2004 Women of Fire Awards

by Thea Lavin on November 11, 2004

How much creative combustion can one room hold? Attendees at the 2004 Women of Fire Awards show in Oakland will find out this Sunday.

The sixth annual Women of Fire Awards will honor five leading women of color artists and activists. This year’s honorees include activists Boona Cheema, Lakota Harden, Aileen Hernandez, and artists Virginia Harris and Yolanda Lopez.

“Every year we identify women who have made some contribution to peace and justice, and these women needed to be honored for their amazing work,” said Christine Ahn of the Women of Color Resource Center, the organization that sponsors the event.

This year’s honored artists, Yolanda Lopez and Virginia Harris, are widely revered for their unique forms of political dissent through skilled artisan work. Lopez is best known for her 1978 groundbreaking ‘Virgin of Guadeloupe’ series, in which the San Diego native portrayed herself and other working women as the influential Mexican religious icon. “That work was really created to address the Chicano progressive movement,” she said. “There was an unspoken value that the men were leaders and the women supported them. But the reality was that the women were doing all of the grunt work in the Chicano movement; making posters, negotiating within a coalition, printing newspapers.”

The contradiction between Chicana women’s integral role as workers and absence from positions of power and leadership continues to fuel Lopez’s imaging making. A recent series of prints called, ‘Woman’s Work is Never Done,’ explores the invisibility of immigrant women as domestic workers.

“Artists play a central then in creating the imagery that we use to see our communities. That imagery did not exist when I started,” said Lopez. “But the revolution is a constant thing.”

Lopez’s co-recipient, Virginia R. Harris, is a master quilt maker whose style is also new to the public conciousness. Harris’s quilts regularly depict corporate greed, oil policy, educational policy and constitutional rights. “I don’t ever expect to be recognized by the quilt world,” laughed Harris.

A chemist by training, Harris shed her professional ambition in the early nineties for quilting. “Quilting is my fourth career,” she said. “It has made me a lot more understanding of how I respond to things that come my way.”

In Harris’s quilt, ‘The new Alchemy,’ she shows a pipeline taking oil and natural gas from the Caspian see and dumping gold in Texas. “I am amazed by how much people don’t know,” she said. “So many people in this country are ostriches and have their heads in the sand, trying to make a life work for them and the only thing that they think is going to work is more and more stuff.”

Unlike her earlier career in chemistry, Harris’s quilting helped her address her own consumerism and feelings of inadequacy. “When I was working on my first quilt I ran out of fabric, but I didn’t have any money left to buy more. I didn’t have enough and one block of the quilt would be different,” said Harris. “And I realized that that is was we learn in this society- that you never are or have enough.”

“I have learned a lot from the process of making quilts, where my own sense if not being enough as a black woman comes from,” added Harris.

Virginia Harris and Yolanda Lopez will join activists Boona Cheema, Lakota Harden and Aileen Hernandez at the 2004 Sister of Fire Award show this Sunday, from 11am-2pm at the North Oakland Senior Center. For more information, call Erika Tatnall of the Women of Color Resource Center at (510) 444- 2700.

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