After 20 years of working in San Francisco’s art scene, Eliza Barrios has reached a milestone in her career. As a multidisciplinary artist whose work is informed by her Filipina-American queer activism, Barrios, a Mills MFA ‘95 alumna, is about to accomplish her dream of moving into her very own art studio.
Barrios is currently working on a project funded by the Irvine Foundation and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, whose focus is to bring art into the community. Barrios’ project will be for the South of Market (SOMA) community of San Francisco.
“Essentially we use art to facilitate a dialogue, process or engagement,” Barrios said.
Encouraged by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to work with existing institutions, Barrios’ project will bring together the Filipino community, The Veterans Equity Center and The South of Market Community Action Network.
“I am the first person in my family to get a master’s degree,” Barrios said. “I am first generation Filipina.”
Barrios noted that
when she was at Mills, being a woman of color played a prominent role in her experience. She likened it to current discussions about gender politics students are having now; multiculturalism was a popular topic then.
“It was the year of multiculturalism,” Barrios said. “It was pretty hot. I remember that being a point of contention during critique class.”
In her graduating class, there was only one other person of color. Barrios said they got flack from fellow students any time either one of them were showcased in a gallery, museum or at school. It was thought that maybe they were being showcased because they were the “flavor of the month,” as Barrios put it, and not because their art was good.
Through this experience
at Mills, Barrios developed a thicker skin in navigating the world of art and art criticism.
Moira Roth, a Mills Art History professor, was especially influential for Barrios. In the 1980’s, Roth helped another Filipino Mills MFA student, Carlos Villa ‘63, open up the discussion around multiculturalism, academics and the arts through
a symposium he taught at the Art Institute called “Worlds in Collision.”
“Moira as a mentor for me was really helpful because she understood the politics,” Barrios said. “When I was going to Mills at the time, being Filipina American, you were already dismissed. It’s like you have handicap points; of course they are going to look at [your art] because you’re [a student] of color.”
“I have been a great admirer of Eliza Barrios’ innovative art practice, politics and sense of community ever since she began her MFA at Mills,
” Roth said.
Barrios chose to attend Mills because the school offered interdisciplinary art study, which was unheard of at the time. Back then, nobody was doing more than one discipline; now it’s unusual if you aren’t.
“There was nothing as progressive and advanced as Mills was, and the teachers, the mentors I had, were amazing,” Barrios said. “I came from a lineage of alumni that were actually practicing [art].”
Learning how to deal with prejudice and what it means to be an artist who also happens to be a queer woman of color has continued to inform Barrios’ art and the projects she chooses to collaborate on.
One collaboration called Mail Order Brides, or “M.O.B.”, is described on Barrios’ website as “a group of Filipina American artists engaged in an ongoing collaborative investigation of culture, race and gender.”
Barrios’ current MOB project including artists Jenifer Wofford and Reanne Estrada is called Mananangoogle, a complex parody of Google, Silicon Valley, and the mythical creature from the Philippines, Mananaggal, a man-eating blood-sucking witch.
One of the ways Barrios maintains an art practice is the work she does outside of the art world.
“I basically did everything I did not go to school for,” Barrios said. “Luckily I was young, I was able to go to work full-time and practice [art] full-time.”
Currently Barrios is working part-time at The Global Fund for Women, which keeps her practice inspired, as do fellow Mills alums who she occasionally runs into out in the art world.
“Very rarely do I find peers that came out of Mills not practicing [art] in some way or the other,” Barrios said.
To learn more about Barrios’ current projects, visit her website, elizabarrios.com.