February 26, 2014 | 6:20pm EST
A refreshing and eye-opening exhibit, Our America: the Latino Presence in American Art, celebrates the stories and experiences of American artists with Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, and Dominican cultural roots. All text in the exhibit is written in both Spanish and English. Many of the actual pieces feature both languages and combine Latin and American cultural paradigms. The harmonious blending of cultures exemplifies the notion of shared identity claimed by both the artist and viewer.
Through numerous mediums, the exhibit explores themes such as the journey, heritage, tradition, family, and community. Using a variety of approaches, the viewer catches a glimpse of the cross-section of cultures that influence the artists’ own experiences as Americans. Sometimes painful, sometimes beautiful, and often both–the works evoke strong and sincere emotions.
The protest art on display is particularly strong; demanding justice across various swaths of social issues, the collection of works had a tremendous impact on me. One of my favorites was “Sun Mad,” by Ester Hernandez. In the screen-print, she transforms the Sun Maid of the famous raisin company into a skeleton to protest the pollution that impacted her family and hometown. With graphic colors and a jarring subject, this piece also demands justice for the workers and consumers that were harmed by the company’s policies around the time the print was produced.
Another work that caught my eye was Melesio “Mel” Casas’ “Humanscape 62.” Along with many other activists during the 1970s, Casas demanded that Frito Lay remove the Frito Bandito from circulation. Here, he includes an image of the Bandito atop an Aztec image, a Girl Scout, and many other “brown” stereotypical iconography stemming from Latino and indigenous cultures.
Perhaps one of the most moving pieces in the exhibit, Ken Gonzales-Day’s “Erased Lynchings” is made up of fifteen edited ink-jet prints of U.S. postcards depicting lynchings of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans that took place in California during the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. To call attention to the perpetrators rather than the victims, Gonzales-Day first photographed the images and then edited out the victims completely, lending an even more haunting element to his work.
The single most moving piece that I encountered during my time at the exhibit is pictured below. Carelessly written on the reverse of a postcard depicting a lynching, I read the words “this is what he got.” Although not for the faint of heart, head over to the American Art Museum soon if you are interested in getting a vivid taste of the Latin-American experience.
Our America: the Latino Presence in American Art is on exhibit until March 2, 2014. The Smithsonian America Art Museum is located on 8th and G, and it is open from 11:30am-7:00pm daily. For more information, visit AmericanArt.si.edu/ouramerica.