Call Her Malinalli: Museo offers a contemporary look at La Malinche in response to DAM
La Malinche and her resounding impact on world history went unnoticed for centuries, but today, three Denver exhibits are dedicated to the historical figure…and those who know her best.
Malinche was a Nahua woman enslaved by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and used as a translator (among other things) during his conquest of the Aztec people. She and Cortés had one child, and she is widely considered the mother of mestizos, a mixed race of European and indigenous descent. But for this reason she was also considered a conspirator, and her name mutated into the derogatory term “malinchista”, meaning traitor. In the 1990s, however, Chicano artists in a counter-colonialist movement began to depict Malinche as more of a victim of his time; she has now become an icon of Mexican feminism.
La Malinche: Traitor, Survivor, Iconwhich opened at the Denver Art Museum last month, examines how its image has evolved over the centuries to a more sympathetic outlook, using works from the 16th century to the modern era, including pieces by fifteen Chicano artists .
Maruca Salazar, former director of Museum of the Americas, heard of DAM’s plans early on and was disappointed that more space was not given to current Chicano artists on La Malinche. “My thought was, ‘Where is the opportunity for contemporary, post-modern Latinx and Chicano artists?’ Because you have to deal with it,” she said. “We know that these masters have already been recognized and used and are icons of Latinx and Chicano art. But where is the opportunity for the next generation of thinkers and creators?”
She also acknowledged that the thoughts of modern Chicano artists would not necessarily be reflected in the upcoming collaboration between the Latino Cultural Arts Center and DAM, Malintzin: untangled and rewoventhat will expose an iconic tapestry of conquest in the Next Stage Gallery of Denver Performing Arts Complex.
So Salazar decided to come out of retirement and curate his own exhibition, and spoke about it with the Museo’s current director, Claudia Moran, whom Salazar had worked with for almost a decade. The result, Malinalli on the rocksopens Thursday, March 17 at the Museo.
Rather than including Eurocentric views increased from Malinche, the exhibition of the Museo reduced its scope to contemporary art thirteen local artists Latinx and Chicano. Salazar wanted to present only current artists to amplify how the vision of Malinche has changed in the field of its own people and their own culture. “For me, I always think locally and I still think we need to celebrate what we have,” she said. “And what we have is incredible, incredible Talent.”
This does not mean that Salazar considers La Malinche a failure. “The Denver Art Museum exhibit is a very comprehensive, well-curated, and very scholarly exhibit,” she says. “Everyone can be very proud of it, because [they are] Do the right thing.”
But it took DAM a while to get there, Salazar adds. She’s still bristling with an encounter with former DAM curator Dianne Vanderlip at a Chicano art event at the Arvada Center in the ’80s, where she says Vanderlip told her, “Chicano art doesn’t does not exist.”
“I think this comment is more reflective of the voice of museums forty years ago,” says La Malinche curator Victoria Lyall. “That’s really not the case now, as you can see on our show. … We really tried to build bridges, and I don’t think that comment really reflects what we tried to do today .”
Yet Salazar points out that the enslaved woman, whose native name was Malinalli, was given the name Malinche by a priest during the conquest, while other names, such as Doña Marina, were labels the Spaniards applied. “I chose Malinalli, because I wanted to make it an opportunity to look at the wonderful and richest influences of indigenous culture, and I also wanted to take stock of the conquered peoples,” she explains. “The whole aspect of this exhibition is to look at what a mestizo is – a mixed race. Because she is the mother of all mestizos, she is the mother of all conquered peoples. So you have to take it from that perspective and then allow people to make their own interpretations.”
The artists in Malinalli on the rocks confront their subject matter in a myriad of mediums, but a common theme is humor, which Salazar identifies as a hallmark of Chicano art. “Humour is what avoids a lot of the sadness that comes with really, really looking at yourself,” she says.
Daniel Salazar took images from the Florentine Codex, a 16th-century account of conquest, and satirized them. In a depiction of the first encounter between Cortés and the Aztec Emperor Montezuma, with Malinche standing between the two, Cortés returned the bird rather than greeted it with an outstretched hand. In another piece called ‘The Vaxxers’, it depicts people with chickenpox, referring to the disease passed to indigenous peoples from Europeans, with a woman saying, ‘You should wear a mask’.
“They are very soft but fast and powerful blows given to the tradition”, says Maruca Salazar.
Each artist produced three to four works for the exhibition, and most are large in size. Delilah Montoya, who is also part of DAM Malinche exhibition, made a play that comically reflects the evangelization that swept through Mexico during the Spanish conquest. She’s a girl receiving her first communion, but with an unmistakable mischievous look on her face.
Carlos Fresquez, whom Salazar describes as “one of the most renowned Chicanos in the state and the country”, printed fifteen digital photographs depicting Malinche which he pasted up as “Wanted” posters, illustrating how she was criminalized . Quintin Gonzalez has also gone the tech route, with three stunning digital paintings by Malinche depicting her as a psychedelic goddess dripping in fractals, underscoring her widespread impact on world history.
Maruca Salazar created her own piece for the show called “Discarded”. Huipils, the traditional dress of an Aztec woman that Salazar drew from the Museo’s collection, is piled up in disarray. “Five years after the conquest, all Indigenous women and men were required to wear European tailored clothing,” notes Salazar.
An artist who was selected for the exhibition is not in the exhibition: Alicia Cardenas. The muralist and tattoo artist was shot dead in late December. The exhibit is now dedicated to Cardenas, who was a major activist in the defense of Chicano art.
Chicanos have had to fight for their place in Denver’s art scene, Salazar says, and she thinks there’s still room for improvement.
“This exhibition is a response to what Chicano art can be. Whether it’s aesthetically pleasing to untrained eyes, or whether it’s too overwhelming because you don’t have the cultural baggage, that’s irrelevant anymore,” says Salazar. “Black Lives Matter has changed all of that, and museums need to adapt. The new generation will no longer be silenced.
Malinalli on the rocksfrom Thursday March 17 to Saturday July 23, Museo de las Americas, 861 Santa Fe Drive.