By Raymond R. Beltrán
When the local artist and muralist, Carmen Linares Kalo, first exhibited her painting “La Virgen Zapapista,” she remembers that some people really hated it and questioned how someone could ever cover the face of the Vírgen.
“If they hate it, that’s better,” she says. “That means I’ve gotten to the fiery core of their emotions.”
Kalo’s rendition of the Vírgen is painted in the style of the Chicano muralist that she is and the Vírgen’s face is covered with the mask worn by guerilla soldiers of the Ejercito Zapatista Liberación Nacional. It represents the mixture in the Chicano culture between the indigenous movimientos and the symbolism in La Vírgen, who “would have marched with [the Zapatistas]” says Kalo.
More than a culturally symbolic piece of art, the painting represents the mixture between the artist and activist in Carmen Kalo’s as well.
Her artistic roots run back to Colonia Francisco Villa in Las Playas de Tijuana, Baja California, where she used to spend her summers with her grandmother. She says it was their, when she was four years old and sitting in her grandmother’s rose bushes, that she used to sculpt portraits of her family members with the damp soil in the garden.
“Getting into the earth and its moistness really helped me to understand how powerful my hands are,” says Kalo, looking back on her childhood. “I would sculpt little portraits, horses, houses and whatever came to mind. I would look up at the sky and the sun was coming down and the light had this brilliance, creating little shapes, and it was there that I became an artist.”
Since her childhood, Kalo says she’s obviously become a more sophisticated artist, even though she’s never had formal training. Being an activist in the Chicano Park community, as a danzante and a muralist, she says it’s the youth’s tagger style and culture that influence her paintings. And though she doesn’t have any particular artist she labels as a mentor, she admires “anyone who has the guts to pick up a brush.”
As a self proclaimed surrealist, Kalo’s body of work presents a variety of styles that fall under their common juxtaposition of eccentric colors.
“A lot of the colors are bright and bold. I [attribute] that to mornings spent with my grandmother,” she says. “It represents the richness in our culture, the Mexica (pronounced me’shee’kã). You can see the colors of the Danza Aztecas I take with me. It’s how they live and there’s a pureness they bring to the community.”
Kalo, who’s painted a 25-piece series dedicated to the Native American Movement, is deeply influenced by indigenous people when painting. “Tio,” a portrait of a Native American man, is a piece with a story behind it. While coming across a homeless man lying in Chicano Park, Kalo approached an old indio who was sleeping on the floor. As he awoke, she sat him straight up, offered him a cup of water and was reminded of the nobility in her people. She began to sketch his face, with his permission, and until the day of his death, soon after, she gave him the title tio, or “uncle” whenever she came across him. The sketches she drew that day were used to make the painting Tio, which is currently being exhibited at Chicano Perk, amongst many others.
“I don’t know what the circumstances were that brought him there, but he was such a noble man,” she remembers. “So, I wanted to recognize him for what he was, and now I have him here as a noble man, as my tio.”
The majority of Carmen Kalo’s work is acrylic on canvas, but she’s more prominently known for her murals exhibited on César E. Chavez Parkway and Logan Avenue. There is a tribute to Laura Rodriguez, a Barrio Logan activist who initiated the idea of a community health center in that particular neighborhood.
Acknowledging that social and political activism is where her heart is, Kalo is also an active member of the Save Our Centro Coalition and has worked with groups like Unión del Barrio during the Operation Gatekeeper protests, when her work was hung along the U.S. Border entrance into Tijuana, México.
“My purpose is to do as much good as I can,” she says. “As an artist, if I’m going to borrow the face of a culture, it’s my civic duty to give back and make sure it benefits them.”
Carmen Kalo’s work is on display at Chicano Perk. Call 619-702-5414 for information.