Apples and Bananas, Flowers and Gold: Family and Acculturation in Larissa Bates' Mamá Lengua
by Jeanne Gerrity
“What was a daffodil, I wanted to know, since such a thing did not grow in the tropics.”
- Jamaica Kincaid
Author Jamaica Kincaid has written about the daffodil as a symbol for colonialism. Forced to memorize William Wordsworth's poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” as a child in the West Indies, she was bothered by the poem's reference to daffodils, which grew in England but not in the Caribbean. The flower came to represent for her the suppression of local culture in favor of the western canon.i Kincaid's essay resonates with Larissa Bates, an artist who spent much of her early life in Costa Rica but has lived in the United States since age six. In her work, Bates struggles with the desire to connect with the culture of her mother, which she was separated from at a young age. But the themes of her work expand beyond the realm of the personal, scrutinizing the construction of class and race in colonized countries.
Mamá Lengua, which translates to Mother Tongue, is a comprehensive exhibition of eleven small-scale figurative paintings that continue Bates' ongoing investigation into her own family's history in Costa Rica as a microcosm of larger problems of labor and oppression in Central America in the mid-twentieth century. With this series, she takes this personal angle even further, connecting the premature death of her own mother to loss experienced by others, particularly as a result of colonial oppression. Bates' grandfather and great-grandfather were high-ranking executives in the United Fruit Company, which operated huge orchards in Costa Rica, and her work looks at the troubling effects of the company's activities on its employees. Bates spent time perusing the United Fruit archives at Harvard Business School, finding images that inspired her gouache paintings of tropical landscapes, detailed figures, and floral patterns. Her fictive narrative paintings tell stories of complicated relationships through vivid details and vibrant colors that show a vast range of influences from Hieronymous Bosch to 16th century Dutch still life painters to contemporary Hermes wallpaper.
The painting I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud: After Jamaica Kincaid's Reflections on Wordsworth is deceptively decorative. Influenced by the techniques of German landscape painter Christov Ludwig Agricola (1667-1719) and Dutch still life painter Ambrosius Bosschaert (1573-1621), I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud is masterfully painted with a keen attention to detail and a delight in colors. For centuries, floral compositions have served a symbolic purpose, and this painting continues that tradition. Daffodils are interspersed with flowers native to Costa Rica, representing the joining of two cultures within Bates' family history. The bouquet seems highly realistic at first, but the confluence of the plants from vastly different continents is unnatural to anyone paying close attention. This odd comingling of symbols is characteristic of Bates' series, which grapples with the relationship between the two conflicting cultures.
The concept of acculturation is integral to a complete understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of Mamá Lengua. Acculturation describes the process that occurs when two cultures collide and can be applied at an individual level or to an entire group of people. In her own personal history, Bates recognizes the irony of her mother and grandmother trying to assimilate into Anglo-Saxon culture with her own attempts at reclaiming her Latino heritage. Like so many immigrants enticed by assimilation, her mother couldn't wait to shorten her name from Patricia del Carmen Chittenden Gutierrez to Patty Bates when she married. The characters in Bates' narrative paintings exist in a liminal space between cultures, an in-between zone that the artist now inhabits.
In the painting As Tica as McIntosh Manzanas: Exotifying you Exotifying me, three fashionable women dressed in styles of the 1960s gather around a mysterious stone on the ground. The painting is based on a Life magazine photograph of Bates' mother, aunt, and grandmother excitedly stirring soup on the stove in England. In their hands, they hold apples, the most mundane and ubiquitous fruit in the United States, but a great rarity in Costa Rica. Here they are painted in gold leaf to represent their value, while behind them banana leaves flourish. Fruit as a symbol reappears throughout the exhibition from the bananas harvested by United Fruit to the McIntosh apples depicted here.
La Gringa Binga se habla Español: Yo no. emphasizes the universal importance of family through the lens of the artist's own relatives while continuing to look at the often problematic joining of two cultures. The painting depicts family members related to Bates' grandmother, who was the first female ambassador to England and married to the son of a vice president of United Fruit. The positive intimacy associated with family-oriented culture common in Latin America stands in contrast to Bates' uneasiness regarding what she has come to view as the impositions of her particularly privileged family on many of their employees. In particular, West Indian workers at United Fruit were not considered Costa Rican because they spoke English rather than Spanish, and they were often separated from their children when they became employed at United Fruit. The title of the painting, which roughly translates to “The foreign [American or English] woman speaks Spanish, I don't,” references both the discriminatory attitude toward the West Indians and Bates' own feeling of exclusion due to the language barrier within an otherwise tightly knit extended family.
The artist's feelings of loss surrounding the premature death of her mother and her corresponding separation from her country of birth become oblique subject matter for many of the paintings in Mamá Lengua. Bates connects her fixation on this tragic event to Freud's concept of repetition compulsion, the phenomenon of recreating a traumatic event from early life over and over in order to gain control of the ordeal. Two Ubumes as Twin Gestational Carriers after the Two Fridas is modeled after Frida Kahlo's largest painting, which depicts two versions of herself—one literally broken-hearted and one whose heart is whole. “Ubume” in the title refers to a figure from Japanese folklore: a mother who dies in childbirth and then returns to care for her children as a ghost. Bates' painting depicts two versions of her own mother holding a golden sphere with her brother's face as an infant etched into it, symbolizing her pregnant belly. The painting speaks not only to the artist's own experience, but also more broadly admits that United Fruit also caused mothers to be separated from their children in order to work in the fields. Bates has expressed that she is “trying to convey how infants are completely dependent on others for regulatory assistance and the long term inter-generational damage if that is broken.”ii Gold leaf adorns the edges of the painting, an aesthetic decision rife with implications.
The addition of glimmering gold leaf to many of the gouaches emphasizes the vast difference between the aesthetics of Costa Rican and WASP culture. In Costa Rica, gold—originally an export by Spanish colonizers—is found everywhere from tourist shops to religious icons. It represents status, beauty, and wealth, a stark contrast to the disdain it elicits from the austere Protestants of New England. I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud is embellished with small gold flowers, as well as a heart pierced by an arrow that resembles a child's absent-minded doodle on a notebook, perhaps an allusion to Kincaid's elementary school years.
Land of Vanity and Delusion: Bananas, Gold, Baseballs also features gold leaf in the form of gilded banana trees, referencing their lucrative potential for United Fruit. The title of the painting is derived from a statement made by leery unpaid sailors in The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus by Washington Irving (1828) and speaks to the false promise of colonialism. Some of the pearls covering the ground in the painting—a reference to the early period of Spanish expansion—are transformed into baseballs, linking them to the United States through its national pastime. Baseball teams within United Fruit were popular, and each team represented a company town. Sports were often used to instill company pride, creating a false sense of camaraderie, as well as a distraction from the grueling labor and difficult conditions. With this work the artist continues to link the two cultures while simultaneously emphasizing the oppressive nature of the colonialism.
The figurative paintings in Mamá Lengua are replete with significant details that act as symbols of the two divergent cultures in Bates' heritage. While the work is intensely personal, it also acts as a catalyst to raise larger issues that arise in any situation of colonialism. The concept of family is paramount, but it is also not unquestioned. Bates boldly faces her own cultural heritage and the potential damage inflicted by her ancestors. At the same time she displays an impressive understanding of the complexities of any family with its joys and disappointments, its moments of pride and shame.
Jeanne Gerrity is an independent curator, writer, and editor based in San Francisco. She has curated exhibitions at venues such as the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, di Rosa in Napa, and Smack Mellon in New York. Her writing has appeared in Frieze, ArtReview, Art Agenda, and artforum.com, among other publications. She is currently an associate editor of the online arts journal Art Practical.
i Jamaica Kincaid, “Gardens: Dances with Daffodils,” Architectural Digest, April 2007, http://www.architecturaldigest.com/decor/2007-04/gardens_article
ii E-mail conversation with the artist, March 3 2015.