Latino Art Sightings in Major Texas CitiesLatino art in Texas communities continues to expand, and its presence in major museums is no longer an afterthought. Over the past year, several of the major
museums in San Antonio, El Paso, Austin, and Houston have added Latino staff, including curators Mia Lopez at the San Antonio McNay, Claudia Zapata at UT Austin Blanton, and Edward Hayes, Museum Director in El Paso.
Art museums from across the nation are increasingly interested in the works of Latino artists as demonstrated by the recently opened traveling exhibit “Estampas de la Raza: Contemporary Prints from the Romo Collection” at the Oglethorpe University Museum of Art in Atlanta, Georgia. The Estampas exhibit was organized by the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio.
Texas is changing and transformation is evident in the recent U.S. Census data that confirmed Hispanics have reached a major demographic milestone as they became the largest ethnic group in the state with 40.2 percent of the population. The question for art aficionados like myself is whether the new population dynamics will positively influence heightened Latino art visibility. Texas cities are different in many aspects, but today more than ever, Latino art is on the minds of many Texas residents, both Latinos and non-Latinos. In Austin, the Mexi-Arte Museum and the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas are two must-see museums for Latino and Latin American art.
Mexi-Arte opened its doors in 1984 as a place to “share the art and culture of Mexico with Texas.” Under the direction of its highly accomplished co-founder and
CEO Sylvia Orozco, the museum has expanded its artistic mission to offer exhibitions of contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Latin American art and culture. My wife Harriett and I were proud to have been one of the 75,000 Mexi-Arte visitors this year.
The Blanton Museum of Art on The University of Texas at Austin campus is one of the premier university museums in the United States. The museum’s mission is to educate the public about art by emphasizing that “art matters in people’s lives, and that skills associated with close looking and interpretation contribute to creativity, critical analysis, and community.” We have visited the Blanton several times this year and were especially pleased to see the recent Cara a Cara / Face to Face exhibit featuring a selection of Chicano artists who have chosen portraiture as a form of personal, cultural, or political affirmation. The exhibit is a part of the Gilberto Cardenas and Dolores Garcia collection. Among my favorite pieces is Carmen Lomas Garza’s “Ofrenda para Antonio Lomas.”
The Blanton noted that “Ofrenda para Antonio Lomas” is a “departure from Garza’s works on canvas or paper, transferring to metal the flatness of papel picado, the traditional Mexican cut paper banners used as Day of the Dead decorations.” Her metal work is part of a traditional Día de los Muertos altar honoring her grandfather’s memory. The Blanton curators wrote that in Lomas Garza’s large work the artist “symbolically transplants Antonio Lomas from working in his garden into the gallery, elevating her protagonist and the task he performs to heroic proportions. Garza’s portrayal compels viewers to rethink preconceptions about others’ lives, providing both a face and an identity for so many gardeners who remain anonymous.”
The Chicano movement inspired Carmen Lomas Garza which led her to concentrate on the everyday lives of Chicanos based on her memories and experiences in South Texas. She found a need to produce art “that would elicit recognition and appreciation among Mexican Americans and at the same time serve as a source of education for others not familiar with our culture.” Lomas Garza lives in San Francisco, 1892 miles from Kingsville, Texas where she grew up. But while she resides in the Bay Area, her art, based on memory, is wholly about her hometown and rural Texas. Her paintings, metal sculptures, prints, and children’s books capture a wide range of activities and events common to South Texas. Her works include familial and community celebrations of birthdays, quinceañeras, Saturday night dances, cakewalks, and much more. Overall, her portraits celebrate the resilience, perseverance, and stories of individuals belonging to Mexican American communities across the United States.
An exceptional sculpture at UT Austin’s Blanton Museum is that of Luis Jimenez, “Border Crossing.” The fiberglass piece is on permanent display on the second-floor entrance to the Latin American art section, a 2013 gift from Austinites Jeanne and Michael Klein. Luis Jimenez attained international fame as a sculptor and painter early in his lifetime. He was among the first Latinos to exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C. His work in large fiberglass sculptures led him to move to Hondo, New Mexico where he refurbished an abandoned school building as his studio.In this monumental work “Border Crossing,” Jiménez depicts a Mexican man carrying a woman and infant on his back across the Rio Grande River. Jiménez’s image was inspired by his father and grandmother’s unauthorized immigration to the United States in the early 1920s. He considered this sculpture a tribute to his family but also a testimonial to the “determination of the thousands of immigrants who have traveled across the southwestern border in search of a better life.” We recently saw “Border Crossing” at the Fine Arts Museum in Houston, a reminder that Jimenez was known to make several versions of his important works.
In Houston, we also visited Graffiti Park near the downtown center of the city on Leeland Street. Houston’s skyline has changed dramatically in the last two decades, and Mario E. Figueroa, known as Gonzo247, has made sure that Latino art has kept up with the exciting and transformative urban landscape. As Houston, one of America’s largest cities, added more skyscrapers, Gonzo, the founder of the downtown Graffiti Park and co-founder of the area’s Wall of Fame featuring Latinos and Blacks made sure that public art resonated with all Houstonians.
Gonzo grew up in the East End of Houston, a blue-collar barrio where industrial factories, warehouses, and shipping docks dominate the landscape. In his bio, Gonzo explained that as a youth in the late 1970s exposure to Leo Tanguma’s monumental mural in the East End, “The Rebirth of Our Nationality” , and later the visual language of Hip Hop, made a dramatic impact on his interest in art. Gonzo discovered at age 17 the excitement of using spray paint for art. He added: “There was no right or wrong way to do it.” His graffiti art began as a visual language of Hip-Hop.
During his teenage years, Gonzo, like many of his peers, was attracted to Hip-Hop music, skateboarding, and informal weekend recreational sports. Gonzo also became an early advocate of graffiti art. He explained to the Rice University campus newspaper, The Rice Thresher, “I think when you’re a Brown kid from the east side of town, seeing classical architecture or elaborate Renaissance oil paintings, I couldn’t connect with the content, nor the materials and the mediums of classical art. “
While standing in the middle of Graffiti Park last week my wife Harriett and I witnessed a large tour bus driving by the murals as the driver described the influence of Chicano and Latino art on the city and community. Gonzo247 has invited muralists from around the world to participate in the painting of large walls around the park. Several striking murals of Selena and Aztec iconography by @Empires13 are recent additions to Graffiti Park.
Copyright 2023 by Ricardo Romo. All photos copyrighted by Ricardo Romo.