Inside the entryway of Self Help Graphics & Art you are greeted by a table decorated with flowers and candles. A label reads “Sister Karen Boccalero, 20th Anniversary Commemoration.” There are notecards inscribed with messages like, “It appears you have inspired many including myself. Thank you. Rest in Peace.” This homage to the SHG founder, who died in 1997, feels especially timely since Día De Los Muertos: A Cultural Legacy, Past, Present & Future, which opened in September, chronicles the influence of Self Help Graphics & Art on Día de Los Muertos celebrations in Los Angeles from the 1970s to now. It was in 1970 that Sister Karen, Carlos Bueno, Antonio Ibañez, Frank Hernandez and other artists gathered in her garage to make serigraphs. These gatherings led to the establishment of SHG, currently located in East L.A.
Since 1983, Self Help Graphics has commissioned a different silkscreen print each year to commemorate Día de los Muertos. The prints also served as invitations to the community to attend SHG’s annual celebrations. A 1978 print by artist Linda Vallejo, for instance, depicts a hybrid figure: half mustachioed man and half skeleton. Vallejo worked closely with co-curator Dr. Betty Brown and SHG staff, especially Associate Director Betty Avila, in conceiving the Día De Los Muertos exhibition as part of PST: LA/LA. The team looked through an archive devoted to SHG at the University of California Santa Barbara. “So many of us don’t know Los Angeles without this celebration, but Linda was part of a group of artists that would carve this out together from nothing,” Avila said in an email to Fabrik.
“Going back into this history and digging into the Self Help Graphics archive at UC Santa Barbara with Linda was powerful,” Avila said. “It was incredibly grounding to me personally and to the process to be working with someone who, at the time, was engaged in creating an artistic and communal healing experience not because they knew it would become this anchor, but because our community needed a creative opportunity to come together. Now it’s an iconic part of the city’s identity.”
That importance is best expressed through the objects that Vallejo and SHG have chosen to display. “We found things nobody knew existed,” said Vallejo during a private walk through of Self Help Graphics before the exhibit opened. “I think the lesson really is that artists and art organizations of all types, all institutions and agencies and individual artists—I would encourage them all to take their offerings seriously, to take their careers seriously. To save things, to collect things, to keep good track of things. Because it could be very important, it could be extremely important and it’s showing in this exhibition how important that could be.”
The Día de los Muertos holiday remains an important part of both Mexican and Chicano culture, she explained, and should be remembered in all its layers of meaning. Día De Los Muertos reminds us of the fragility of life, said Avila. “The fact that we’re finite.”
The exhibition also features a penacho (“a headdress for an Aztec danzante,” as Avila describes it) belonging to Jose (Joey) Rivera that was worn during the program component at Evergreen Cemetery. Rivera is a historian, anthropologist and museum curator born in East L.A. As Avila explained, the program would include a Catholic mass and danza with Rivera. Flores de Aztlan and Vallejo. The penacho, re-feathered for the exhibition, shows the intermingling of both religious influences and indigenous spiritual beliefs, which Avila sees as a key element of Día de los Muertos. So much about Día de los Muertos promotes community. SHG serves as a gathering place for people to pay homage to the ones they lost and also to preserve their culture. “Long before the idea of creative place-making or social practice would become part of art and urban planning terminology, artists at Self Help were doing it because it is simply part of who we are as a community, as an organization,” Avila said.
Since planning for the exhibition began, groups have met at SHG to reminisce about the celebrations of the ‘70s and ‘80s. “The sense of community is going to be brought out—I mean here we are looking at our own legacy, right?” said Vallejo. “It’s kind of another parallel to the Day of the Dead. We’re looking at our past, we’re looking at our present. We’re looking at our future, which is the aim of the show: to know ourselves better, to remember the legacy of the artists. To remember Sister Karen, of course, and her vision.”