How Latinx Artists Were Shut Out Of Art History

Juana Valdes, “Redbone Colored China Rags” (2017), bone china porcelain, each 12 x 3 x 4 inches (photo by Diana Larrea, all images courtesy of Duke University Press)

Artists who identify as Latinx — the gender-neutral term for a person of Latin American descent who lives in the United States — face unique challenges. Their work is often devalued vis-à-vis that of their Latin American counterparts, who enjoy what scholar Arlene Dávila calls “national privilege”: a geographical presence in Central or South America and access to local spheres of influence, as well as the perception of authenticity from predominantly white, North American stakeholders. Conversely, the work of Latinx artists — especially those who were born in the US, are undocumented or have been exiled from their native countries, or otherwise maintain no ties to them, especially if they are Black or Indigenous — has been mischaracterized as illegitimate by the same audiences. 

The concept of “national privilege” anchors Dávila’s latest book Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, and Politics, an indispensable text that considers the plights of Latinx artists through the lens of race and class disparities in both North and South America. In five chapters loosely organized according to the obstacles they address — exhibition spaces versus the market, for instance — Dávila advocates convincingly for wider use of the “Latinx” identifier. She proposes that the prejudice against diasporic creation explains why this “productive category” is not used more frequently, and is often missing from biographies of artists like Carmen Herrera — who has lived in the US for over 50 years but is frequently characterized as “Cuban-born” — or why even ambitious exhibitions curated around transnational exchange, like the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, failed to adequately represent some of the most prolific and historic Latinx groups, Mexican-American and Chicanx artists. 

Provocatively, she also focuses on the role that elite Latin American institutions and decision-makers have played in ghettoizing Latinx artists — by perpetuating stereotypical interpretations of their work and favoring art historical narratives that center artists from countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina at the expense of smaller nations, people of color, and the Caribbean. In this way, Dávila makes a contribution far beyond the field of the visual arts: she tells the lie to the still frequently-peddled myth of Latin communities as less afflicted by race-based hierarchies; what she describes as the dangerous delusion that “we’re all mixed” perpetuates the denial of racism in places like Puerto Rico. 

David Antonio Cruz, “soletthemeatasylumpink” (2016), oil and enamel on birch, 72 x 96 x 10 inches.

This stigma of nationalism is propelled, not challenged, beyond the 50 states. In the first chapter, “What is Latinx Art? Lessons from Chicanx and Diasporican Artists,” Dávila recalls artist David Antonio Cruz’s shock when his name and those of two other Nuyorican artists — Wanda Raimundi-Ortíz and Yasmín Hernández — were left out of a press release listing the Puerto Rican artists in a group show at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. (Meanwhile, as Dávila points out, the island suffers from its own subjugated status as a US colony, unable to participate as a “nation” in the Venice Biennale yet inconceivable as American in the US imaginary.)

Latinx artists, who do not fall neatly into the American, Latin American, or European collection rubrics, or even the Black art classification often reserved for African American and not Afro-Latinx artists, are perennially trapped between identity and universality: to appear culturally faithful, they must have tangible links to their “native” countries; to be embraced by the art world, they are expected to adopt widely-appealing aesthetics that subsume racial elements (hence, says Dávila, the privileged place that geometric abstraction holds in the “LatAm” art historical canon.)

Carmen Argote, “720 Sq. Ft.: House hold Mutations — Part B” (2010), carpet and paint.

The identities of racially minoritized Latinx populations are often seen as “problems to be hidden or highlighted,” either profited upon and played up, or effaced entirely, Dávila asserts. She celebrates exceptions to this pattern in exhibitions like Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, curated by Marcela Guerrero at the Whitney — the first group show of entirely Latinx artists at the museum and the first to embrace Indigeneity with its Quechua title. 

Megacollectors like Patricia Phelps de Cisneros have certainly helped forge a name for Latin American artists who may have otherwise been left out of history, Dávila notes in the chapter “Nationalism and the Currency of Categories.” Here she begins to explore the market forces at work behind their riseand how the same machine disprivileges Latin artists in the diaspora. Cisneros’s outsized influence, she argues, is a double-edged sword: working in favor of artists like the Venezuelan Jesús Rafael Soto, whom she helped make a name for, it leaves less room for other individuals to help shape the narrative. As Rita Gonzalez, the first Chicana curator at LACMA, told Dávila, fundraising for purchases of Chicanx art is “almost impossible” because donors are most enthusiastic about funding acquisitions of artists already in their own collections. This is especially troubling because major collections of Latin American art, tend to skew white and European rather than Afro-Latinx and Indigenous — Cisneros, for instance, is known for having “almost singlehandedly put Latin American geometric abstraction on the map.”

In the last two chapters, Dávila articulates why simply inserting Latinx artists into mainstream channels won’t do. “Visibility is merely the first step to recognition,” she writes, “which in turn has very little do to with equity.” Instead, Dávila proposes, we must dismantle the frameworks that allow Latinx art to be sidelined and misunderstood. This includes the inherent exclusivity and commercialization on which the contemporary art world is premised, where even institutions that originated as alternative art spaces for local Latinx communities — like El Museo del Barrio — have succumbed to “global art market prerogatives,” in her words, showing fewer and fewer emerging Puerto Rican and Latinx artists. 

Elia Alba, “The Orisha (Juana Valdes)” (2014), archival pigment print, photographed in Key Largo, Florida. Costume designed by Elia Alba

Dávila’s text is a vital resource on Latinx art, complete with a supplemented “non-comprehensive list of artists everyone should know” and recommendations of Latinx Instagram accounts to follow. And unlike the mostly white art critics whom she views as unable to confront the diversity of Latinx aesthetics, Dávila devotes considerable space to the very distinct practices of artists like Carmen Argote, Shellyne Rodriguez, Juana Valdes, Ramiro Gomez, Elia Alba, and Firelei Báez, among others. 

I couldn’t help but notice Dávila’s spelling of “Félix González-Torres” in her various invocations of the Cuban-American artist throughout the book, stylizing his name with the diacritical marks he himself eschewed. Recently, I was asked to make this correction by the Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation, which politely pointed out the artist’s spelling preference for English-language texts beginning in the 1990s; like other critics, I complied with ambivalence.

Dávila, however, refuses, lamenting that “accents are altogether eliminated from his name” and that he is too-often described as “more conceptual and international than Brown and immigrant.” Her decision may run counter to the artist’s wishes, but in my eyes, acts as a bold way of asserting the complexity and nuance that Latinx artists have too long been denied.

Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, and Politics (Duke University Press, 2020) by Arlene Dávila is now available on Bookshop.

Arlene Dávila’s Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, Politics considers the plights of Latinx artists through the lens of race and class disparities in both North and South America.Read MoreBooks, Arlene Dávila, Latin American art, Latinx, Latinx artHyperallergicRead More

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