Meet Angelica Contreras, a social justice-oriented mixed media artist

Madison artist preserving her identity, heritage through Mexican folk art

Just as mixed media collage is built by stacking layer upon layer of patterned paper, magazine cutouts, paint and other bold colors and textures, artist Angelica Contreras considers herself to also be made of different layers. Her art typically depicting profiles of Latinx women and children in bright hues, reflect her identity and Mexican heritage.

Born in California, Contreras moved to Guadalajara, Mexico, as a child and remained there for much of her life. She attended Instituto Cultural Cabañas and the University of Guadalajara to study printmaking and art education, and soaked up all the knowledge and experience she could at local artist workshops.

“Before moving to Madison, my work was quite different,” says Contreras. “Something happens when you leave your country of origin that confronts you with your own identity.”

Here in Madison, Contreras still spends her days creating. Presenting works across town at libraries, racial justice summits and on her website, Contreras has seized all sorts of opportunities — including her own Bucky on Parade statue.

And while painting life-size mascots is fun, Contreras prefers to dig into her own history and role in the world to curate her meaningful pieces.

“[Before I moved] my identity in terms of nationality was only Mexican, but when you come to the US you are labeled in so many other ways,” says Contreras. “I understand now why a lot of Chicano Art tends to show much of our culture … There is an impulse to tell the story of our community because no one else will.”

The telling of stories through art — particularly those of the folks often left behind or mistreated in our country — has been evident through 2020, as State Street adorned messages of intersectionality and reform.

“People have seen the powerful impact art can have in the community … A  healthy art scene is one that includes not only aesthetically pleasing or decorative works of art, but also those that talk about aspects of society that make us uncomfortable,” says Contreras, noting the downtown murals’ impact. “I hope that the art created in Madison becomes more open to reflect the current times, and also open to include other voices from the community.”

By further exploring her heritage through artwork, Contreras is bringing a fresh take on traditional forms to Madisonians. Right now, Contreras’s interest is especially captured by Mexican Folk Art, which she finds, “beautiful and at times unsettling” as they reference the cycle of death and life in so many ways.

She also has been working with Colectivo Synapsis, a collective of Latinx artists focused on social justice projects in southern Wisconsin. Through partnerships with schools and other local groups, Contreras and the rest of the team help design murals, share collaborative and independent work ideas, and put together a racial justice-themed version of the board game Lotería for last year’s YWCA Summit.

While pretty much all of our local artists have been forced to adapt to the current art scene of social media and virtual shows, Contreras is looking forward to her next in-person show opening Dec. 4 in Milwaukee. The exhibit, “Los Rostros Ocultos/Hidden Faces” will be on display at the Latino Arts Inc. and toys with this same, pervasive idea of layers and identity at work.

“I had been working with the concept of masks before the pandemic hit,” says Contreras, “So in a way, what we are experiencing now adds another layer of interpretation to the pieces.”

To view more of Contreras’s work, check out her website or the Communication virtual market.