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Muralist Juana Alicia Inspires Social Change Through Provoking Public Art

The artist's work, much of which can be seen around the Bay Area, is dedicated to raising awareness about climate change and women's rights.

Art comes in many forms. Paintings, lined up on a blank wall at a museum, spotlighted sculptures in crowded galleries, a photographed bowl of fruit above someone’s kitchen table. The messages in every piece hold importance and beauty. However, murals offer a unique power. They are an art form that is specifically made to reach everyone by being displayed publicly. This is clearly seen in the case of Juana Alicia, a muralist, painter, and artist who is changing the perspectives, narratives, and lives of hundreds of people with her art. She has created over 50 murals, and has been an activist, leader, and influencer ever since her first mural in 1983.

As a teenager growing up in Detroit, Alicia often saw one of the famous Detroit Industry murals by Diego Rivera. This made a big impact on her and, over time, her love for art and murals grew. “I was taken by the monumentality of the images, the color and the messages, the beauty and the power of the piece. It inspired me. I felt that someday I might want to do something like that,” she said. After spending much time in that environment, Alicia began to paint her own murals, starting in her bedroom, and then advancing over time to five-story buildings.

To Alicia, what makes murals so unique is their accessibility. “You don’t have to go into a museum, you don’t have to pay, they’re accessible to people, to poor people, to anyone who’s on the street,” she said. Because of this, murals are also efficient ways of spreading important messages to communities. 

“I think the most pressing issue right now that we’re facing is extinction and the climate emergency,” Alicia said. Her art stresses the fact that time is running out for humans to make a change big enough to stop the climate crisis. Many murals she has created such as La Llorona’s Sacred Waters and Derrame (Spill), are dedicated to raising awareness around the climate crisis we currently face. “Any way that my art can support a raising of awareness to shift the direction that we’re headed in as a civilization, would be important to me,” Alicia stated.

At the corner of Adeline and Emerson Street in Berkeley, 'Derame' depicts the Gulf Oil Spill, when more than 200 million gallons of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

At the corner of Adeline and Emerson Street in Berkeley, ‘Derame’ depicts the Gulf Oil Spill, when more than 200 million gallons of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Jerome Paulos

Alicia’s work has made a big impact on those around her. After painting the mural Derrame, she received a lot of positive feedback from the community. “A lot of people came by and were very enthusiastic about it,” she said. However, not all viewers had a positive response. “There was one gentleman who lived across the street from it. He was very angered by [the mural],” she said. Despite the negativity, Alicia empathized with his reaction. “I think he was angered by the fact that I was exposing something so scary,” she said. “It’s not a Kumbaya-let’s-all-hold-hands-and-get-along mural … it’s a wake-up call kind of image.”

This mural, about the Gulf Oil Spill, features many serious images, including a skull and skeletal depictions of deceased fish. Although tragic, it accurately depicts the real event — an oil spill in which over 200 million gallons of oil spewed into the Gulf of Mexico. While it may trouble certain citizens, its message is important and has changed many lives.

This reflects a deeper message about what art is, and why it is created. “I’m not a believer in art for art’s sake, or art just as decoration. I believe that art has an intellectual and a spiritual role in our lives,” Alicia said. Her art has that effect on people. It delves deeper into what it means to be alive, and what it means to be human. These deep messages in her work are part of what makes it so impactful. From behind the mural, she is inspiring others to make changes in their lives, and in the world. She explained, “It isn’t the role of the artist, in my opinion, to be nice. It’s the role of the artists to educate people, to shake them up, to inspire them, … sometimes to anger them, to move them to action.”

Along with being a climate activist, Alicia is very vocal on other issues, such as women’s rights. Her art reflects this activism, as she has made many murals dedicated to the topic, and they have proven to be some of her most valued experiences. “One of the most inspirational experiences I had was creating the mural on the women’s building in San Francisco with six other women,” she said. This piece, a colorful and vibrant acknowledgement of women’s achievements and contributions to history, is eye-catching with a powerful message to accompany it. Another mural important to her is La Llorona’s Sacred Waters, which reflects both her climate and feminist activism.

In addition to working with other accomplished artists, Alicia has worked directly with students from Berkeley High School in the past on a project called the True Colors Mural Project. This program promotes youth artists in engaging experiences such as mural creation. “Those are really wonderful experiences; training young artists, high school and college age artists, to be muralists or to be public artists, or to develop their own creative potential in whatever area they were interested in,” commented Alicia. The project went on for nearly a decade and many murals were created in the process. 

Alicia currently works in her home in Mexico, designing, painting, and illustrating with her husband. Her art is an inspiration to many as she continues to create, motivate, and push limits in the art world every day. Her murals reflect important messages and have created positive change in the lives of many who see them. Find out more about Alicia’s work at juanaalicia.com

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