valdez recast ‘the feminine past from a new position,’[12] liberating the Virgen from her frozen pose in murals and the secular space of the Chicana altar.

Valdez’s conceptualisation of the Virgen asserted a contemporary persona for the icon by deriving from Chicano cultural norms. The artist’s performance was the first time the Virgen had been seen or articulated outside of a religious or secular setting[13]. According to art historian Tere Romo, it signalled a ‘dramatic ideological shift in the charged icon by challenging the foundation belief of the Virgen de Guadalupe as untouchable’.[14] The liberation of the Virgen from her frozen pose, provided the ability for other Chicanas to follow in Valdez’s footsteps, reclaiming and reinterpreting the image of the patron Saint for women. The power of Valdez’s performance lies in her decision to enact this herself, as the only woman amongst men.

The depiction of Valdez in Walking Mural as an icon freed is an expression of her own desire to free herself. Similarly, images of Valdez in a cage in No Canary (1972), produced by Valdez outside of ASCO, can be seen as a visualisation of her feelings of entrapment. In this piece, Valdez is holding a bird cage on her head, staring down the camera creating an intense image accentuated by the black and white, chiaroscuro effect. Valdez has frequently commented that at the time, in the seventies, she felt unheard and was ‘censored a lot as a woman, even at home…[she] was always told to be quiet.’[15] As such, Valdez’s presentation in No Canary can also be linked to the domesticana, and her feelings of being constrained by the patriarchal Chicano culture. The depiction of Valdez as caged angered Chicana feminists, who interpreted Valdez’s visualisation as representative of violence and subjugation.[16]  Yet, in Valdez’s words, No Canary was a truthful exemplar of her marginalisation.[17]  Art was a mode for free expression, where she could be herself without the confines of her gender or marginalisation as a Chicana.

Valdez continued to fight female oppression and for female rights throughout her time with ASCO and beyond. Now she focuses on her feminist, surrealist paintings whilst still maintaining her legacy as an advocate for Chicanas and freedom of expression.

Olivia is a graduate of Art History from the University of St Andrews and is currently studying for her Masters in Marketing at Durham University. She focuses on how advertisements inform popular culture and is currently researching why the presentation of women are dramatized and manipulated in certain advertising campaigns.

[1] Ruben Salazar, cited in González, Jennifer A., “Introduction”. In Chicano and Chicana Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by C. Ondine Chavoya, Jennifer A. González, Chon Noreiga, and Terezita Romo. New York, USA: Duke University Press, (2019), 1-10 (p.1).

[2] Nottingham Contemporary, The ASCO Interviews. February 28th, 2014.

[3] Noriega, Chon A., “Conceptual Graffiti and the Public Art Museum: Spray Paint LACMA”. In ASCO: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987, edited by C.Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz; Williamstown, Mass.: Williams College Museum of Art; Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (2011), 256-26 (p.261)

[4]UC Berkeley Events, ASCO and Beyond: A Talk by Patssi Valdez. March, 26th, 2014. Valdez notes all members of ASCO were equal regardless of gender

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8]Romo, Tere, “Conceptually Divine: Patssi Valdez’s Virgen de Guadalupe Walking the Mural”. In ASCO: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987, edited by C.Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez, 276-283. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz; Williamstown, Mass.: Williams College Museum of Art; Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (2011), 276- 283, (p.281).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Mesa-Bains, Amalia, “Domesticana: The Sensibility of Chicana Rasquachismo”. In Chicano and Chicana Art: A Critical Anthology, edited by Jennifer A. González, C. Ondine Chavoya, Chon Noriega and Terezita Romo. New York, USA: Duke University Press, (2019), 91-99 (p.93).

[11] Ibid, p.94.

[12] Romo, Tere, “Conceptually Divine: Patssi Valdez’s Virgen de Guadalupe Walking the Mural”. In ASCO: Elite of the Obscure, A Retrospective, 1972-1987, edited by C.Ondine Chavoya and Rita Gonzalez, 276-283. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz; Williamstown, Mass.: Williams College Museum of Art; Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, (2011), 276- 283, (p.280).

[13] Ibid, p. 277.

[14] Ibid, p. 280.

[15] UC Berkeley Events, ASCO and Beyond: A Talk by Patssi Valdez. March, 26th, 2014.

[16]  Alvarado, Leticia, “Malflora Aberrant Femininities”. In Axis Mundo: Queer Networks in Chicano L.A. edited by C. Ondine Chavoya and David Evans Frantz. Munich: Prestel, (2017), 94-111, (p.97).

[17] Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Oral History interview with Patssi Valdez, 1999 May26 – June 2.