In her 1977 essay “Conditions for Producing Chicana Art,” historian and curator Sybil Venegas articulated a history of the Chicana movement, arguing that its artists were transgressing the traditional roles of Mexican women to emerge in a primarily male-dominated field. Venegas’s landmark text, one of the first scholarly articles on the subject of Chicana art, is among 8,200 primary source materials in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s newly redesigned Documents of Latin American and Latino Art digital archive.
Part of the MFA Houston International Center for the Arts of the Americas (ICAA)’s Documents Project, launched in 2002, the online trove overflows with source materials key to the study of art in Central and South America, the Caribbean, and US Latinx communities.
According to the museum, the fully English/Spanish bilingual portal is the first and only digital humanities initiative of its kind in the fields of Latin American and Latinx art. (The project has retained its original title, which refers to “Latino” art, but institutional texts and annotations for each document favor the “Latinx” terminology, acknowledging the different and in-flux language with which these groups self-describe.)
Among the digital repository’s novel features, ICAA’s vetted partners and researchers will now be able to upload materials directly to the platform, making it easier to discover and recover primary source documents. A streamlined search function facilitates immediate access to materials that users can download, save, print, and share with other colleagues within the archive or on social media.
These include manifestos, letters, exhibition reviews, theoretical texts, criticism, and even publications — such as the inaugural number of Irradiador, the short-lived magazine of the Mexican avant-garde Estridentista movement, or the first and only issue of Arturo: Revista de artes abstractas, the journal known for launching Argentine Concrete art.
The archive illustrates watershed moments in the history of Latin American art, with documents such as “Tucumán Arde (Tucumán Is Burning),” the manifesto for the pivotal eponymous exhibition exemplary of art and activism crossovers in the region. The vanguard text, authored by María Teresa Gramuglio and Nicolás Rosa, denounced the military dictatorship’s impoverishment of the Tucumán province in Argentina and called for a new kind of political art. It mobilized artists and intellectuals around issues of socioeconomic inequities, giving way to subversive conceptual strategies that have reverberated through the present.
Another gem is the complete collection of documents surrounding “Gran Reticulárea” (1969), Venezuelan artist Gego’s mesmerizing and weblike site-specific work first installed in the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas. These primary sources paint an intimate portrait of the artist: for an interview with El Diário de Caracas titled “Gego y sus telas de araña” (“Gego and her spider webs”), Gego asks the reporter to describe her immersive piece through the lens of their personal experience and feelings, rather than focusing on its creator.
Scholars of Latinx art will find correspondences and articles fundamental to the development of this often marginalized and under-researched category within art history. The archive contains a wealth of materials pertaining to Latinx artist collectives such as La raza, the Chicago Artists Coalition, MARCH (Movimiento Artístico Chicano), and Con Safo.
Gary Tinterow, the museum’s director, noted in a statement that the lack of access to primary sources represents a significant setback to researchers. The archive aims to help correct that absence in a field historically overlooked.
“It is difficult to overstate the significance of this project to the fields of Latin American and Latino art,” he added.
The ICAA now hopes to focus on partnerships with artist’s archives, estates, foundations, and public and private institutions to continue growing its archive.
“This new phase of the Documents Project will develop and expand a host of understudied areas of research, including Latin American contemporary artistic production; the work of Latin American and Latina artists; and a significant expansion of represented Latinx artists, both historical and contemporary,” said Mari Carmen Ramírez, founding director of the ICAA and Wortham Curator of Latin American and Latino Art at the MFA Houston, in the statement.
“The website redesign enhances the database’s accessibility to users worldwide and connection to ICAA partners outside Houston.”