A decade ago, ceramics artist Anita Becerra had a life-changing revelation. The Mormon religion she grew up with, seen through the adult eyes of a wife, mother and creative mind seeking independence, had gone from a means of salvation to a yoke of oppression.
A period of divorce and self-discovery followed, and her practice of crafting functional ceramics transformed into making elegant, idea-driven clay sculptures expressing her personal evolution.
Becerra’s search for a renewed sense of self and a free mind and body is on display in a multi-layered, multimedia exhibition titled By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them, at Mercury Project through Jan. 28.
Breaking the chain
A pile of stark white ceramic bananas on the floor greets visitors to the show in the gallery’s entryway, recalling Becerra’s 2020 Mercury Project exhibition Overripe.
For that show, Becerra — whose father is Honduran and mother is white — focused on the banana as a conceptual vehicle for her ideas to honor her Honduran heritage. Becerra created a chain of linked banana forms to intertwine her ancestry “with the broader stories of neocolonialism, the patriarchy, and other systems of control,” as she stated in an exhibition announcement.
The chain reappears in By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them, this time in video form. Titled Bonds of Iniquity, the two-and-a-half-minute video begins in black and white, showing Becerra smashing the ceramic banana links one by one. The act of breaking the chain represents the artist freeing herself from bonds that formerly held her in a state of underdeveloped suspension. The video ends in color, with the two remaining links intact in her hands.
San Antonio artist Mark Menjivar met Becerra as she was emerging from her marriage and looking to move beyond her functional ceramics into full-fledged art. Menjivar said that Becerra wanted “to find herself in the work … and do it in really thoughtful ways.”
He recommended she attend a lecture by former San Antonio artist Jennifer Ling Datchuk, who uses ceramics as a basis for a wide-ranging practice of sculpture and mixed media forms to address the complexities of her Chinese heritage, American identity and status as a woman.
Datchuk said Becerra asked “really great conceptual questions” following the lecture and expressed interest in learning more about storytelling and world-building through objects.
The two artists later met for coffee, and Datchuk appreciated how eager Becerra was to explore her own story through clay.
“We talked a lot about identity, womanhood, how you balance your different identities as a woman and how you’re perceived,” Datchuk said.
Joy and goodness
After beginning her explorations in the Overripe exhibition, Becerra became fearless about revealing discoveries about her sensuality, no longer suppressed by what she saw as patriarchal repression and control.
“What I’m challenging in this show is what is good and evil,” Becerra said. “Because what I was taught was good and evil has been flipped. … I was taught that sex is bad. I was taught that seeking pleasure was bad. But in my experience … things that were evil [in the eyes of the church] had done nothing but brought joy and goodness into my life.”
The banana form she employs has proved malleable. The fruit’s phallic shape is exploited in Forbidden Fruit, a photographic triptych, and Becerra made 18 FRUITion mirrors with paired bananas in various flesh tones, calling to mind a vulvic form. Recalling mirror parties of the 1960s that were a feature of the feminist sexual awakening of the time, Becerra made 18 FRUITion mirrors with paired bananas in various flesh tones.
“Everyone’s gonna look in the mirror and see themselves through women. And I love that, because that’s where we all came from,” she said.
‘This is who I am’
Becerra used one FRUITion mirror in an arresting self-portrait that is at once demure and revealing. Her back is to the camera in soft focus, the soft slope of her bare shoulder revealed as she gathers her hair in her hand. In her other hand, she holds the vulvic mirror reflecting Becerra’s eye gazing directly at the viewer.
The piece derives from a highly personal moment when Becerra looked at her own vulva for the first time in an accepting way. She had been embarrassed at having “dark parts,” she said, but a supportive partner encouraged her to celebrate her body as it is.
“I’m looking at myself for the first time,” she said. “I’m seeing ‘This is who I am.’”
The title of the self-portrait, And Ye Shall Know The Truth, And The Truth Shall Make You Free echoes the biblical passage in the Matthew gospel from which the exhibition title is drawn: “every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit. … Wherefore by your fruits ye shall know them.” It also encapsulates an important conceptual goal of the exhibition.
“Another big theme in the show is about consent, autonomy over our bodies, giving consent. You don’t get this without my consent,” she said, referring pointedly to any patriarchal system or person that would attempt to maintain control over her body or her self-perception.
Honesty is good
The pile of bananas in the gallery entrance also functions as a bookend to the show, the last piece a viewer encounters as they exit. Its title, Hewn Down, is also drawn from the Matthew verse: “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.”
Becerra admitted that making the exhibition was a difficult process, given that she would not only be revealing her deepest self but also openly exploring issues that other people might find controversial or even offensive.
“I’ve had lots of feelings of shame come up, lots of feelings [of] ‘Who am I going to offend? What are people going to think?’,” she said. However, she was able to free herself of self-constriction and let others into her exploration in hopes that they might also overcome shame and feel empowered. “What I’m wanting to say are the things that I still struggle with, and I guess to be honest about that is good,” she said.
Ceramic artist Michelle Hernandez was originally scheduled to share the exhibition with Becerra. The two had shared a ceramic studio and had many deep conversations about changes in their lives, particularly focused on overcoming religious trauma.
However, the timing worked better for Hernandez to postpone her show until March and for Becerra to create the January solo show.
“I think for her it was the perfect timing of ‘I can’t ignore what I feel anymore, what I hear myself wanting to share anymore.’ It’s been nice to witness each other in that evolution,” she said.
Artist Yvette Benavides has taken ceramics lessons from Becerra and said she’s inspired by Becerra’s fortitude.
“She’s just so much of a risk-taker,” Benavides said. “It’s been so beautiful to watch her transform as a woman into different levels of herself. And … her artistry is evolving alongside with her.”
Admission to Mercury Project is free. The closing reception for By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them is Sunday 2-5 p.m.