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The Rich Chicano Tradition of Black Velvet Paintings

An exhibition in Detroit’s Mexicantown takes an in-depth look at the black velvet painting tradition in Chicano communities, from renderings of a Nahuatl legend to portraits of Elvis and Zapata.

Velvet painting depicting “The Legend of Popcoatépetl y Iztaccíhuatl” (1970s), artist unknown (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — Velvet painting collector Elena Herrada began her introduction of Black Velvet: A Rasquache Aesthetic to me with a definition of the word “rasquache.”

“I had the idea that I wanted to do a velvet painting show when I was in a PhD program at Michigan State University, in Chicano Studies, about 10 years ago,” said Herrada, “along with Diana Rivera, who is now the Chicanx Latinx Subject Specialist and head of the Cesar E. Chavez Collection at the Michigan State University Library. And back then, we were discussing the term ‘rasquache,’ and all the Chicanos in the group recognized velvet paintings were it.”

Renewed interest in velvet painting surged due to paintings created by Edgar Leeteg in the 1930s through the 1950s, of Polynesian and Tahitian subjects. These popular images were licensed to be recreated on black velvet for the mass market. Edgar Leeteg, “Tahitian Chief” (authorized replica), oil on velvet, undated.

“Rasquache” is a Nahuatl word (within the Uto-Aztecan language family), and Herrada characterizes it to mean: “ordinary or low. Kind of day-to-day. Some people say ‘low art,’ but I would say ‘the beauty of our everyday lives.’” In his 1989 essay, “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility,” critic Tomás Ybarra-Frausto specifies a kind of tackiness or shoddiness attendant to rasquache items, as well as repurposing of castaway items or trappings of upper-class excesses — a kind of DIY kitsch, metabolized within the framework of working-poor Chicano ethos. Besides velvet paintings, Herrada offers the example of sidewalk flower planters made of painted tires, and Ybarra-Frausto calls out Chicano appropriation of “kustom kar culture” into lowrider culture as rasquache — and its further distillation into customized Schwinn Stingray bikes made to emulate hot-rods as “muy rasquache.”

Certainly, velvet painting enjoys a kind of playful cachet in the garage sale of our American collective conscience, but prior to visiting the exhibition, which is on display at the Mexicantown Community Development Corporation (positioned at the gateway to Southwest Detroit’s longstanding Chicano neighborhood of the same name), I was unaware of its specific omnipresence within Mexican culture and intergenerational Chicano domestic life.

“The Last Supper” on black velvet, artist unknown

“I remember being really little and looking at these paintings and thinking, ‘I wonder what does dad see or what does grandpa see? What was it that resonated with them?’ It had to be something, and in many cases, it’s nostalgia for a homeland you’re not part of anymore,” Herrada said. Though the subjects of velvet paintings are designed to mass-market, and therefore apt to be somewhat generic, there is comfort to be drawn in a piece of art that remains the same during a cultural transition that changes everything around it.

Another rendering of “The Legend of Popcoatépetl y Iztaccíhuatl.” Izta is often depicted holding a fawn.

The exhibition contains 80 official works, with more constantly turning up, as part of an open call to the community to bring in examples of velvet art from their homes for temporary display with their brethren. These works are grouped by subject, showcasing the perennial motifs enjoyed by velvet painters and collectors: landscapes, Elvis Presley, matadors, big-eyed children, Emiliano Zapata, Jesus, and cock fights, to name a few. Some of these convey explicitly indigenous themes, such as renderings of the legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl — a pair of volcanos in central Mexico that, according to Nahuatl legend, were once two humans deeply in love. Paintings in this genre present Popo and Izta in a dramatic tableau, as the warrior learns of the death of his princess love. They usually feature a man in feather-bedecked warrior garb holding a woman wearing a white dress and in a fainting posture. Others derive some sense of cultural currency from renderings of flamenco dancers and bullfights, in spite of those subjects’ connections to the colonizing influence of Spain. Naturally, there are numerous religious portraits, particularly of the Virgin de Guadalupe, and an array of different takes on Jesus, including ones that Herrada has affectionately nicknamed “pregnant Jesus,” “cross-eyed Jesus,” and “pink blood Jesus.”

Elvis Presley is a popular subject, joining other cultural icons like Marilyn Monroe and Emiliano Zapata. Artist unknown.

These religious icons connect to the earliest origins of velvet painting as a tradition. The practice is thought to originate in Kashmir, where the fabric was first made. The deep black canvas makes colors stand out in contrast, and the first velvet paintings leveraged this high contrast to add drama to religious iconography. In creating images by adding light to a dark surface, velvet painters are essentially working in relief—the technique is similar to scratchboard etching. The surface of velvet is obviously very different from smooth gessoed canvas as a substrate, and velvet painters have an array of adaptive techniques that involve dabbing and spattering paint so as not to saturate the canvas — and some have even, as Mexicantown CDC Executive Director Raymond Lozano learned, developed a very rasquache form of bootleg airbrushing.

“An artist came in this past weekend, and he said that at the price point of velvet paintings, people couldn’t afford airbrushes,” said Lozano, “and instead there is this Venturi effect, a little like a straw with a bottle, to blow the pigment.”

Many velvet paintings depicting Asian subjects were also brought back as souvenirs by GIs returning from the Korean War, to take pride of place on display in Chicano households.

Lozano added that, while this exhibition is focused on the relationship between velvet painting and Chicano culture, there are other communities that are associated with specific subsets of the medium. African American velvet painting includes numerous Jimi Hendrix portraits, erotic tableaus, and jungle cats; Appalachian velvet painters favor landscapes, Dolly Parton, sad clowns, and dogs playing poker. Whatever the flavor, collectors of velvet art have a non-ironic, deep appreciation for the nuances and peculiarities of this form.

“The idea is that every single human being has an impulse toward beauty,” said Herrada. “And whatever that means — every single person has an idea of an aesthetic that resonates with them — and for Chicanos, collectively, this was a big part of it.”

Black Velvet: A Rasquache Aesthetic continues at the Mexicantown CDC (2835 Bagley Avenue, Detroit, Michigan) through April 15, with a Black Velvet Painting Workshop on April 14. The exhibition will then travel to Lansing, Michigan.

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