The Arts

NC Museum of Art brings Latino screen prints to the people with 'Estampas de la Raza'

dmenconi@newsobserver.comApril 12, 2014 

  • Details

    What: “Estampas de la Raza” (”Prints for the People”):

    The Romo Collection

    When: Through July 27

    Where: N.C. Museum of Art, East Building, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh

    Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday; closed Monday

    Cost: $5 for nonmembers; free for NCMA members, children and youth 18 and under

    Info: 919-715-5923 or ncartmuseum.org

If you were to just glance at it from a distance, you might think that the print by California-born graphic artist Ester Hernandez depicts just another box of raisins. But take a closer look, and you’ll see that “Sun-Maid” has been changed to “Sun-Raid.”

The changes don’t stop there. The famous raisin brand logo’s girl has been transformed into a skeleton – commentary on the effects of agricultural contaminants in the drinking water of California’s San Joaquin Valley. And the skeleton is wearing a traditional Mayan tunic, as well as an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) bracelet. Move in close enough to read the printed slogans, and they’ve been transformed into a series of button-pushing points about migrant farmworkers’ rights: UN-NATURALLY HARVESTED, HECHO EN MEXICO/MAD IN USA, GUARANTEED DEPORTATION and BY-PRODUCT OF NAFTA.

“Sun-Raid” is one of the more attention-getting works in “Estampas de la Raza” (“Prints for the People”), the new exhibit at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh, on display through July 27. It’s one of many pieces dealing with political issues through the prism of a sense of fatalism common in Latino folk art.

“That dark sense of humor from the realization and acceptance of death as something that’s always nearby has always been an important part of the culture,” said show curator Lyle Williams. “It’s a sensibility that informs a lot of the show’s better prints.”

Williams is curator of prints and drawings at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, where he assembled “Estampas de la Raza” from the museum’s permanent collection. The show consists of 61 works by 45 artists, out of more than 200 screen prints donated by the San Antonio collectors Harriett and Ricardo Romo. It opened at McNay last year and will show in Los Angeles after its Raleigh run.

Exploring identity

The “de la Raza” part of the show’s title carries a double meaning. “La raza” typically means “the race” or “the people” in Spanish; in the U.S., however, it can refer to people of mixed heritage. So “Identity” is one of five themes Williams used to group the pictures, along with “Struggle,” “Tradition, Culture, Memory,” “Icons” and “Other Voices.”

Jennifer Dasal, associate curator of contemporary art at the N.C. Museum of Art, cites San Antonio artist Vincent Valdez’s “Yo Soy-ee Blaxican” as an example of the way borders and boundaries manifest in art.

“That piece is based on conversations the artist had with his brother,” Dasal said. “They were discussing identity, and the artist asked his brother if he considered himself Chicano. ‘I don’t know what that means,’ his brother said. ‘I don’t consider myself Mexican-American because I’ve never even been to Mexico. So I think of myself as Blaxican.’ The work is a nice mix representing the new America as one of the biggest melting pots in the world. And what really brings the idea home is the symbolic McDonald’s ‘Golden Arches’ in the background.”

In the “Icons” segment, artists put their spin on figures including Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, Mexican painter Frida Kahlo and some of the most recognizable symbols in America.

Santa Fe, N.M., native Tony Ortega’s “La Marcha de Lupe Liberty” places faceless masses at a protest rally at the feet of the Statue of Liberty, whose face and robes have been altered to make her the Virgin of Guadalupe (the “Queen of Mexico”). And Mexican-born artist Artemio Rodriguez’s “Mickey Muerto” has a morbidly cartoonish vibe similar to that of “Sun-Raid.”

“That one is a response to the artist’s opinion about George W. Bush during the ‘War on Terror,’ ” Dasal said. “The artist thought that was based on a very Old West, shoot-’em-up, wanted-dead-or-alive sort of mentality. So he took a very American icon, Mickey Mouse, and translated it into a ghoulish Old West skeleton character. It’s funny and grim at the same time.”

Bravado, black humor and anger course through works in all five themes, with their bright colors standing in stark contrast to the dark themes. But the collection is not without the occasional ray of hopefulness. Puerto Rican-born artist Angel Rodriguez-Diaz’s “Stepping into the Light – Quinceñeara” is a positively radiant portrait of a young woman at her coming-of-age celebration.

Edgy undercurrents

Still, the most interesting works are the ones with dark, edgy undercurrents despite the cartoonishness.

San Antonio native Alex Rubio’s “Los Frajos” transforms a packet of cigarettes into commentary on AIDS, with the surgeon general’s warning saying that the disease has side effects including “homophobia, racism and death.” And Texas native Michael Menchaca’s “Cuando El Rio Suena Gatos Lleva” depicts cartoon cats trying to cross a river. It looks funny and lighthearted until you realize that some of them appear to be drowning in the attempt.

Given some of the hot-button issues involved, you might expect “Estampas de la Raza” to have come in for criticism during its San Antonio run. But Williams said that did not materialize.

“Surprisingly, the response was very positive even from those quarters I’d thought might have a more conservative reaction,” Williams said. “Where we are in Texas, so many people grew up along the border and know a lot of the issues that these artists are talking about. It’s pretty complicated. So while a lot of the work is very strident and passionate, people are aware of what the artists are talking about.”

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or www.newsobserver.com/OnTheBeat

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