Some people refer to Juana Alicia‘s mural as “the blue mural” or “the blue wall” — either of which is true. Alicia’s intricate artwork, which dates from 2004, is mostly in blue. But the story behind that blueness, and the story behind the women she’s depicting, is about much, much more than a spectrum of color. It’s about a woman in a Mexican folkloric legend (La Llorona) who — grieving and angry — drowns her children in water. It’s about women in India who led protests to prevent government appropriation of their lands in a dam project on the Narmada River. It’s about women in the city of Cochabamba, Bolivia, who fought against the privatization of the city’s water. And it’s about women in Juarez, Mexico — a border city on the Rio Grande river — who rose up against the unsolved murders of girls and women in that area, which they labeled a “femicide.”
We see all these women in La Llorona’s Sacred Waters. And the fact that they’re blue is Alicia’s profound way of draining the scene of its natural color. Gone are the flesh tones that would ordinarily be there. And gone, too, are the greens, browns, and other colors you might expect in a mural of that scale. All those colors give way to the color of water. Despite adding a bit of red, Alicia “muted” her mural to better reflect the seriousness of her message.
“Because of the extreme situation of the dangers to women and the planet around issues of water, I wanted to express my ideas in the mural in a way that would [have the most impact] graphically, with a limited palette — not a Kodachrome, Disney-entertainment sort of piece, that would distract you color-wise from the issues at hand,” Alicia tells SF Weekly in a phone interview from Mexico, where she now lives half the year when not in San Francisco. “I wanted to keep things a little more somber.”
La Llorona’s Sacred Waters, which also features the pre-Aztec goddess of water and fertility called Chalchiuhtlicue, is still politically relevant since the water issues that Alicia pinpointed in 2004 are still an issue. Though Bolivian protests toppled the government’s plan with Bechtel to privatize the city’s water company, water rights and access to water are central concerns for many communities around the world. Alicia compares the protest theme in La Llorona’s Sacred Waters to Picasso’s famous 1937 anti-war work, Guernica — whose colors are also muted.
“There’s really a war going on both against the planet and against women, so I wanted the mural to be graphically and aesthetically strong,” Alicia says. “It’s a set of issues [around water] that have come again.”
Alicia is one of San Francisco’s best-known muralists. She’s one of seven women artists who, in 1994, painted the Women’s Building’s MaestraPeace Mural on 18th Street. Later this year, Berkeley’s Heyday Books is releasing a book to celebrate that mural’s 25th anniversary, and the Mission District’s Alley Cat Books will showcase new work that Alicia made for a separate book project about women and the environment, which she’s doing with her husband. So when Alicia returns to San Francisco from Mexico this year, she’ll appear at a number of art-related events — and is also likely to visit La Llorona’s Sacred Waters, which replaced a mural, Las Lechugueras (The Women Lettuce Workers), which she made at the site in 1983. Las Lechugueras (The Women Lettuce Workers) was blue but also green and many other colors.
The small but strategic amount of red that Alicia used in La Llorona’s Sacred Waters has a message that goes beyond water. “Red and blue are symbolic of local and international gangs — of north and south, including the Crips and Bloods,” Alicia says. “They’re gang colors. And I wanted to do a symbolic unity message of those two colors, but I had some people come by and say, ‘Why did you give more play to the blue?’ Still, I haven’t had any negative responses to the mural. It’s been overwhelmingly positive.”