Sharing a Complex Narrative with Diverse Audiences:Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art

In October of 2013, the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) opened Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art. This exhibit, organized and curated by E. Carmen Ramos, curator of Latino art at the SAAM, features the work of 72 Latino American artists from all over the United States, starting from the mid-twentieth century.[1] It was during this era that a strong sense of Latino identity was established in the United States, coinciding with the Civil Rights movement and the rise of Latino civil rights advocacy groups such as the Young Lords. Through a diverse array of genres, media, and perspectives, this exhibit tells a wide range of stories which build a complex, multi-ethnic narrative of Latino American identity.

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Pariah, Marcos Dimas, 1971-1972. Courtesty of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

This exhibit truly aims to provide accessibility to its diverse potential audiences. Firstly, while still at the SAAM, admission was free to the public (as it is in all Smithsonian museums). This is an inviting feature to underserved populations. The exhibit itself is entirely bilingual as well[2], making it a welcoming space for those who might not speak English as a first language. The museum also provided a wide variety of free public programming while the exhibit was in residence. Family days encouraged parents and children to connect with Latino culture through Salsa music and dance demonstrations, and Day of the Dead celebrations. Talks with the artists featured in the exhibit took place on several occasions, one as part of the Smithsonian’s Clarice Smith Distinguished Lectures in American Art Series, and another as part of the Latino Art Now! Nuestra América: Expanding Perspectives in American Art conference. The museum also hosted screenings of films such as “Peril and Promise,” “Buena Vista Social Club,” “Born in East L.A.,” “Inocente,”and “Rubén Salazar: Man in the Middle.” A concert series featuring Latino jazz and Afro-Latin jazz was hosted several times.

Perhaps one of the most compelling aspects of this exhibit is it’s accessibility outside of the museum walls. The SAAM has quite a few resources available which can be used as pre-visit educational materials, though the thoroughness of provided resources is quite educational in its own right. The website for Our America is available in both English and Spanish, a crucial feature for an exhibit featuring bilingual artists and attracting a large audience of people who may feel more comfortable reading and communicating in Spanish. On the website, easily located links direct visitors to a series of podcasts[3], video shorts[4], and a variety of blog posts on the SAAM’s blog, Eye Level[5].

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Death of Ruben Salazar, Frank Romero. Courtesy of Eye Level (The Smithsonian American Art Museum blog)

The podcasts, available as YouTube videos which provide a visual of the artwork being discussed, are short, manageable lengths, and many are recorded in English and Spanish. They feature curators and artists discussing the symbolism and significance found in a selection of pieces from the exhibit. The video shorts, which are easily accessible through the Our America site, or as a playlist on the SAAM’s YouTube channel, offer similar information, and both the podcasts and the video shorts can be enabled for closed captioning. Eye Level features blog posts giving further insight into select pieces, and “behind the scenes” peeks at preparing the exhibition.

There is no doubt that Our America strikes a chord with Latino audiences. The exhibit traveled to the Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum in Florida on its first tour stop, and, as Frost director Carol Damian explains, “Our job is not only to educate our students about what the art of their countries and this country may represent, but also to instill a sense of pride in their history by showcasing works of artists that have achieved tremendous respect and renown all over the world, and to say ‘This is our story. This is your story’”[6]. The running theme of the exhibit is that the American story is the story of everyone, including Latinos. “‘Our America’ presents a picture of an evolving national culture that challenges expectations of what is meant by ‘American’ and ‘Latino,’” says Ramos[7]. While there has been some speculation on the cohesiveness and of the exhibit (it was criticized for bringing together a conglomerate of Latino American work with no other unifying theme[8]), the reactions are generally positive. The exhibit’s success on tour is a testament to its desirability at museums and the need for more representation of Latino American excellence in many communities. It is currently on display at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, Delaware, until May 2016. It will move to Pennsylvania, Florida, and Tennessee in the coming year.

As a large exhibit featuring work from diverse sources and in various media, Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art  tells the complex, multi-ethnic story of Latinos in America and the evolution of Latino American identity.

 

 

[1] “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art.” Smithsonian American Art Museum. Accessed March 31, 2016. http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2013/our_america/.

[2] Zeltzer, Ruthie. “Art Exhibit Review: Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art at the A.A. Museum.” American Literary Magazine. Accessed March 31, 2016. http://www.amlitmag.com/blog/amlit/2014/02/art-exhibit-review-our-america-the-latino-presence-in-american-art-at-the-a-a-museum.

[3] “Exhibitions.” : Our America / American Art. Accessed March 31, 2016. http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2013/our_america/podcast/.

[4] “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art.” YouTube. Accessed March 31, 2016. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7gn_68Hr4h_Jy1EF4SVVqVSRgRti73Ia.

[5] “Search Results: “our America”” Eye Level. Accessed March 31, 2016. http://eyelevel.si.edu/.services/blog/6a00d8345233c469e200d83452503e69e2/search?filter.q=our-america.

[6] Fishman, George. “‘Our America’ Exhibit at the Frost Museum Strikes Familiar Chords in South Florida.” Miami Herald, May 30, 2014. Accessed March 31, 2016. http://www.miamiherald.com/entertainment/visual-arts/article1965142.html.

[7] Frail, T.A. “Witnessing the Latino Experience at the American Art Museum.” Smithsonian Magazine, December 2013. Accessed March 31, 2016. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/witnessing-the-latino-experience-at-the-american-art-museum-180947735/?no-ist=.

 

[8] “Critic vs. Artist: What “Latino Art” Means.” Washington Post, November 3, 2013. Accessed March 31, 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/museums/critic-vs-artist-what-latino-art-means/2013/11/03/efd53cfe-44bc-11e3-bf0c-cebf37c6f484_story.html.

Featured image is Night Magic by Carlos Almaraz, 1988. Courtesy of the Delaware Art Museum (delart.org)

 

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