PASADENA — During the 1500s, Spanish conquistadors named the Baja California Peninsula after a mythical island described in a chivalric romance novel, Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s Las sergas de Esplandián. The fictional island of California, filled with gold and mythical creatures, was ruled by a Black queen named Calafia and her tribe of warrior women. In the novel, Calafia and her warriors eventually succumb to an army of men and convert to Christianity, despite their strength and bravery. The colonial fantasy of Calafia became a founding myth of California, most palpably at the expense of the actual indigenous people who inhabited the region and suffered under the expansion of Spanish empire.
The mythology of Calafia and present-day realities of the California peninsula are the subjects of a group exhibition at the Armory Center for the Arts. The third in a traveling series of exhibitions and programs that comprise the MexiCali Biennial, Calafia: Manifesting the Terrestrial Paradise highlights the legacies of colonization along the US and Mexico border.
Several artworks in the exhibition reimagine the Calafia myth as a symbol of women’s strength and agency. The artist collective #SNATCHPOWER, for example, stages a futurist matriarchal society of Black women in an image from their short film Channeling Calafia (2018), while Mely Barragán’s series of banners, “Fact for Fiction” (2018), re-appropriates translated quotes from Las sergas de Esplandián as celebrations of powerful, militant women.
These utopian visions are displayed alongside works addressing the militarized and dystopian realities of US and Mexican borderlands. Paulina Sánchez’s photographs capture the lives of migrants in Mexicali, the capital city of Baja California, where duty-free factories allow American companies to take advantage of cheap labor in the production of goods to be shipped back across the border. Hillary Mushkin’s “Incendiary Traces: Three Border Ecologies” (2019) project documents artistic and public responses to checkpoints and border patrol stations that dot Southern California landscapes within 100 miles of the border. Drawings and watercolors map instances of warrantless searches and militarized surveillance near state-protected wilderness, while interviews with advocates from immigrant rights coalition Alianza Comunitaria describe the support networks established to help respond to raids and checkpoints by federal agencies.
The real-life histories and lives of indigenous people living in the Californias are the focus of the Cog*nate Collective’s bilingual audio and embroidery installation, produced in collaboration with Mujeres Mixtecas, a cooperative of indigenous Mixtec women living and working in the border city of Tijuana. Nearby, Monica Rodriguez’s Californiana (2019), a series of ink drawings on paper, reproduces covers and pages from 20th-century books about early California history, books with titles like Indians and Intruders and Women and the Conquest of California, published in service of legitimizing the expansion of American empire.
There are moments in which the show feels like it’s packing in several exhibitions into one, making it easy to lose the thread in an exhibition with works by nearly 30 artists and collectives, all loosely, if not tangentially, connected by themes of alternative myth-making, border cities, militarized landscapes, and indigenous histories. Still, the conversations between these artists point to the complex history along the US and Mexico border. Here, California doesn’t end or begin at a border wall.
Calafia: Manifesting the Terrestrial Paradise continues at Armory Center for the Arts (154 North Raymond Avenue, Pasadena) through January 12. The exhibition was organized by curators Ed Gomez, Luis G. Hernandez, and Daniela Lieja Quintanar.