CALAFIA: Manifesting the Terrestrial Paradise

Know then, that due east of the Indies there is an island called California, very near to the locale called the Terrestrial Paradise. It was populated by Black Indigenous women, without men among them. They possessed strong and firm bodies of ardent courage and great strength. Their island was the strongest in all the world, with steep cliffs and rocky shores. Their arms were decorated with gold, as were the harnesses of the wild beasts they tamed and rode.– Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, Las Sergas de Esplandián

It is the legend of Calafia, the indigenous Black warrior queen and ruler of the island named California,that brings us to this chapter of the MexiCali Biennial. Delving into the origin of the name “California,”this character and this landscape serve as this exhibition’s points of departure into the past and present mythologies that form the concept of California as a land with a shared history transcending both time and borders.

The word “California” first appears in the fifth book of Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s sixteenth century opus Las Sergas de Esplandián (The Adventures of Esplandián), Which tells of a rich island, its powerful women, its mythical beasts, and its quest for greatness that sets the foundation for the mythos that continues today. At the same time, the novel and its inherent Christian agenda was used as a colonialist tool, an antithesis to the heroic Calafia.

CALAFIA: Manifesting the Terrestrial Paradise redraws California’s mythical shores from Oakland to Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, from Tijuana to Calexico to Mexicali, and other imagined lands far beyond. It features the work of thirty artists and collectives from diverse regions spanning the U.S.-Mexico border, with Queen Calafia as a source of inspiration. The subject matters reflect on erased, futuristic, and present day stories of shared physical and/or metaphysical places. Such paradises are manifested and re-envisioned through critical themes that cover experiences of identity, race, and gender as they expand across this expansive territory—leading to critical re-examination of the idea of California as both sanctuary and paradise, albeit for whom. Through video, painting, sound, installation, sculpture, film, audio, cartography, and photography, stories of displacement, labor, migration, man-made borders, and questionable neoliberal economic policies are shared between the works, articulating an ideologically decolonized perspective. Ancient cultures, the land, relationships to feminine forms, and the rituals of urban and rural landscapes demonstrate confrontational, postcolonial praxis. CALAFIA is an exhibition that seeks the spirit and identity of California as drawn by the trajectories of its people.

The MexiCali Biennial is a bi-national arts organization that explores the area of the California border as a site for aesthetic production. Nomadic exhibitions partner with arts institutions to showcase both emerging and established artists working in all media. Originally started as a critique of the proliferation of international and regional biennials, the MexiCali Biennial may occur at any time and on any side of the U.S.Mexico border.

Sepa entonces, que al este de las Indias hay una isla llamada California, muy cerca de la Localidad llamada el Paraíso Terrenal. Estaba habitada por mujeres negras, sin hombres entre ellas, pues vivían a la manera de las amazonas. Poseían cuerpos fuertes y firmes de ardiente valor y gran fuerza. Su isla era la más fuerte en todo el mundo, con acantilados escarpados y orillas rocosas. Sus brazos estaban decorados con oro, así como los arneses de las bestias salvajes que domaban y cabalgaban. – Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, Las Sergas de Esplandián