The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s complimentary exhibits on Chicanx art and the legacy of naturalist Alexander von Humboldt


The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s complimentary exhibits on Chicanx art and the legacy of naturalist Alexander von Humboldt

Susan Isaacs visits the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and is impressed by two socially relevant exhibitions: “¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now” (on view until August 8, 2021) and ‘ Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature and Culture ”(now closed; online documents available).

Juan Fuentes, Many Mandelas, 1986, silkscreen on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, 1995.50.20, © 1986, Juan R Fuent.

As a professor of art history, I am a regular visitor to museums. One of my favorite institutions is the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), which adjoins the National Portrait Gallery. I take my students there regularly because the quality and diversity of the exhibits provide excellent examples of various media, eras, styles, identities and exhibition designs. They have been collecting and displaying works that recognize the cultural diversity of the United States for some time. Also, they house the Luce Foundation Center which is a teaching laboratory. You can see many other works in open storage spaces, including paintings, sculptures, and decorative items. The conservation laboratory is visible through large windows. SAAM also hosts the Luce Local Artist Series for performances and studio tours. The Renwick Gallery, although not in the same location, is part of SAAM.

The permanent collection extends from the colonies of New Spain and New England to contemporary art. SAAM puts on several major thematic exhibitions per year, which brings me to my last visit. Two recent exhibits reflect the breadth of subjects and time periods that support the museum’s claim to document American visual culture from the colonial period to the present day. The first one, Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature and Culture, curated by Eleanor Jones Harvey, explored the continuing impact of Humboldt (September 14, 1769 – May 6, 1859) on our perception of the natural world. He was a scientist who believed that the arts were just as important. The exhibition has just ended, but there is a wealth of material online and a rich catalog that you can also order.

In 1804, Humboldt spent six weeks in the United States discussing art, science, politics, and exploration with prominent figures including artist Charles Wilson Peale and President Thomas Jefferson. Humboldt, who has published 36 books and maintained international correspondence, influenced our nation’s cultural identity and its relationship to the environment. He anticipates climate change. Paintings by Frederick Edwin Church and Charles Wilson Peale, among others, were included in the exhibition. Of particular interest is the film produced for the exhibition, “Alexander von Humboldt and” The Heart of the Andes: An Immersive Journey, “which examines famous Church painting and its connection to Humboldt’s ideas and observations.

Moving from the 19th century to the 20th and 21st centuries, we enter Print the Revolution! The rise and impact of Chicano Graphics, from 1965 to the present day, curated by E. Carmen Ramos, Acting Chief Curator and Curator of Latinx Art at SAAM with Claudia Zapata, Curatorial Assistant for Latinx Art. Since arriving at the museum in 2010, Ramos has doubled SAAM’s Latinx collection.

The dominant medium of the show is screen printing, but other processes are also represented, including digital. The 119 prints on display are taken from the museum’s vast and growing collection of 500 graphic works by Chicano artists. Many are poster size or larger. The museum plans to produce more exhibits from this important collection and share it with other institutions as well. The subjects are predominantly political, with subjects dealing with civil rights, labor, war, immigration, feminism and LGBTQ + movements. The exhibition is colorful, dramatic and, like all great SAAM exhibitions, accompanied by a rich programming and an excellent catalog with essays by Ramos and Zapata, as well as contributions by Tatiana Reinoza, assistant professor of art history at the University of Notre Dame; and Terezita Romo, art historian, curator and writer. The website is good too, with links to interviews, films and lectures. Works on paper are not exhibited for long periods of time due to deterioration from light. This exhibit provides a unique opportunity to view prints that are typically stocked, and although they can be viewed online their visual impact is far greater in person, not to mention the vividly colored exhibit design that makes them feel great. surrounded.

graphic work of two men with brown skin and black hair, dressed in yellow overalls, leaning on each other.  Each of the men has broken chains around their wrists and holds their hands in their fists.  In the upper left corner, the text reads as follows: "YO SOY CHICANO"
Malaquias Montoya, “Yo Soy Chicano”, 1972, reprinted in collaboration with Dignidad Rebelde 2013, silkscreen on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Gilberto Cárdenas and Dolores García, 2019.51.1, © 1972, Malaquias Montoya.

The era of civil rights was central to Americans of Mexican descent. The term “Chicano” refers to the Chicano movement which began around 1965. It refers to people of Mexican descent in the United States. Originally derogatory, it was claimed as a positive image and a rejection of the concept of crucible assimilation. Chicana denotes women who prefer this designation while Chicanx is a contemporary and inclusive identifying term. Stephanie Stebich, in her director’s preface to the exhibition catalog, links the past to the present, linking the art of resistance of the original Chicano movement to today’s global efforts against economic and social inequalities, also accompanied by visual art.

Images like “Huelga! “(1966) by Andrew Zermeño and” Tierra O Muerte “(1967) by Emmanuel Martinez are linked to” Between the Leopard and the Jaguar “(2019) by Melanie Cervantes / Dignida Rebelde.

Huelga translates to “strike”. The artist designed this poster for United Farm Workers. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), which later merged with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) to become the United Farm Workers (UFW). Don Sotaco, a recurring character in Zermeño’s work, calls for a strike by agricultural workers.

“Tierra O Muerte” translates to “earth or death”. In 1967, Martinez joined the Federal Land Grant Alliance, a New Mexico-based group in the 1960s that defended the land rights of residents of Mexican descent who had lived in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado for decades. centuries and had used the land in common. . The Treaty to End the Mexican-American War, signed in 1848, ensured that current residents would retain their land rights after the transfer of territory from New Mexico to American property, but the treaty was not honored and, over time, many traditional shepherds lost their lands. cattle ranchers and the US Forest Service. The demand for restitution of the land is represented here through the character of Emiliano Zapata, who was a leader of the Mexican Revolution.

Abstract painting of a native woman wearing face paint, in front of a bright pink background with Aztec patterns and images
Melanie Cervantes, Dignidad Rebelde, “Between the leopard and the jaguar”, 2019, silkscreen on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, museum purchase via the Samuel and Blanche Koffler Acquisition Fund, 2020.39.5, © 2019, Melanie Cervantes.

A young artist, Melanie Cervantes, created “Between the Leopard and the Jaguar” to address the traditions and strength of indigenous communities since the conquest of the Americas by the peoples of Europe. She is co-founder of Dignidad Rebelde, “a graphic arts collaboration that produces silkscreen prints, political posters and multimedia projects that are rooted in third world and indigenous movements that empower people to transform conditions. fragmentation, displacement and loss of culture that result from stories of colonialism, patriarchy, genocide and exploitation. This intersectionality of multiple oppressions represents a contemporary perspective. Here she depicts an indigenous dancer performing traditional dances, commenting on the importance and continued survival of indigenous culture.

Shizu Saldamando, who is of Chicano and Asian descent, portrays people she has met in dance clubs, musical performances, and art stages. She is interested in the culture of young people in Southern California and individuals on the margins of society. For example, in “Alice Bag” (2016), she features musician Alice Bag, lead singer and co-founder of The Bags, a first-wave feminist punk band Chicana from Los Angeles. The image is pen on cloth, a tradition of paño art typically created by Chicanos who are or have been in prison.

Likewise, Favianna Rodriguez in “Climate Woke” (2018) used graffiti-like text associated with urban spaces and transgressing civic rules, to produce a digital image that presents the intersectionality of racial injustice with climate change, highlighting that low-income communities are more likely to suffer environmental damage.

From the first works in the exhibition to those recently completed, the images present a vibrant and active artistic community that has been and continues to be concerned with issues of economic, political and social justice.

‘¡Print the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now ‘is on view until August 8, 2021 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW, Washington DC). Admission is free to SAAM. Next, the exhibit will travel to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, where it will be on display from February 20, 2022 until May 8, 2022.


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