At NCMA, a fusion of cultures and art

Apr. 17, 2014 @ 10:22 AM

“Estampas De La Raza: Prints for the People, The Romo Collection”
and “Tall Tales and Huge Hearts:  Raúl Colón,”   N.C. Museum of Art,
2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh, through July 27.

There is an image of Mickey Mouse, with a skeletal body and his gloved hand poised like a gun. There is a Sun-Maid raisin box, labeled “Sun Mad” with the image of the girl on the box changed to a ghastly skeleton. There is a portrait of Cesar Chavez with the Nike swoosh emblazoned on his cap. And there is a sweet 15-year-old dressed in her coming-of-age finery. These are just some of the images by the 44 artists in the exhibition “Estampas de la Raza.”
In a state where the Latino/Hispanic/Chicano/Mexican-American population is a huge part of our work force, with their children in the schools, their favorite foods in the grocery stores and their restaurants among the most popular in town, the North Carolina Museum of Art has mounted two shows focusing on their art and their artists. Although the museum has hosted a few exhibits highlighting individual Latino artists, this is its first major exhibition with themes that cover the gamut of contemporary concerns of this population. The images date from 1984 to 2011. 
The terminology to identify this community is a land mine of confusion which cannot be explained in the space of this column. I can only acknowledge the different terms and their nuances and stick to just a couple. The prints are part of the Chicano (Mexican-American) movement which also includes artists from other Latin American countries. On the East Coast the term for this group is Hispanic; on the West Coast it is Chicano. For the sake of this column I will use Chicano and Mexican-American interchangeably and Latino for artists from other Latin American countries and sometimes as an all encompassing term. 
Ester Hernandez’s “Sun Raid,” 2008, is one of the iconic images in the show and is an example of the kinds of ideas these artists focus on. Looking at the image quickly it appears to be a pop rendition of a Sun Maid raisin box. Closer examination reveals the cute maid with a basket full of grapes has been changed into a skeleton wearing a traditional Maya tunic and an ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) bracelet.   Marked across the top of the box is “Un-Naturally Harvested” and across the bottom is “By-Product of Nafta.” Most agree that NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) has made these countries — Mexico and Canada — more competitive in the global market while acknowledging jobs in the United States were lost and Mexican farmers were exploited, destroying their farms and polluting the environment.
The show has multiple themes and multiple layers; all are wrapped in the story of  the United States and its newcomers, in this case, Spanish-speaking immigrants, who want so much to be a part of their new world yet yearn for home, family and their roots. There is the art which has been organized into five sections: Identity; Struggle; Tradition, Culture, Memory; Icons; and Other Voices. 
But there are others. This is a show of prints and so the history of prints, its use as a medium of protest and the technique of printmaking is another major theme. The art itself is heavily influenced by Pop art with its bold outlines and brightly colored shapes but, until recently with museum shows like this one, existed outside the mainstream. It is also about collecting and about Harriett and Ricardo Romo, two first-generation American academics who began collecting Latino art as young students and today have made significant gifts of this art to the University of Texas at Austin and to the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas. 
The point is made in the catalog that without such collectors as the Romos, Chicano art would have been a minor player in the fight for the rights of new Americans. The catalog is a must for every public school library. 
Forty of the artists are first-generation Americans. English is their first language. They represent a generation of new Americans who understand their roots but have fully embraced this country as their home. They are college graduates, pay taxes and as Americans use their rights of free speech to create art spotlighting the struggles of others.   Exploiting immigrant workers and the desperate journeys many make to the States are recurring themes. Racism against dark-skinned men is another. 
Lalo Alcaraz’s portrait of Cesar Chavez; Michael Menchaca’s kittens depicted as Mexicans drowning in the Rio Grande; and Vincent Valdez’s dark-skinned man caught in a police net are three that focus on these ideas. Then there are the memories of big vintage cars, dinners that combine American and Mexican food, festivals and a young girl’s 15th birthday. 
There are also the national icons which include the artist Frida Kahlo, Mickey Mouse, Mao and Coca-Cola, and even the movie star Anthony Quinn.  And there are weird cartoon characters, the ubiquitous Virgin of Guadalupe and Latino and Latina soldiers who have done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan wearing the uniform of the United States.  
Also on exhibit are Raúl Colón’s original illustrations for a number of children’s books.  His heroines and heroes include Flor, who grows as tall as a tree, and Orson, who uses his imagination when his computer breaks. Colón’s drawings are beautiful. Be sure to stop and see them. 
These shows celebrate Latino culture as it fuses with the dominant culture in the United States. Just as the immigrants of the past enriched our society, these newcomers will do the same for our future.        

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.