After one of the most ruthless presidential elections in recent history, and the endless cycle of regime-change cuts, bans, walls, filibusters, tweets, failures, hackings, corporate protections, nepotistic administration changes, mass deportations, and bombings that have managed to escalate to full-blown war rhetoric, Donald Trump’s presidency has transformed—ripped—the very social fabric of the American experience. Just asking the question of what it means to be an American in 2017 seems to be made up of an altogether different set of assumptions and conditions that it was a year ago. As I read former President Obama’s final reminder to the American people of the importance of “unity, a sense of inclusion, a respect for our institutions, our way of life, our rule of law, and a respect for each other,” the timbre of his dignified words read more like a plea for humanity and decency to continue, rather than a mere execution of proper out-going protocols. In light of the polarizing divisions between left, right, and apathetic, and the spectacular shocks that are now “the new normal” of our current political culture, it is to our public institutions of education and art that I seek ways of imagining, critiquing, and reflecting upon this new age of ambiguous civic belonging and (un)civil discourse.
The Hunter Museum of American Art’s current exhibition “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” offers up a powerful response to the forms of fear, anger, terror, and sadness rendered visible by President Trump’s expansive executive policies on immigration, specifically, the criminalization of immigrants and the expansion of border patrol and customs agencies and personnel. A rich, nuanced account of the significant contributions of artists from the Latin American diaspora working within, between, or outside their country of origin and the United States since the 1950s, “Our America” is an exhibition that stakes its claim on the crucial significance of immigrant communities and experiences to the history of American art and visual culture at large. Drawn entirely from the vast holdings of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC, the exhibition includes contributions from over 70 artists of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Dominican, and Brazilian descent, and includes a wealth of aesthetic genres, techniques, and styles, from abstract and figurative paintings, to sculpture, video art, and photography.
Of course, like all large-scale group exhibitions that demand comprehensiveness as opposed to specificity, Our America does indeed have flaws. For instance, how does one begin to create a total, unifying narrative about Latino identity and experience? Curatorially, what are the consequences of diluting, or ignoring the unique historical and cultural contexts and traditions that mark artists and work from such a vast geographical area, specifically a minority community that suffers harsh forms of prejudice and violence? Is it okay to conflate significant moments and makers in the history of 20th-century art using only the shaky category of “Latin American”? Does each artist represented in this exhibition identify himself or herself using this term? Where exactly is “Latin America” anyways? Given that there is no universally agreed upon definition of what “Latino” is, how can an exhibition like this still offer something to a public without suffering from saying nothing at all?
While I do indeed think that this exhibition is deeply flawed, I couldn’t help but focus on the significance of this exhibition in 2017, the deep political and cultural differences that mark this year from 2013, the year this show was organized, and the ways in which this exhibition renders visible a community in Chattanooga that is precarious but growing. As the Mexican-American art historian Tomás Ybarra-Frausto articulates in his moving essay for the exhibition catalogue, “In the twenty-first century a demographic transition in American society positions Latinos as the largest ethnic group in the country. Yet for many Americans, Latinos remain like shadowy ciphers, notably absent from the narratives of American art.” The question remains, is placing these artists within the brackets of American art—its histories, limits, and conditions—a problematic form of appropriation and colonization, or a powerful form of art historical inclusion and diversity?
One of the broadest themes within this exhibition is the presentation of a rich constellation of abstract painters, including the Dominican-born Freddy Rodríguez and his Danza de Carnaval (1974), Cuban-born Carmen Herrera and her elegant Blanco y Verde (1960), and Puerto Rican painter Olga Albizu, whose thick, gestural style, Radiante (1967) stands out in this category. Informed by Hans Hoffman’s color theories and the dynamic “push-and-pull” of colors within the space of the modernist rectangle, Albizu’s fiery color palette and formal composition also registers as a kind of painted plane—a social fabric, or patchwork—that pushes and pulls the fragmented patches of paint like bodies pressing and moving against one another, carving space for and with one another. It is difficult not to read something crucial and urgent in Albizu’s painted space, as the colors press forward and backwards, in and out of depth. But while this exhibition does indeed make a strong case for the importance of abstraction within this “Latin American” art history, the examples presented left me cold.
For me, the moments of real power in Our America were bound up in the works of artists engaged in deep critiques of American power, imperialism, consumerism, and the socio-economic infrastructures of capitalism—themes that mark and shape so much of the diasporic experience. (This is not to say that abstract art is NOT engaged in critiques of these categories, but that there were other works on display that provided a more overt, intentional critique of these issues.) Through visual (popular) culture, this exhibition offers a powerful account of the effects of displacement, whether it arises from fleeing economic or political oppression, migrating in search of new opportunities and security in the United States, or articulating the experience of generations born in the United States due to forced or voluntary migration.
Oscar R. Castillo’s sharp inkjet print, ’47 Chevy in Wilmington, California (1972) documents the ways in which Chicano communities have transformed and enriched the urban landscape of Los Angeles, and the merging of American and Chicano traditions into a new visual lexicon. A yellow American-made car, an important signifier of prosperity for the Chicano population, sits proudly in front of a Mexican grocery store. It implies an American articulation of identity and success — the acquiring of luxury goods — adopted and transformed within immigrant communities.
Whether you believe that this exhibition is a form of institutional ghettoization and tokenism, or a rich, expansive presentation of Latino cultural production and its significance to American art, you cannot deny that it renders visible the achievements of Latino artists and makers who are consistently left out of art historical surveys of art (and political representation at large). Until we begin to cry out collectively over the limitations, exclusions, and absences inherent in the equally broad categories of “European” or “American” or “Modern” art, the question of whether this community deserves to be acknowledged and presented within institutions of art is a moot one. There has never been a more important time for museums to find ways to clear space and engage in public dialogue with and for communities struggling under this administration’s climate of fear and division, for that is the role of public institutions: to provide a space for public discourse, questioning, and resistance.
1. Former President Obama’s quote was culled from the article, “Being an American in the Trump Years” from The Editorial Board, The New York Times, November 9, 2017.
2. For a controversial, mostly negative, critical review of the Our America exhibition in its first presentation at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, see Philip Kennicott’s article “Art Review: Our America at the Smithsonian” for The Washington Post, October 25, 2013.
3. See Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s “Introduction,” in Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, exhibition catalogue, eds. E. Carmen Ramos and T. Ybarra-Frausto, New York: GILES, 2014.
“Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” is on view at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga through June 4.
Jordan Amirkhani is an assistant professor of art history at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga. In addition to her academic work, she serves as a regular contributor and art critic to many national arts publications, namely, the San Francisco-based contemporary art forum Daily Serving.