Q+Art: Mexican-American Artist Linda Vallejo Reclaims Her ‘Brown Intellectual Property’
Mexican-American artist Linda Vallejo has a wicked sense of humor. Despite the seriousness of her subject matter, the Los Angeles-based artist has spent the better part of the last decade infusing cheeky humor into her multidisciplinary work. The result is Brown Belongings, an expansive body of work containing multiple series that explore what Vallejo calls her “brown intellectual property”—the experiences, knowledge, and emotions she’s gathered from over four decades of immersive Chicano/a and indigenous American studies. “My work represents … what it means to be a person of color in the United States,” writes Vallejo in her artist statement.
Growing up in 1960s Alabama, Vallejo had a front-row seat to the civil rights movement. It was in this environment the artist first developed a curiosity about the effects of skin color on one’s life. As a young adult, her studies led her to Mesoamerica, where she frequented Native American ceremonial sites—a practice that would inform her work in the decades to follow.
In 2010, Brown Belongings began with an inauspicious trip to a local antique mall. While searching for materials to artistically repurpose, Vallejo stumbled upon a set of salt and pepper shakers shaped like pilgrims. “I said to myself, ‘I can paint them brown!,’” Vallejo explains. “Before long, I blurted out, ‘I just wanna make ’em all Mexican—like me!” The resulting work became Make ‘Em All Mexican, a series of pop culture figures—stormtroopers, Marilyn Monroe, Paul McCartney—painted brown.
In The Brown Dot Project and Datos Sagrados (Sacred Data), Vallejo was still interested in “keepin’ it brown,” but turned to census data to tell a story. “The works reflect various types of data, including the Latino proportion of city and state populations, of professionals in the health, education, and other sectors, and of the US gross national product,” she notes.
Throughout Brown Belongings, Vallejo maintains a saucy sense of humor that keeps viewers on their toes. More importantly, her work questions just who the American dream was made for, and, without waiting for an answer, comes to its own conclusion.
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Linda Vallejo discusses her interest in Mesoamerican history, the art world’s poor representation of people of color, and her upcoming 2022 solo exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Linda Vallejo: Books about Meso-American history, art, and culture; biographies of artists, writers, and actors; novels and plays written by the greats of the 20th century.
Which cultural concepts, themes, or philosophies inform your work?
LV: Chicano/Latino culture; data driven work; the juxtaposition of history and pop culture; social-political themes.
What are you trying to express with your art?
LV: Allegories, symbols, and double-entendres that bespeak modern life as a person of color in all its aspects: cultural, economic, socio-political, and personal.
What do you wish you learned in art school but weren’t taught?
LV: The business of an art career (I teach this now!).
What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What’s the worst?
LV: You can't be married with a family and have a successful career; women cannot be successful artists because of their commitment to relationships; follow your own image; believe in your personal statement and vision; build relationships in the art world on all levels through positive, professional communications and excellent work.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
LV: I am a grant-writing consultant and artist career coach. I am married with children and grandchildren. I work on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday each week, and have the rest of the week for my art and art career.
What does success mean to you as an artist?
LV: Being exhibited, collected, and published widely on a regular basis in a variety of galleries, institutions, and nonprofit organizations.
What role does the artist have in society?
LV: Bespeak the times, share the unconscious of a society. Ask questions that need asking, remind people about what's important.
What role should money play in the art world?
LV: A great deal. Artists need to live and produce. They need security and health care. They need decent transportation. Money makes the world go 'round for artists, just like every other aspect of society. Galleries need to stay alive; museums need to flourish; nonprofit art centers provide services that cost money.
What’s your relationship with money?
LV: I like money. I always find a way to make a decent wage and still make my art.
How do you deal with the ups and downs of the market?
LV: I ride the wave and take opportunities as they come. In many cases I subsidize my own shows to make sure that they are presented in the professional manner I demand.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
LV: The Brown Solo Project exhibition at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA), 2022. For this project I am appropriating the culture and history of the nascent age of US wealth and influence, and symbolically returning it to the “brown” workers who helped to build America. The Brown Solo Project will evoke a dialogue about some of the most important questions of this time in US history: how do color, class, culture, and power define our status? How do the politics of color and class affect US Latino’s engagement in American society? Do the politics of power determine US Latino contributions to American economy and culture? Is it possible to contribute to the dominant culture as a person of color?
What do you do to maintain your mental health?
LV: Relationships with family and friends; a strong relationship with nature; working with other artists to help advance their careers; staying busy and keeping my art career on track.
What do you dislike about the art world? How would you change it if you could?
LV: Representation of women and people of color in the broader art world and market. I am working to change it by creating the best work I am possible of, and working with institutions to produce stellar exhibitions and publications.
Is there a specific time you recall feeling marginalized by the art world?
LV: Just about every week.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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