In-Between-Ness: Liliana Wilson and the Refugee Experience

In-Between-Ness: Liliana Wilson and the Refugee Experience

Blog post by Rusty
Wednesday, April 12, 2017

By Kelly Hanus

The current exhibit at the Austin History Center, Finding Refuge in Austin, 1848-1980, tells the diverse stories of people who resettled in Austin after fleeing war, political violence, or natural disasters, and the beauty and contributions they have brought to our community. Stories of refugees and immigrants have been heavily on my mind, with the current political climate and the timely exhibit that our Community Archivists, Phonshia Nie and Amanda Jasso, have put together. As I was digging around the archives to find materials to promote Women’s History Month, I found myself spending the most time with materials we have on Latina artist Liliana Wilson, who has been living in Austin since the late 1970s when she fled political violence in Chile.

Wilson was a law student in 1973 when Chilean socialist President Salvador Allende was overthrown by a right-wing military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. What followed were decades of repression and violence under the military junta. For four years, Wilson stayed with her family in Chile while she finished law school. During this time, she made drawings depicting what she witnessed happening around her, but was unable to keep any of her artwork for fear of punishment. When she had an opportunity to immigrate to Texas in 1977, she made the difficult and life-changing decision to leave home and resettle in Austin.

Las Manitas In Chile, Wilson could not make a living as an artist and chose to study law and architecture so that she could support herself and her family. When she got to Austin, she studied drawing at Austin Community College and painting at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, and met local artists through her studies, such as artist José Francisco Treviño who taught at ACC at that time. She spent her first decade here working, refining her skills, and creating new works. In the late 1980s she met Cynthia and Lydia Pérez, owners of La Peña and the former Las Manitas restaurant (photo AR.1992.009(018) by Robert Barnstone). Through connecting with the La Peña community of artists, activists, and thinkers, Wilson found a place of belonging and a place to thrive. She had her first solo show at La Peña in 1989.

In 1993, Wilson met and formed a lasting friendship with Chicana feminist author Gloria Anzaldúa, whose concept of nepantla, the Nahuatl word which means “in-between-ness”, is heavily prevalent in the imagery and themes that appear in Wilson’s work. Coming to Austin and facing an entirely new culture and language, Wilson experienced this disorienting and divided feeling which she communicates in her drawings and paintings. In a painting titled Mujer dividida, Wilson depicts a woman literally parted into two halves with a very light word bubble drawn from her mouth as if half of her is trying to speak but is unable. In another painting she made years later, El dividido, she painted a young man split in two with the night sky surrounding him and passing through the two halves of his self.Exhibition card from liliana Wilson's show Vuelcos

Wilson shares in the title essay of Ofrenda, that artists in Chile during the time of the junta expressed themselves largely through theater productions that cleverly disguised and obscured criticism of the government. This stayed with her and has continued to be influential to her artwork which uses fantastical and metaphorical imagery. In her works involving torture and cruelty at the hands of men, she depicts the male torturers as having fish heads. In other works, men are depicted with the heads of birds, expressing their absurdity and foolishness. What is so captivating about Wilson’s work is that it is beauty that pulls the viewer into a world in which the subjects are facing cruelty and injustice and unrest. Her portraits are soft and gentle in the face of oppression, carrying a quiet dignity. Beauty is also seen in her depictions of the ocean, the night sky, seashells and flora that often accompany the figures in her work.

Most recently, an acrylic and pencil work titled Venimos en Paz was on view at La Peña’s Testigos/Witnesses International Women's Day Exhibition. In this work, a woman stands with her hands up and facing toward the viewer. She is wearing a white lacy shirt and a small seashell necklace, her long hair is falling behind her shoulders. Glowing stars are emanating from her palms and creating an angelic glow around her face. She is gentle, offering her beauty and peace, as Liliana Wilson has offered to us through her artwork, and as so many other immigrants and refugees have offered to our city.