Just this month, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC launched a special exhibit called “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” to highlight pieces from their permanent collection by Latinos dating back to the 1950’s.
NBC Latino spoke to the Dominican-American curator, E. Carmen Ramos, to find out more about the importance of this particular exhibition.
How were the 92 pieces of art chosen for this exhibition?
My selection of works was really driven by the desire to explore the relationship between Latino art and the national context in two ways: 1) The relationship between artists and movements. 2) How they engage classic American themes and genres.The exhibition tries to represent a very broad look from the mid-20th century to the present, and the dialogue from Miami, New York, all the way to New Mexico.
I call it “pioneering” because Latino collections were not in major museums in the U.S. before the 1970’s. As a category, it started bubbling up in the 1950’s — the idea of “Latino” emerges in the late 70’s and 80’s. In the 1950’s, many Latinos started going to art school, many went before, but there was an increasing presence in the 1950’s. Many were veterans from the Korean and Vietnam wars, and many went to art school through the GI bill, and they started participating in the different movements of American art.
What do you want visitors to come away with after viewing the exhibition?
I want them to come away with a kind of a fresh view of American art and culture. Latino art is usually thought of as outside American art, but this exhibition presents not only a broad view of what Latino art is, but that it’s part of American culture. I want them to see what Latino artists are saying about our culture.
Why is this important for the country now?
I think the last election was for many a kind of turning point. Because Latinos played such a critical role in electing the President, I think there’s a widespread awareness of our presence on the national scene. But we haven’t had time as a country to think about what America is, and this exhibition allows us to explore the Latino artists who are a part of the American scene.
Can you walk me through a couple of the pieces, and their artists, and explain what makes them significant in U.S. history?
Olga Albizu, who made the oil painting “Radiante” in 1967, is one of the early major figures profiled in the exhibition. She is Puerto Rican born, came to New York in the 1940’s, and became involved in the abstract impressionism movement. She studied art in Puerto Rico and followed her professor to New York. Her works – emotional, communicative, the power of color -were very much informed by the same questions of other artists of that movement. When she came here as a young artist, she took a role as a secretary at RCA Records, and her friends displayed her artwork throughout the office. Eventually, she was featured on more than 10 covers created by RCA and Verve Records — so her work is visually familiar, but no one knows her name.
Melesio “Mel” Casas, the artist of the acrylic “Humanscape 62” (1970), served in the Korean War is originally from El Paso. He was like many American artists interested in abstraction. He had a strange encounter in a drive-in movie screening in which he saw larger than life characters. He started a series called “Humanscape” which looked at media images and analyzed their impact on people that consume them. Many of the “Humanscapes” have text on the bottom. In the late 60’s and 70’s, many Chicanos were thinking of the term “brown” to refer to their ancestry. The word “brown” meant to signify that connection. Frito Lay corn chips issued in the late 60’s a stereotypical mascot of a “Mexican bandido.” Later, it was redesigned to be more comical, but it was highly criticized by Latino Americans and eventually Frito Lay pulled the character.
Elia Alba, who made the print “Larry Levan (snake)” in 2006, was born in the U.S. and is of Dominican background. Her work looks at how Latino artists depict everyday common people. Most of her work is photo based. What she often does is take a photograph of someone and create a face mask which is worn by someone else that she photographs in a specific environment. Larry Levan was a popular disc jockey, in the 70s and 80’s, and associated with disco. What she often does is take a picture of a man and put it on a body of a woman. By doing this, she challenges that you know who a person is just by looking at them. What you see is hybrid people — black and white, and male and female, at the same time.
María Magdalena Campos-Pons is the creator of “Constellation” in 2004. She is originally from Cuba and came to Boston in the late 1980’s. She became aware of a whole community of African American artists, and she started seeing herself as part of a global black diaspora. In many of her works, she looks at her migration from Cuba to the U.S. She works mostly with polaroid photography in large scale and creates large installations that present a whole group of these photographs together. This work depicts an aerial view of the artist’s head, and in the surrounding photographs, her hair is meandering throughout the composition. Her fractured hair conveys her ongoing connection to both Africa and Cuba. Like a constellation, one thing connects to lots of smaller parts. She’s far from Cuba but still maintains a connection by her imagination and memory – thus, the use of her head in her art.
Carlos Almaraz painted “Night Magic” in 1988. He was very important within the Chicano movement as he created graphics for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. In this work, we see how there is just a range of concerns and interests for the Latino artist. He started to depict his city, Los Angeles, by blending it with cultural references. There is so much black in the painting which resembles velvet paintings — tacky border art. He acquired HIV, and in this time he was dealing with his own isolation and his life coming to an end — a lot of lonely figures. He was most well known towards the end of his life – the 80’s, and he died in 1989.