Chicanismo y Latinismo
Through Sept. 27 at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson
The coolest thing on any wall in Baltimore right now hangs in one corner of the Creative Alliance at the Patterson's first-floor gallery. It's a satin boxer's robe in the Mexican flag's three colors: green, white, and red. On the left breast region is an embroidered version of Mexico's coat of arms, an eagle atop a cactus about to eat a snake. Above this coat of arms is a single name, "Maria." On the back, where normally a pugilist's nickname may appear, is a simple statement in block letters: "Mujeres luchando por un futuro mejor." Women fighting for a better future.
The robe, part of Tanya Garcia's mixed-media installation 'Contragolpe/Counterpunch,' contains elements that make the "Chicanismo y Latinismo" group show at the Creative Alliance absolutely vital and sometimes a bit simplistic. The robe, and Garcia's entire piece, is unmistakably addressing concerns of Latin-Americans and uses imagery and tropes that would cause anybody to read it as such. How effectively those images and ideas are used is what varies here among the nine artists included in the show. Curators Maria Aldana, Juan Ortiz, and Jeremy Stern brought together artists of Latin-American descent to explore the political implications of "Latin-American" identity. The formerly pejorative "chicano" became an expression of Mexican-American identity and activism during the 1960s; "Latinismo" is customarily associated with the pan-Latin-American identity fostered in the writings of 19th-century Cuban poet and political vanguard José Martí. Taken together they point toward the complicated categorization people of Latin American descent face when navigating identity as it's constructed in the United States: the entire continent below Texas isn't Mexico; Mexico itself isn't a homogenous group of people; and people from any of the 18 Spanish-speaking countries in Central or South America or the Caribbean may choose to identify themselves any number of ways.
Some of the artists in "Chicanismo y Latinismo" tackle the usual route into America: across the border it shares with Mexico. Pablo Machioli's untitled mural eats up nearly an entire gallery wall and depicts a young boy in jeans with "Voy a ganar la Carrera" scrawled across his back—"I will win the race"—peering across a barbed-wire fence toward another young boy's face staring back at him. Between the two young men is an unforgiving landscape of desert and brush. In 'Guernarca,' Juan Ortiz makes a small-scale replica of Picasso's 'Guernica,' adds a few items (a hypodermic needle, a fist coiled around a dollar bill) to give the scene the drug-smuggling twist suggested by the "narca" in the title, and hangs the image along a barbed-wire fence between two metal poles. It's a heavy-handed way to equate the utter devastation inherent in the War on Drugs with Spanish Nationalists having Italian and German planes bomb civilian populations, but Ortiz has a point. Under former Mexican President Felipe Calderon, the war on drugs resulted in more than 47,000 deaths.
A more subtle implication of migration is noted in Michelle Angela Ortiz's three installations, which pairs a lightbox-mounted print with a pair of plaster shoes. Each print is a portrait of a person from the shoulders up—'Llena de Luz y Lucha' ('Full of Light and Fighting'); 'Madre de Mi Corazón' ('Mother of My Heart'); 'Niño Consentido' ('Spoiled Child')—in front of which stands the shoes, which have writing on them. These snippet of text suggests some story fragment—the shoes in front of 'Niño Consentido' read "se quedo sin dar un paso adelanta solo esperando su llegada," which roughly translates as "I took a step forward just waiting for your arrival"—that infuses the piece with a vague melancholy, as if it's a memorial to somebody lost along a journey.
Note: All clumsy translations are courtesy of this Mexican-American writer, who grew up hearing Spanish all around him and still shamefully had to drop Spanish in college because he was doing so poorly—during a freshman pass/fail semester at that. That embarrassing fact is one of the refreshing concessions for which "Chicanismo y Latinismo" aims—the plurality of those who identify as Americans descended from the New World's Spanish-speaking countries—but doesn't always achieve. The above-cited works dive into a convenient topic (migration/immigration), turn to visual markers of cultural identity, and add some twist to the combination. They don't problematize the political implications of the subject matter, nor do they visually transform the conventional imagery. The pieces by Machioli and Juan Ortiz and Michelle Angela Ortiz read as mere admissions of identity, much as the admittedly impressive burned-wood works by Ronald Mejia traffic in traditional, established forms.
That would be fine if the exhibition didn't claim aspirations to document how the Chicano movement has evolved and expanded since the 1960s; some of the work here feels rooted in the past. In 2001 the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art organized a traveling show titled "Ultrabaroque: Aspects of Post-Latin American Art," that more confidently addressed a similar thematic terrain as this show. "Ultrabaroque's" artists visually attacked colonialism with ferocious wit and disarming stylistic interpretations, resulting in works that referenced the past but felt firmly embroiled in contemporary political discourse.
Only three of "Chicanismo y Latinismo's" artists achieve the same intensity of vision. One is unsurprising: Francisco Delgado has spent the past decade making visually arresting political statements, and his three large-scale works here—'Hay una gringa en mi cama,' 'La estatua garbancera,' and the wry '1960 somethin',' a portrait of young white girl holding a sign that reads 'return to sender' rendered in the kind of air-brush strokes found in carnival sideshows—bristle with defiant humor. The digital prints of Edgar Reyes, an MFA in Community Arts MICA grad, attack stereotypes with a playful seriousness. 'Who Crossed Whose Border' features the title printed in bold advertising script over an archival print of Spanish explorers "discovering" the new world, while 'La Guadalupana' is bluntly brilliant. It's simply an illustration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexican Catholicism's Virgin Mary, rendered in the blurry color blocks of digitization. It's a perfectly cheeky visualization of cultural identity in the 21st century: fuzzy and indistinct, but if you squint your eyes you can kinda make it out.
And then there's Tanya Garcia's 'Contragolpe/Counterpunch.' For this project Garcia interviewed three women—Elvira, Maria, and Martha—who work in MICA's Facilities Management Department about their lives and the sacrifices they make for their families. Three monitors play different video loops. In one Elvira sits on a sofa with her two kids; there's no sound, allowing you to observe a candid moment between a mother and her children. On a different monitor, the soundtrack of the video plays excerpts from one of the women's interviews. She speaks in Spanish; English translations appear in white text on a black screen in the video. She talks about wanting to be a chemical engineer but not being allowed to be one, about how education supposedly isn't for women, and says that she rarely gets to see her kids because of her two jobs. Between each monitor hangs a boxer's satin robe, each tailored to the three respondents. The Honduran Martha's is gold with baby-blue accents, the back reading "Por mis hijos" with kids' names written on a design in the middle. The Dominican Elvira's is in red and blue; on back, it reads "Strong women."
In the final video Garcia has each woman put the robe on over her MICA work uniform. In uninterrupted tracking shots Garcia's camera circles each woman on the first floor of the Brown Center. These shorts recall pre-boxing-match hype footage that ESPN runs when introducing a contender. The women put the robes on, one sleeve at a time, don boxing gloves, put up their dukes, and look into the camera as it circles them. Yes, in some ways 'Contragolpe/Counterpunch' hews closer to ethnographic data collection than conventional visual arts, but few things wordlessly and instantly move you like the look in these women's eyes when they're being treated like the heavyweight champs that they are.