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DePaul Art Museum continues Latinx initiative with galleries-wide exhibition

This intergenerational show fills all the museum’s galleries and features more than 75 paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and installations by 38 artists of Latin-American descent living and working in the United States, primarily in the Chicago area.

Alfredo Martinez, “Boxing with Batman,” (2016) acrylic paint, yarn, fabric. Photo courtesy of the artist
Alfredo Martinez, “Boxing with Batman,” (2016) acrylic paint, yarn, fabric. Photo courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist

A study of the collections of 18 major American art museums published by the Public Library of Science in 2019 reached some startling conclusions, including this stark statistic: Just one percent of the represented North American artists born in 1945 or later were “Hispanic/Latinx.”

“Latinx art is poorly represented in the art world,” said Lourdes Torres, a professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at DePaul University. “It gets lost because it’s not really represented in so-called American art — it’s considered marginal or different — and it’s not considered under the rubric of Latin-American art.”

The DePaul Art Museum took a significant step toward remedying this longstanding inequity in February with the launching of its three-year Latinx Initiative. “LatinXAmerican,” the first big public outgrowth of that project, opens Jan 7, but it can only be seen online for now because of COVID-19 protocols.

This intergenerational show fills all the museum’s galleries and features more than 75 paintings, drawings, sculptures, photographs and installations by 38 artists of Latin-American descent living and working in the United States, primarily in the Chicago area. Among those represented are Candida Alverez, Graciela Iturbide, José Lerma and Vik Muniz.

The project was hatched by Julie Rodrigues Widholm, who took over as the museum’s director in 2015. To help rectify the demographic imbalances in American museum collections, one of her first goals was to put more of a spotlight on Latinx artists. “It just felt like there was a dire need to start this work,” she said.

Yvette Mayorga A Vase of the Century 1 (After Century Vase c. 1876), 2019 Acrylic piping on canvas Collection of DePaul Art Museum, Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2020.1 Photo courtesy of the artist
Yvette Mayorga, “A Vase of the Century 1 (After Century Vase c. 1876),” 2019, acrylic piping on canvas Collection of DePaul Art Museum. Art Acquisition Endowment Fund, 2020.1 Photo courtesy of the artist
Cortesía

Widholm began by increasing the number of such artists in the museum’s exhibitions, but she quickly realized that if the institution wanted make a big impact, it had to take a more expansive, longer-term approach.

So, she and her team conceived the Latinx Initiative, which incorporates acquisitions, research, exhibitions and community outreach. The undertaking is funded in part by a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts in New York.

“I was very excited about it,” Torres said, “because I think it’s been a long time coming.”

The museum could have chosen to highlight other groups who are underrepresented in American museums, but Widholm said it made sense to take this focus because 28.8 percent of Chicago’s population is Latino, according to 2019 Census Bureau estimates. In addition, about 17 percent of DePaul’s student body in 2019 was Hispanic/Latinx — the largest minority group on campus.

Too often, said Rodrigo Lara, a Mexican native who immigrated to the United States almost 10 years ago, Latinx artists feel like they are on their own. The Chicagoan, who serves on the DePaul Art Museum’s advisory board and is represented in “LatinXAmerican,” has struggled to get his art shown in institutions beyond Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art.

“I feel this kind of an initiative could have some repercussions that could help Latinx artists to be seen in a different way or to be seen at all,” he said.

For its initiative and upcoming show, the museum has chosen to use the term “Latinx,” a label that connotes Latinos of all kinds regardless of gender identity. “The title is meant to foreground the complexity of identity for those living and working in the United States with Latin-American heritage,” Widholm said. “We’re not trying to define what Latinx is. We’re just trying to open up the conversation, because it’s super-complicated.”

The term has sparked controversy even within the Latino community. While Torres salutes the impetus behind the appellation, she admits that as an “older-generation” Latina, it has taken her some time to get used to the term.

“So, while it doesn’t roll easily from my tongue,” she said, “I have integrated it in my discourse, because my students do it. I tend to go back and forth, because I like ‘Latina’ as a Latina person, and we have fought long and heard to have the ‘a’ represented.”

Sam Kirk Kali, 2019 Stained glass Photo courtesy of the artist
Sam Kirk “Kali,” 2019, stained glass.
Cortesía

In July 2020, Widholm left to head the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, but interim director Laura-Caroline de Lara is enthusiastically continuing the initiative’s mission. She hopes the project will encourage more Latinos to visit the museum and take part in its offerings.

“We’ve found,” she said, “that the more that we can represent artists of different races and identities in our galleries, it makes it more comfortable for those communities to feel like they have a sense of place within our museum.”

One of the museum’s “first truly collaborative exhibitions,” according to de Lara, “LatinXAmerican” was organized by Widholm and a team of curators and student interns. A key participant is assistant curator Ionit Behar, who joined the staff only a few months ago but was able to add her “personal touch” to the show.

The exhibition includes works in the collection, including recent acquisitions like an untitled 2018 silkscreen print by Nicole Marroquin; “Open 24 Hours” (2018), a patterned screen by Edra Soto, and “A Vase of the Century 1 (After Century Vase ca. 1876)” (2019), a constructed painting by Yvette Mayorga.

While “LatinXAmerican” will remain online for at least the near future, de Lara is hoping that coranavirus restrictions will be loosened so the museum can open the exhibition for in-person visits before it closes Aug. 15.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.