About Ester Hernández'
La Pelona


INFORMATION ABOUT THE ARTWORK

SUBJECT MATTER: What subject matter (people, places, or things) can I find in the artwork?

La Pelona (the bald one) depicts a smiling skull decorated with red lips, spirals on her checks, and a small cross on her forehead. The skull wears a dangling earring and long braids tied with bows. She wears a half slice of watermelon trimmed in blue and gold as a hat. From the front the red pulp and black seeds of the watermelon are depicted. The back shows the outside green rind of the watermelon.

TOOLS, MATERIALS, AND PROCESSES: What can I learn about how the artwork was made?)

Ester Hernández made La Pelona in mixed media. She formed the mask in clay. After it was fired she decorated the mask with acrylic paint, a real turquoise and silver earring, fabric, and her own hair.


SENSORY ELEMENTS: What visual elements do I see in the artwork? (line, color, shape, light and dark, texture, mass, and space)

The sculpture when suspended can swing. The angles of the braids and earring can change in relationship to the rest of the sculpture. The sculpture exists largely in one plane except for the rounded protrusion of the skull in the center. The rather flat quality of the sculpture is particularly evident when viewed from the side. The back is quite flat except for the hollow space of the inside of the skull.

Viewed from the front, the two bands of rind describe perfect concentric semicircles. Watermelon seeds and other shapes are sharply defined with clear edges. Features of the face and the border of the watermelon are outlined with black lines. The red and greens are quite bright. The main green of the back view and the blues on the front are tints, that is, colors mixed with white.

FORMAL ORGANIZATION: How do the elements in the artwork work together? (For example, are parts repeated, balanced, emphasized, contrasted?)

There is a good deal of repeat patterning on the front of the La Pelona: the watermelon seeds, the zigzag border of the watermelon, the skull's even teeth, and the repeated curves of braided hair. The back view shows somewhat less regular patterns in the rind markings and the black shapes on the red interior surface of the skull.

The zigzag border repeats the blue of the earring and bows. Gold is repeated inside the zigzag border, in the eyes and nostrils of the skull, and finally in one gold tooth.

The sculpture is bilaterally symmetrical when viewed from front or back. The facial features, cheek spirals, and braids balance each other, right and left. The watermelon is placed squarely on the head. The gold right front tooth and the single earring break up the otherwise rigid frontal symmetry of the piece.

REPRODUCTION: What can I learn about how this reproduction (digitized or printed image) is different from the original artwork? (size, angle of view, surface texture, etc.)

La Pelona is actually quite tiny, only 6 inches from the top of the watermelon to the end of the braids.

The Quicktime Virtual Reality (QTVR) reproduction, back view, side edge view, and top edge view provide a sense of the rather flat three-dimensional quality of the piece. Largest views of the sculpture provide a sense of the slightly rough surface of the piece, the raised blue zigzag, as well as the tactility of the hair.

The color of the main photographs is more accurate than the yellowish color of the QTVR reproduction. Even though the QTVR reproduction shows the sculpture from many points of view, it does not capture the sculpture's capacity to change slightly as the braids or earring move.

CONDITION: What can I learn about the condition (broken, restored, dirty) of the artwork? How did it look when it was new?

La Pelona is in excellent condition.


INFORMATION ABOUT THE ART MAKER

ART MAKER'S LIFE:
Who made the artwork? What are the circumstances of the art maker's life?

Ester Hernández is a California artist of Mexican and Yaqui descent. Her parents were farmworkers who had been involved for decades in the struggle for the rights of farm workers.

Ester's grandmother was the mother of sixteen children. According to Ester, she "worked years in the fields and had a hard, but beautiful life. She was strong and powerful." (Amalia Mesa-Bains. 1995. The Art of Provocation: Works by Ester Hernández, 1995, n.p.)

During the Depression, Hernández' father's family migrated to California's San Joaquín Valley in search of work. Ester was raised in a small farming town. As a child Ester and her family would dress up and drive their old car to Fresno to buy provisions. In the store her mother and sisters would put her on the flour sacks to see which would make the nicest dress. "Even though we were poor, we still strove for beauty and order in our lives. We worked hard. Yet whatever we touched, though it may have been a humble flour sack, we always made it beautiful." (Amalia Mesa-Bains. 1995. The Art of Provocation: Works by Ester Hernández, 1995, n.p.)

Because her parents had to leave school to work, they were determined that Ester would receive an education. Just after graduating high school in 1965, Hernández and her family went to a park in their hometown to see a farmworkers march. "There was César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and a small group of farmworkers--very vulnerable, standing proud, and knowing their rights. The only thing I had seen that resembled it was the Civil Rights Movement in the South. Yet it wasn't African Americans, it was us. That was a turning point in my life." (Amalia Mesa-Bains. 1995. The Art of Provocation: Works by Ester Hernández, 1995, n.p.)

After high school, Hernández moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, married, and had a son. She describes herself during that time as a hippie. In 1973 she attended Grove Street College in Oakland and became politically active. For the first time she met people of color from diverse backgrounds. Eventually she transferred to Laney College in Oakland and finally to the University of California at Berkeley where she studied La Raza (Chicano) Studies and Anthropology, and later art. She graduated with honors and a degree in the Practice of Art.

The California Arts Council has awarded Hernández three artist-in-residence positions in the Oakland Public Schools and four residencies in the Posada de Colores Senior Center also in Oakland. In 1989 she won the San Francisco Bay Guardian's Visual Artist Award. In 1989 the Philadelphiass Brandywine Institute awarded her an Artist Fellowship. The National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies presented her with the Chicana Artist Award in 1992. In 1994 she received the 1st Annual César Chávez Community Service Award.

Hernández' work has been exhibited in California, Texas, Illinois, New York, Mexico, Brazil, Poland, the Soviet Union, and England. Her work is in the collections of the Frida Kahlo Studio-Museum in Mexico City, the Bronx Museum of Fine Arts, the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museo del Barrio in New York, and the Mexican Fine Arts Center-Museum in Chicago.


CONTEXTUAL INFORMATION

NATURAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about the natural environment where the artwork was made? (for example, climate, landforms, natural resources)

Ester Hernández was raised in the arid eastern San Joaquín Valley near Fresno, California. She grew up in an agricultural area in northern Tulare County at the base of the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Hernández now lives in San Francisco, a city located on a bay of the Pacific Ocean with a much more temperate climate than her childhood home.

FUNCTIONAL CONTEXT: What can I learn about how the artwork was used?

Ester Hernández has said that La Pelona is a kind of self-portrait showing how she'd like to look in death. This mixed media work functions in accordance with other Chicano and Mexican-American art addressing the presence and acceptance of death by the community.

CULTURAL CONTEXT:
What can I determine about what people thought, believed, or did in the culture in which the artwork was made?

Many Mexican American communities celebrate the Day of the Dead in November of each year. Children are given sugar skulls, and toy-like skeletal figures engaged in everyday activities, such as playing instruments, going to school, reading newspapers, or riding bicycles. In such traditional communities death is accepted as a continuous presence thoughout one's life. Ester Hernández was familiar with these traditions from childhood.

Hernández has described herself in young adulthood as a hippie. She left her small rural hometown to live in the mecca of hippiedom, San Francisco. She studied at the University of California, Berkeley during the height of the Free Speech Movement. "Chicanismo evolved from the student movement and radicalized politics. It engaged and promoted the issues of national identity, dignity, self-worth, pride, uniqueness, and cultural rebirth. Primarily a youth movement, it nevertheless cut across class, regional, and occasionally generational lines. The mystiques of nationalism and indigenism contained within the concept of Chicanismo unified a heterogeneous movement; they cemented the national network of students and youth that began to form in the second half of the 1960s." (Sifra M. Goldman and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto. 1991."The Political and Social Contexts of Chicano Art" in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation edited by Richard Griswold Del Castillo, Teresa McKenna, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano. Los Angeles, CA: Wight Art Gallery and the University of California, Los Angeles, p. 86.)

At the same time as the Chicano Movement was developing, Chicanas, influenced by the feminist movement, sought to clarify their role in society. "The Chicano Movement sought to end oppression--discrimination, racism, and poverty--and Chicanas supported that goal unequivocally; the movement did not, however, propose basic changes in male-female relations or the status of women. Sensing their power, Chicanas began to speak out on their own behalf. They established organizations like the Mexican American Women's Organization, the Comisíon Femenil Mexicana, the Mexican American Business and Professional Women, the Hijas de Cuauhtémoc, and the Concilio des Mujeres." . (Sifra M. Goldman and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto. 1991."The Political and Social Contexts of Chicano Art" in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation edited by Richard Griswold Del Castillo, Teresa McKenna, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano. Los Angeles, CA: Wight Art Gallery and the University of California, Los Angeles, p. 90.) Hernández joined the Mujeres Muralistas of San Francisco.

Hernández was also engaged in the American Indian Movement and Chicano Neoindigenism. In the 1960s Native American protests on behalf of land its rights were growing simultaneously with the Chicano Movement. This is the era when Native Americans occupied Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. Neoindigenism "permitted Chicanos to trace their history in Middle American Indian sources and their more recent mestizaje with modern Indians--from the 1680 Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico to the commingling that continues to take place (both personally and culturally) among Mexicans and Indians in the borderlands. Before the 1960s, this fact of history had been obscured in the Southwest, where the fantasy of the Spanish heritage was emphasized. (Sifra M. Goldman and Tomás Ybarra-Frausto. 1991."The Political and Social Contexts of Chicano Art" in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation edited by Richard Griswold Del Castillo, Teresa McKenna, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano. Los Angeles, CA: Wight Art Gallery and the University of California, Los Angeles, p. 88.) Hernández' 1976 etching, Libertad, expresses her neoindigenism. She depicts herself as a sculptor chiseling away that the Statue of Liberty revealing an Aztec sculpture within it.

ARTWORLD CONTEXT:
What can I learn about the art ideas, beliefs about art, and art activities that were important in the culture in which the artwork was made?

Art making was a family tradition in the Hernández family. Ester's mother makes traditional Mexican embroideries and her father is an amateur photographer. Her grandfather was a carpenter who made religious sculptures in his spare time." (Transcipt from "Latina/Latino Artists Discussing Their Works: I," 1848/1898@1998: Transhistorical Thresholds Conference, Arizona State University, December 10, 1998)

Just out of high school when United Farmworkers (UFW) marched in her hometown, Hernández saw the banners, music, and theatrics and began to think of art as a way to change things for the better.

At Grove Street College in the 1970s Ester Hernández studied mural making and silk screen printmaking with Malaquaís Montoya. Many Chicano artists favor mural making and printmaking as media through which they can communicate to numerous people within a community. Chicano murals are usually a community collaboration and accessible to the public for viewing. Because prints are produced in editions (multiple prints) people without a great deal of money can afford to buy them.

After Hernández was recruited by the University of California at Berkeley, she began her studies in Chicano Studies and anthropology, but eventually ended up in the art department. She explains: "I went to the art department because I felt that's who I really was. The art department was hell for all of us colored girls. All the teachers were old white men who could barely deal with the younger generation. We were of another world, another time. They were like dinosaurs with power and tenure. Fran Valesco was a lecturer in the art department. She respected people of color, and white women. The professors didn¹t respect us. They basically stayed with the boys who they thought were going to emulate their style of work or who were already following what was going on in New York. Yet we put up with the abuse and disrespect, because we wanted to contribute to our communities." (Amalia Mesa-Bains. 1995. The Art of Provocation: Works by Ester Hernández, 1995, n.p.)

In 1973, while still a student, Hernández exhibited in an exhibition called "Mujeres de Aztlán" (Women of the Southwest--the area, according to legend from which came the Aztecs) with other Chicana artists at San Francisco's Galería de La Raza. She joined a group of these Chicana artists who called themselves Mujeres Muralistas (Women Muralists). She learned art ideas from these artists what she was not learning at Berkeley.

As artist-in-residence in several Oakland Public Schools and an Oakland Senior Center, Hernández taught a variety of media drawing upon Mexican traditions, including ceramics, paper making, printmaking, and mural making.

Hernández has exhibited widely and is generally recognized in the Chicano artworlds as a pioneer.

VIEWPOINTS FOR INTERPRETATION

MAKER'S INTENTION: What can I learn about why the maker wanted the artwork to look the way it does?

Ester Hernández has said "La Pelona and I are not strangers. I've always enjoyed laughing at and creating images of a mischievous parrandiando muerta [partying dead woman]. This friendly interaction makes me appreciate life. Joining this with my love of small things. I created this miniature ceramic mask. I have dressed her as I would my own calavera (skeleton)--muy alegre, con su sandia, turquesa, diente de oro, y pelo largo y negro [very happy, with her watermelon, turquoise, tooth of gold and long black hair]. ¡Que Viva La Vida! [Long Live Life!].

ARTWORLD VIEWER UNDERSTANDING: What can I determine about how the person(s) for whom the artwork was made (for example, a patron, user, or other viewer of the time) understand it?

Ester Hernández is a recognized founding member of the Chicano artworld. Her feminist and political images have been reproduced so frequently that some have become icons of Chicano art. Amalia Mesa-Bains has written: "The career of an artist is often marked by continuing balance or even struggle between content and the form. Experiences, fantasies, beliefs, values and hopes are the phenomena of the content, while media, materials, techniques and strategies are the elements relevant to form. This interweaving of content and form is an organic relationship that bears a logic in the work of Ester Hernández. She has been driven by the conviction of her own experiences to bring overt attention to covert social conditions. The exploitation of cultural communities and the persistent domination of women veiled within a society's notion of progress and are often unacknowledged in the broader public concern." (1995. The Art of Provocation: Works by Ester Hernández, 1995, n.p.)

Mesa-Bains has also written of the importance of "how she [Hernández] reworks the female image. Marked by her early family models of mother and grandmother, she has articulated the gender issue in a series of portraits.... Hernández, along with Yolanda López restructures the feminine through social critique, She subverts, recontextualizes, and thus transforms culturally traditional images into a series of feminist icons." (1991. "El Mundo Femenino: Chicana Artists of the Movement--A Commentary On Development and Production," in Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation edited by Richard Griswold Del Castillo, Teresa McKenna, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano. Los Angeles, CA: Wight Art Gallery and the University of California, Los Angeles, p. 137.)

In 1995 Alice Walker wrote that she loved "the energy and sometimes playfulness of Ester Hernández's work." (Amalia Mesa-Bains. 1995. The Art of Provocation: Works by Ester Hernández, 1995, n.p.) Walker was writing about a pastel drawing called If This Is Death, I Like It, a 1987 pastel drawing that borrows imagery of Hernández' earlier La Pelona. The drawing, like La Pelona, shows a skull (in this case adapted to represent Frida Kahlo) with long black hair, wearing a single earring and a half watermelon hat.

CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING: What can I learn about how the artwork was understood within the culture in which it was made?

Ester Hernández, like many Mexican Americans, understands death not as a fearful inevitability to be suppressed from consciousness and held at bay as long as possible, but rather as a continuous presence, the counter balance that brings vitality to everyday life. From this perspective La Pelona is not seen as a morbid or frightening image, but as a joyous expression of continuous juxtaposition of life and death.

In 1965 when Hernández first saw Dolores Huerta co-founder of the Farmworkers Union, Huerta made a great impact on Hernández. Thirty years later, referring to Hernández body of work (which includes many explicit political and feminist works), Huerta wrote: "Ester Hernández's art reflects the soul and pain of farmworkers. She depicts their history and lives without despair.... Ester's work is strong as the indigenous people and women she portrays. She shows life with its passion and spirituality. Once seeing her work, memory of it will remain with you forever. Ester is a master of communication through art and cuts to the quick, to the soul, to the corazon (heart) to the passion that touches us and helps us to understand the experiences of others--making them our own." (Amalia Mesa-Bains. 1995. The Art of Provocation: Works by Ester Hernández, 1995, n.p.)

A number of Hernández' works are quite controversial. Perhaps her most famous work is called Sun Mad, an image of a skeleton replacing the girl on the Sun Maid Raisins box accompanied by the text,"unnaturally grown with insecticides, miticides, herbicides, fungicides. (Click here to see Sun Mad in upper right.) Museums in the agribusiness-dominated San Joaquín Valley have asked her not to include this controversial piece with her other less controversial work.

Hernández explains that "even the farmworkers, the people who know about it and live it, get real nervous. It (Sun Mad) shakes the economic foundations of everything. If you're not working, you don't have food, you don't have property--everything falls apart. Yet everyone has a story about being sick or sprayed with pesticides. (Amalia Mesa-Bains. 1995. The Art of Provocation: Works by Ester Hernández, 1995, n.p.)"


CONNECTIONS AMONG ARTWORKS

STYLE: How does the artwork look like other artworks?

La Pelona resembles the folk art calavera (skeleton) figures associated with Day of the Dead celebrations. Its bright colors also reflect the intensity of colors used in many Mexican folk artworks. It is similar in size to cookies or other sweets that are given as gifts within the family on the Day of the Dead.

INFLUENCE: What can I learn about how earlier artworks influenced this artwork or about whether this artwork influenced later artworks?

Some of Ester Hernández' early influences were Malaquías Montoya and Rupert García and a little later Chicana artists such as Irene Pérez, Patricia Rodríguez and Consuelo Méndez whom she joined as the Mujeres Muralistas (Women Muralists).

Hernández' 1976 print La Virgin de Guadalupe Defendiendo Los Derechos de Los Xicanos (The Virgin of Guadalupe Defending Chicano Rights) has been called the first feminist Chicano artwork. Many Chicanas have continued to reinterpret the Virgin of Guadalupe from a feminist perspective. Most prominent among these reinterpretations is Yolanda López' Portrait of the Artist as the Virgin of Guadalupe made two years later.

THEMES: What general ideas help connect this artwork to other artworks?

Death is a common theme in Chicano and Mexican art. The calavera, or skeleton, is an image commonly depicted in objects made to celebrate the Day of the Dead. The Chicano artist Eduardo Oropeza uses guitar playing calavera. José Guadalupe Posada, the popular Mexican printmaker of the early years of the twentieth century, also used calaveras in many of his prints.

In La Pelona, Ester Hernández juxtaposes the skull as an image of death with the seed-filled watermelon, a symbol of life. The watermelon is a recurring theme in her work. She uses a very similar image in If This Is Death, I Like It, a pastel drawing in homage to Frida Kahlo. Frida y Yo shows skeletal Frida Kahlo holding hands and seated with Hernández on a huge, sliced watermelon. (The print is available for sale from Arizona State University's Hispanic Research Center.) In Ultimate Escape, Hernández has made a self portrait depicting herself, a watermelon and a nuclear bomb. Without implications of death, Hernández has subtly included watermelons elsewhere in her artworks, for example in the pattern of a flour sack dress in an artwork depicting a childhood memory.

The self image or portrait is a common theme in many Western artworlds. Chicano artists self portraits include Yolanda López' famous reinterpretation of the Virgin of Guadalupe , Carmen Lomas Garza's self portrait as an adolescent with her family, and Gilbert Luján's self portrait with a dog . A pre-nineteenth century portrait may be a copy of seventeenth century by the famous scholar and nun Sor Juan Inéz de la Cruz.

Ester Hernández, like many Mexican Americans, understands death not as a fearful inevitability to be suppressed from consciousness and held at bay as long as possible, but rather as a continuous presence, the counter balance that brings vitality to everyday life. From this perspective La Pelona is not seen as a morbid or frightening image, but as a joyous expression of continuous juxtaposition of life and death, and as the final stage or culmination of the natural evolution of life.



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