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Shooting from the wild zone: A study of the Chicana art photographers Laura Aguilar, Celia Álvarez Muñoz, Delilah Montoya, and Kathy Vargas

Shooting from the wild zone: A study of the Chicana art photographers Laura Aguilar, Celia Álvarez Muñoz, Delilah Montoya, and Kathy Vargas
 Asta M. Kuusinen

2006

Department of World Cultures, University of Helsinki, 00100 Helsinki, FINLAND.

ABSTRACT

Chapter 1, “Introduction” offers a brief overview on the developments of so-called critical theory in cultural studies since the early 1970s, followed by an introduction of Chicano Studies and the controversial issue of race in the United States. The purpose of Chapter 2, “Mythologies and Histories” is to provide the reader with a “road map” through the structures and significations of U.S. social formation and the critical historical events that circumscribe specifically Mexican American cultural production today. Acknowledging the legacy of such myth and symbol school Americanists as Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Annette Kolodny, Richard Slotkin, and – in photography – Alan Trachtenberg, the chapter aims to juxtapose empirical history and its mediation/construction via popular imagination as well as official policy. The first section, “El Norte, the Southwest, Aztlán,” outlines the narratives, leading symbols, and myths of the nationalistic ideologies in the United States and Mexico. In this interrelated family of ideologies, the Mexican American member – called Aztlán, makes a rare subcategory in itself, representing a nationalistic narrative which overlaps the territories and geographical boundaries of the two nation-states without having sovereignty or a land base of its own. Special attention is given to the heyday of the Mexican American civil rights struggle, the 1960–1970s Chicano movement, fueled by ethnic separatism and intense arousal of cultural nationalism. The second section, “Regional Histories, Borderline Identities,” covers the main aspects of Mexican American history in the U.S. Southwest, focusing on uneven, regionally divergent developments in California, New Mexico, and Texas – the home states of the artists studied. Particular emphasis is given to the discussion of the rather contradictory interpretations of these histories by scholars from different fields, and how these interpretations reflect as well as reconstruct contemporary discourses within/without Mexican American cultural, academic, and local communities.

Since the beginning of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement that started in the early 1960s, Chicana feminists and lesbian activists have challenged the aesthetics, politics, and practices of Mexican American cultural revival, reinterpreting the religious and popular archetypes, symbols, and stereotypes that circumscribe the lives of Mexican American women. In Chapter 3, “Images and Meanings,” the first section, “Reading the Imagery of Chicanidad,” will introduce the strategies characteristic of Chicana expression and Chicana feminists’ commonalities with other feminists of color, who have questioned the “universal sisterhood” advocated by U.S. mainstream feminism. The second section, “Discourses on (Art) Photography,” makes a sudden, yet necessary detour from the preceding text by dwelling on the development of American photography, with special attention given to its controversial social roles, on the one hand, and to its position first in the modernist and then in the postmodernist discourses of art, on the other. This section also includes a concise introduction to semiotics (i.e., the study of signs), which interprets images through the systems of signification, representation, and textual deconstruction.

Part II consists of seven essays, each of which discusses rather independently a particular photographic work or a series of photographic works, formulating and defending arguments about their meaning, their position in the history of photographic genres, and their cultural and socio-political significance. Each of the three chapters focuses on a different aspect of representation, which fall under the titles: “History as the Site of Identification,” “Community as the Site of Identification,” and “The Body Politic of Chicana Representation.” The result is a series of “mini studies” with unexpected revelations and shuttling motions between different positions, rather than a single well-grounded and carefully constructed academic argument. I like to think, however, that this pays homage to Roland Barthes’ understanding of the “polysemic” nature of the still image, the meaning of which is floating and ambiguous, complicating its reading. What is the essence of this meaning? Where does it come from? Is there something beyond? With these questions in mind, Barthes concluded that perhaps each photograph would need its own separate study. I tend to agree.

Anyhow, the final discussion makes an effort to interpret the findings and arguments presented in the essays and pull together their links with the multifarious strands of Chicana identity, subjectivity, and ideology. The section titled “Predicaments of Identity: ¿No está la familia?” first locates the Mexican American identity question in the field of the general controversies about identity politics in the United States recently. Then follows a review of the main arguments, which affirms historian Vicki Ruiz’s assertion that “[t]here is not a single hermetic Mexican or Mexican-American culture, but rather permeable cultures rooted in generation, gender, and region, class, and personal experience.” Taking after Ruiz, I argue that Chicana artists, too, navigate across ethno-racial, cultural, class- and gender-based boundaries and “consciously make decisions with regard to the production of culture.”  Yet their choices are not unlimited, but often moderated by expectations from both their own communities and the mainstream art world. Tejana artists Álvarez Muñoz and Vargas, due to the crucial role of historical myths in their home state’s self-image, focus their art works on decolonizing  and defamiliarizing  Western history by eliciting information from their childhood memories. In Montoya’s and Aguilar’s art works, it is claimed, Chicana/o ideology and identity politics  form a central axis due to their life experiences as working-class mestizas  with rather complex relationships with their ethno-racial origins. The concluding passage of the study expounds on the notion of the “Wild Zone” (see pages 24-25; endnote 55) as a political/cultural space of gendered and race-specific knowledge, touching upon the troubled relationship between women, feminisms, and nationalisms with some references to Finland, too. Symbolically, the Wild Zone becomes associated with the body of the mother, a recurrent image in Chicana art works under discussion, articulating the parameters of a matrifocal  community unified by the proliferation of differences rather than by conformities.