Latino Art: A Puzzle Inside a Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma

By: Di  Delgado Pineda

Illustration by Berke Yazicioglu, courtesy of F Newsmagazine, The School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Every two years, the Whitney Museum in New York City presents to viewers art by lesser known American artists. It is one of the leading exhibitions of contemporary art in the world, and last week marked the opening of the 2014 Whitney Biennial. However, this year’s show created a lot of discourse and disappointment because of who the museum chose to exclude.

The fact is that most artists in the 2014 Whitney Biennial are white males or white females. In November, The Huffington Post calculated:

“48% of the participants to be white men and 29% to be white women. Furthermore, 7.4% of artists represented were of Asian descent, 3.7% were Latino and 1.8% hailed from the Middle East (approximately 20% of artists were born outside of the United States).”

Around the time of the Biennial artist list announcement, the Smithsonian Museum had its doors open to their exhibition titled “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art.” Art critic Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post claimed in his review that the “show’s lack of focus was a telling symptom of an insoluble problem: Latino art, today, is a meaningless category.”(via Washington Post). Many Latino artists responded to Kennicott’s statement, including Alex Rivera, a filmmaker and digital artist. Rivera and Kennicott even took their conversation about “Latino art” publicly in a blog post.

After following much of what was being said about the Biennial, the Smithsonian exhibition, and the inclusion and exclusion of certain racial groups, I wondered if similar issues had been on the minds of any contemporary artists in Chicago. Being a visual artist as well, Kennicott and Rivera’s volley responses to the category “Latino art”, brought up conversations that I had been dealing with since undergrad. I decided to speak with contemporary Chicago Latino artists to discuss what they had to say about the Whitney Biennial, the Smithsonian exhibition, categorization, presence, and being separated into identity based shows. I had the pleasure of interviewing two artists, Alberto Aguilar and Alejandra Valera.

Alejandra Valera is a freelance writer, art director, and filmmaker. Her work has been featured in the Ann Arbor Festival and the Chicago Underground Film Festival. Her specialties include literature, pop culture and design, among many other things. Alberto Aguilar is a multidisciplinary artist whose work is motivated by an interest in interacting with the viewer and sharing a moment. His work is currently on display in the group show Risk: Empathy, Art and Social Practice at Glass Curtain Gallery in Columbia College. He has also participated in other group shows like last year’s Homebodies exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

To understand the dilemma with the Whitney Biennial and Smithsonian exhibition, it is imperative to first address identity and what it means to call something “Latino Art.”

For Alejandra Valera, the word “Latino” doesn’t need to be included when addressing what kind of artists they are: “This is something that I have been working through my entire life. I am a writer, painter and filmmaker, and prefer to call myself as such – hoping that my work will speak for itself,” Valera says.

Alberto Aguilar identifies with being Latino and heritage is important to him.

The trouble starts when visibility of identity in the art is too clear. Aguilar clarifies that although at times he makes a reference to his heritage, “it is never in an obvious way, or the the guiding force behind the work.”  It seems that although artists accept their background, once one places it into their artwork it becomes a filter almost in communicating with the viewer.

Subsequently, the degree to which identity informs the artwork sometimes exposes themes that revolve around culture, iconic Latino images, and in effect can sometimes cause recycled themes or aesthetics.

Alberto Aguilar mentioned the popularity of loteria-like pieces, and Alejandra Valera brought up Frida-inspired pieces that all continue to be called Latino art. Although we all love Frida and loteria is a classic, works like these fail to demonstrate the variety of art that exists and is being produced by Latino/a artists. It seems inevitable that in order to have the conversation of Latino art, the typical Latino/a themes must be pointed out and retired. What I found to be true in both artists I spoke with is that they would like to see viewers broaden their expectations and views of what Latino art is.

“Seeing a loteria image piece offends me just as much as not seeing a Latino presence”, Aguilar says. What Aguilar implies is that Latino/a artists deserve to be recognized and be given a platform for their work, but it is important that the artwork does not blatantly make reference about being Latino/a. Works that challenge the view of what might be considered Latino art help to insert Latino/as in contemporary art and educate others that all Latino/a art cannot be expected to show the same themes. This would help to perhaps increase the number of Latino/a artists included in exhibitions like the Whitney Biennial.

Therefore, despite the problem with typical Latino themes, it can not go without saying that it is also up to institutions and organizations to recognize the progress and contributions Latino/a artists are making in contemporary art as well. They must be responsible for including more artists of different backgrounds in their exhibitions. Aguilar expresses that he is always taken aback with how few Latino artists, especially Mexican-Americans, have not yet disrupted the absence of Latinos in contemporary art. Aguilar states, “Given the proximity of Mexico to the United States and the amount of Mexicans there are in the United States and Chicago, the only way for Latinos to be present is including them in larger exhibitions.” Well, he’s right. The presence of Latinos in the U.S. is hard to ignore.

So why aren’t more Latino artists present in big exhibitions like the Whitney Biennial?

“What needs to occur is that we need more opportunity to have work displayed in prominent exhibitions, so that work by a Mexican artist, Cuban artist, Puerto Rican artist, etc. is not a rarity needing to be labeled”, says Valera. This of course, would be the ideal situation.

Nonetheless, if exhibitions like the one at the Smithsonian do categorize artwork made specifically from Latino artists, it is with our hope that they have adequately chosen art that reflects the grand spectrum of practices and investigations Latino artists perform. These types of exhibitions become successful in initiating more discussions and provide a better representation of Latino art. “I think the problem with categorizing is when all the work has the same feel, I’m more interested in categorizing it to show that there is so much difference in the way that we make work”, says Aguilar.

“Until more changes in opportunities and platforms for Latino artists are provided, shows like the Smithsonian’s need to exist,” Valera concludes. Indeed, they must. As viewers, participants, and as artists, what we can do presently starts with being aware of contemporary Latino art and allowing a mental and (if possible) a physical space for it all.


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