To be Latin and an artist: ‘Our America’ surveys contributions in Allentown Art Museum exhibition
“Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art,” a traveling exhibit organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, through Oct. 2, Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley, Fifth and Court streets, Allentown, includes 89 contemporary artworks by 71 artists in the Museum’s Trexler Hall, Scheller, Rodale, and Fowler Galleries.
What does a Latino artist do when uprooted and transported to the United States’ landscape of political structures? They make their presence known through the arts. “Our America” is a perspective on contemporary art and artists’ approach to address the political issues of the day affecting Latino communities.
In “Nuestra América” (“Our America”), the presence of Latino artists is brush strokes on a canvas, the eye of a camera lens that captures a scene, an assortment of mixed-media, an elegant gelatin print, engravings and paper etchings, carved on granite or stone sculpture, shapes on Fiberglass, viewed on film and heard through the music emitting sounds from a suitcase, in poetic words found on the art of a passport, and on a decorative chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
These media are representative of the diverse Latino communities, including those of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban and Dominican descent, in “Our America.” Elaine Mehalakes, Allentown Art Museum Vice President for Curatorial and Education, says “Our America” is a “sampling” of Latino art.
There are nine exhibition themes: “Reframing the Past and Present,” “Migrating Through History,” “The Graphics Boom,” “Turning Point,” “Street Life,” “Signs of the Popular,” “Everyday People,” “We Interrupt this Message” and “Defying Categories.”
Mehalakes explains the collection in three sections. The first, in Trexler Hall, is from an historical approach that poses the artists’ question about the United States’ landscape: Who moved, the people or the border? The second, in the Rodale Gallery, is from the perspective of the artwork as a cutting-edge movement of contemporary graphics about social issues. The third, in the Scheller and Fowler Galleries, is an interpretation of popular culture being revised and transformed through contemporary art.
One such transformation comes from the late Cuban-born artist Ana Mendieta’s “Untitled,” a gelatin silver print from the “Silueta Series” (1980). Mendieta combines art, sculpture and photography in the work. From the earth’s silhouette comes a reflection in the form of a womb giving birth from the ground. The artist’s femininity and aesthetic techniques expresses the life-giving Mother Earth.
In addition to an exploration of art and nature, “Our America” examines religion in contemporary art.
Amalia Mesa-Bains’ “An Ofrenda for Dolores del Rio” (1984) is a powerful memorial in honor of the Mexican actress Dolores del Rio. The Spanish word, “ofrenda,” translates as an offering that a worshiper brings to an altar.
Mesa-Bains has created a shrine offering to honor the dead. The shrine is similar to shrines made for celebrities outside their homes and on street corners where a tragedy has occurred. On the ground of the pink shrine are seeds that have a spicy aroma like incense. The audio tour includes a beautiful description by the artist that is worth listening to.
Pepón Osorio’s “El Chandelier” (1988), has blue domino dice affixed to the lamp’s branches. “The Chandelier,” as with the rest of the art work, represents the Latino communities’ presence in American art and life.
“The relationship between Latino art and the larger world of American art in the post-War period is not simple or clear cut,” stated E. Carmen Ramos, curator of the exhibition and of Latino art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in a press release about the exhibition.
“Some artists, influenced by the activism of Latino civil rights movements, turned away from pure formalist discourse to tackle the pressing issues of the day. Others artists wholeheartedly embraced abstraction. An even larger group inhabited multiple worlds, infusing avant-garde modes with politically- and culturally-engaged themes,” Ramos stated.
Complementing the exhibit at the Museum’s entrance is the Museum’s first commissioned mural, “Transcultural,” by Dominican-born neo-surrealist artist Rigo Peralta of Allentown.
There is so much to see in “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” that one visit to view the exhibition at the Allentown Art Museum won’t capture the abundant richness to explore in this collection.
Artists featured in the exhibition are ADÁL, Manuel Acevedo, Elia Alba, Olga Albizu, Carlos Almaraz, Jesse Amado, Asco (Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Willie Herrón and Patssi Valdez), Luis Cruz Azaceta, Myrna Báez, Guillermo Bejarano, Charles “Chaz” Bojórquez, María Brito, Margarita Cabrera, María Magdalena Campos-Pons, Melesio “Mel” Casas, Leonard Castellanos, Oscar R. Castillo, José Cervantes, Enrique Chagoya, Roberto Chavez, Carlos A. Cortéz, Marcos Dimas, Ricardo Favela, Christina Fernandez;
Also, Teresita Fernández, iliana emilia garcía, Rupert García, Scherezade García, Carmen Lomas Garza, Ignacio Gomez, Ken Gonzales-Day, Hector González, Luis C. “Louie the Foot” González, Muriel Hasbun, Ester Hernandez, Judithe Hernández, Carmen Herrera, Carlos Irizarry, Luis Jiménez, Miguel Luciano, Emanuel Martinez, María Martínez-Cañas, Antonio Martorell, Ana Mendieta, Amalia Mesa-Bains, Franco Mondini-Ruiz, Delilah Montoya, Malaquias Montoya, Abelardo Morell, Jesús Moroles,
And Raphael Montañez Ortiz, Pepón Osorio, Amado M. Peña Jr., Chuck Ramirez, Paul Henry Ramirez, Sophie Rivera, Arturo Rodríguez, Freddy Rodríguez, Joseph Rodríguez, Frank Romero, Emilio Sánchez, Juan Sánchez, Jorge Soto Sánchez, Rafael Soriano, Ruben Trejo, Jesse Treviño, John M. Valadez, Alberto Valdés and Xavier Viramontes.
Support for “Our America” has been provided by Altria Group, the Honorable Aida M. Alvarez, Judah Best, The James F. Dicke Family Endowment, Sheila Duignan and Mike Wilkins, Tania and Tom Evans, Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, The Michael A. and the Honorable Marilyn Logsdon Mennello Endowment, Henry R. Muñoz III, Wells Fargo and Zions Bank.
Additional support was provided by The Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center. Support for “Treasures to Go,” the museum’s traveling exhibition program, comes from The C. F. Foundation, Atlanta.
“Our America” has been supported at the Allentown Art Museum by the Air Products Foundation, the Amaranth Foundation, the Bernard and Audrey Berman Foundation, the Century Fund, the County of Lehigh, the Estelle Browne-Pallrand Charitable Trust, the Harry C. Trexler Trust, the Julius and Katheryn Hommer Foundation, the Martin Guitar Charitable Foundation, the Rider-Pool Foundation, Rodale, Second Harvest Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and Museum friends.
“Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” captions are in English and Spanish. An audio tour of select works is available at OurAmerica.gallery, 610-628-2232. Hours for the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley, 31 N. Fifth St., Allentown, are 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday; 11 a.m. - 8 p.m. Thursday and noon - 4 p.m. Sunday. Museum admission is free 4 - 8 p.m. Thursdays and noon - 4 p.m. Sundays. Information: allentownartmuseum.org, 610-432-4333.