The works of Ester Hernandez

Text and Textile :The works of Ester Hernandez
By Amalia Mesa-Bains
Within the movements for social justice, the language of change has often been
expressed through visual images, so powerful that they inspire critical
transformations in the public. The works of Ester Hernandez are part of this
revolutionary iconography. Hernandez embodies the artist as cultural citizen,
expressive of the community’s values, their struggle for rights, space, and
identity. Ester Hernandez has taken her place as a cultural citizen whose works
have given voice to the rights of the indigenous and Chicana/o communities.
Her visual representation of the battles in the fields captures the labor history of
Chicanas. The early years of life in the San Juaquin Valley, laboring with her
family and living close to the land have brought a sincere insight to the work of
the artist. She has crystallized the intense indignation of her own experience into
a wider view of the symbolic and the social. She is most known for a dramatic
iconography of women from the Gualalupe as karate fighter and the Statue of
Liberty as a Mayan stele to the legendary image of Sun Mad. Her own family
history is tied to the labor of her parents and grandparents. After the artist
discovered in 1979 that the water table of her region was poisoned with
pesticides she began Sun Mad, her 1981 screen print. The artist creates the
paradoxical as she asserts the subtext of the lyrical image of the Sun Maid raisin
box. The winsome and pastoral image of the innocent young maid offering her
abundant riches to America's tables is revealed in all her menacing reality. In
the fashion of the Mexican popular arts printer, Posada, Hernandez applies the
muertitos tradition of satire to America's sweetheart. It is an enduring work of art
understood in the popular culture but meaningful in a critical cultural world as
well. The calavera figure brings stark attention to the pesticides and acute labor
conditions of underpaid Mexican, indigenous, Central American and Filipino
farm workers.
In contemporary Aztlan in the Chicano Southwest , Dia de los Muertos has been
the inspiration for a new genre of installation work. This marking of space in a
memorial site reaches its most elegant and persuasive form in Ester Hernandez's
ceremonial ofrenda to her father. The ofrenda integrates her earlier image of Sun
Mad. The circle of stones and the earth are the signs of nature in a cultural
landscape. The placement of the farm worker's hat and scarf are a poignant
reminder of a life of toil and dignity in one of America’s most shamefully
exploitative industries.
Her newest installations honor the migration of indigenous workers into the
fields of California and in the industry of agriculture. Bringing with them their
native languages and customs, they must battle anew the discrimination and
exploitation. Hernandez’s activism began with native peoples of the Southwest.
Her concerns also embrace the new communities in their struggle. Her homenaje
is in the language of the ancient. Her use of flowers reminds us of the nahuatl
iconography of speech, where blossoms were synonymous with words. Her
flowers acknowledge the new communities of the indigenous and their ancient
cultures. Her work carries a social commentary; a melancholy remembrance of
community struggle and suffering that has gone unrecognized. In this
provocative aspect of the sacred, Hernandez demonstrates the complexity and
power of the traditions honoring the living and the dead. It is emblematic of a
politicizing spirituality.
Her consistent commitment to the manifest social issues of our time is also
expressed in metaphors of beauty and memory within the feminine. Her pieces
form a text of meaning that links the aspects of her installations, prints and pastel
drawings. In her newest installation work she turns again to the textile or
weaving. The new works are connected to the past installation, Tejido de los
Desaparecidos, where the ikat weave of the rebozo references civil war through
woven patterns of skeletons and helicopters. The shawl is invested with the
psychic knowledge gained from its wearer. The trace of the body and the
intimacy of the carnal inhabit the textile and give it its power. Hernandez’s cloth
is a repository of the cultural wealth of her ancestors and binds her to the
condition of indigenous struggle.
The textile she has created is in many respects a text that is woven of knowledge
and narrative. The Immigrant’s Dress is a garment of diaphanous threads
woven, stitched and bound to the family history of her antepasados. Held secret,
disguised and veiled from the viewer in the folds of the dress, is the wealth of a
cultural treasure. Like her own grandmother’s hidden money found after her
death, the metaphor of inner value is understood in the text of the dress. We see
through the textile to the maize, the sign of our sustenance and ancient way of
life. The text is one of women, protecting, saving, and treasuring memory. The
dress is a repository of history for the family, a collective and communal fabric of
In her new work, Huipil, she revisits the mythic, as the snake skins retrace the
beauty of Cuatlique across the fabric. The huipil, the ancient dress of
Mesoamerica, bears the imprint of the fierce Mother goddess and the emblem of
nature’s capacity for regeneration. The Tzin Tzun Tzan, the humming bird,
associated with unrequited love hangs as a symbol of the natural, a healing
power endowed with magic charm. In these latest works, Hernandez carries
forward the two threads of her previous work, the social and the mythic, the
warp and the weft of her text. Her art is imbued with a sense of the spiritual that
unites memory and nature. This ethical vision is ensouled in the practices of a
political, historical, cultural, and geographic investigation that gives spirit to her
communities. Ester Hernandez is artist and cultural citizen who serves as she
continues to provoke and inspire.
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