The “New” Muralists and “Melted” Identities

The Rebirth of Our Nationality by Leo Tanguma,

As a Greek native, my knowledge about Latino and Latin American identities was quite limited; hence I consider myself very fortunate to have had the opportunity to read the “Brokering Identities” article by Mari Carmen Ramirez. When I finished reading it, the first thing that came to my mind was a discussion I had one night with my former roommate. Born and raised in Kansas City, of Mexican heritage, she is a painter, and always felt proud to label her art as “Latino art”, since her artworks revolve heavily around her identity. Right after she finished art school, she took part in an artists’ residency program in South America, where most of her professors told her that it is quite visible, that her technique and painting style stray too much from her Latino roots. When she returned to Kansas City and tried to exhibit her work among other young artists in group exhibitions, on more than one occasion she was rejected due to the fact that her art was considered, too “Latin American” and didn’t quite fit the exhibition subject. Finding herself in a crossroad she just stopped labeling her art, consequently deciding not only on her own unique style, but also her peace of mind.

In the article, Ramirez argues that the role of the museum curator has furthered away from being an elitist judge of taste and aesthetics; their role now revolving around the exemplification of art made by subordinate and emerging communities, thus allowing the latter to convey notions of identity. By creating new spaces for distribution and appreciation of art, curators create a more democratic space where said cultural groups can identify themselves. Hence, a more proper word for the curators in those cases is “cultural brokers” of identities.  But if identities are nothing but negotiated constructs that result from different social, cultural and political contexts how can then curators organize exhibitions without those resulting to cheap stereotypes?

Ramirez then goes on to characterize the terms “Latin American” and “Latino” art, as inventions that each cultural group re-invents according to its historical and societal needs. How can it be possible to fit under the umbrella of those terms artistic products made by races, classes and nationalities, deriving from more than twenty different countries? On one hand, the term “Latin American” art, which essentially translates as artistic products that are influenced by the western canon and “internationalized” but are also based on local, more “problematic” contents, serves the agendas and the interests of North and Latin American groups. Art exhibitions after all, were a ticket for Latin American countries to gain access to the global dynamics and economics of the new world; an exchange of identity, in return for acceptance to the global community of modern art. This process consequently leads to the birth of a new melted identity. On the other hand “Latino Art” was almost always ignored by North American museums, considered too marginal, thus leading Latino artists to take matters into their own hands (quite literally!) and turn to self-representation. And what better way to do that, than to create astonishing street art on walls, on community art centers and culturally oriented museums. Indeed, examples of this are apparent, all over USA. Much like the center image above, The Rebirth of Our Nationality, by Leo Tanguma, that chronicles the history of Mexican people. Tanguma includes text, more specifically the sentence “To become aware of our history is to become aware of our singularity”, making a direct reference to the argument Ramirez makes about identities and uniqueness.

With the Latin American art market knowing an unprecedented boost, over the last decades, curators who feel the pressure to include Latino art in their exhibitions, fall in a trap and end up opting for Latin American art instead, which always is of higher value and further away from art made by Latino groups, which expressed themselves artistically, while in the midst of fighting for civil rights in the US. “Latin American art” is more mainstream, more easily digestible by North American museums. This juxtaposition of identities between Latin American and Latino artists is ultimately an expression of the consumer capitalism demand for easily marketable cultural symbols, states Ramirez.

Identities and the labeling of them are being re-invented all the time. The best way for curators then to be able to incorporate them properly, while always being thoughtful of the socio political context in which each identity was created, is to be able to look at the bigger picture. Art markets, museums, exhibitions, institutions, they are all inter-related and they all have a role to play in the representation of the similarities and the contradictions of each cultural group, leading to a unique picture.

Iliana Tatsi