AUSTIN — Compared to cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, or San Diego, Austin is not often considered an important hub for the Chicano Movement or Chicano artmaking. But a new exhibition at the Mexic-Arte Museum reveals the crucial but under-recognized role that the movement played in the city’s history and culture. Featuring more than 30 artists working in a variety of media, as well as an expansive collection of documentary ephemera, Chicano/a Art, Movimiento y Más en Austen, Tejas 1960s to 1980s is an exhaustively researched, enlightening study that puts the central Texas Chicano art scene in full view.
The exhibition opens with several groups of photos that capture important political figures and events of the time. Shot largely by the photojournalist Alan Pogue, these pictures present a very different Austin than the trendy tech and tourist destination that many experience today. In Pogue’s photos, we see KKK rallies and counter marches at the state capitol, protests and arrests at the East Side boat races, worker strikes at the Economy Furniture Company, and impassioned scenes from the Texas Farmworkers March when it stopped in Austin on its way to Washington, DC.
Despite their distance from Austin’s glossy image today, all of these events reflect the city’s severe and long-running problems with gentrification, segregation, and housing costs. The photos also reflect wider, ongoing debates about racism, police brutality, and the right to protest on the state and national levels. “A lot of the struggles they were going through in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s resonate today,” exhibition curator Isabel Servantez said on a recent tour of the show. “Thinking of the Black Lives Matter movement and the January 6th insurrection, these photos suggest that history doesn’t necessarily repeat itself, but it does seem to rhyme.”
That contemporary relevance is underscored by a rich and diverse array of artworks and archival materials. The exhibition includes paintings, drawings, sculpture, and textiles, as well as videos, newspapers, pamphlets, journals, books of literature and poetry, and even musical records and CDs on view. “It’s important to remember that art came in all different forms for Chicanos,” Servantez affirmed. The decision to feature art modes beyond the visual gives visitors a more complete look at this essential cultural context.
One of the exhibition’s most fascinating aspects is its focus on artists’ early works, and the ways that many of these artists were engaged with local politics. Young artists came to Austin from all over the state to study at the University of Texas and the now-closed Juarez-Lincoln University, where they developed their art practices while joining local civic and cultural organizations like LUChA (League of United Chicano Artists), MAS (Mujeres Artistas del Suroeste), and CASA (Chicano Art Student Association). On view are lesser-known but formative works by key Chicano artists from their student days.
“We were very careful to find work that was created in Austin,” Servantez explained. “Some of the work was being done when the artists were students, and we were okay with that because we were aware that many of them were also activists at the same time.” Highlights include Amado Peña’s overtly political graphic prints and an uncharacteristically surreal charcoal drawing by Carmen Lomas Garza.
The exhibition doesn’t just unearth forgotten Chicano histories in Austin. From Vicente Rodríguez’s rainbow abstract paintings to Marsha Gómez’s raku pottery, it also challenges and expands common notions of what Chicano art can be and how it can look. Another plus is the show’s focus on female artists like Santa Barraza, Carolina Flores, and Sylvia Orozco, who co-founded the Mexic-Arte Museum with Sam Coronado and Pio Pulido in 1984. All together, this is an unmissable show, and a huge accomplishment for one of Austin’s oldest and most vital institutions for Mexican American culture.
Chicano/a Art, Movimiento y Más en Austen, Tejas 1960s to 1980s continues at the Mexic-Arte Museum (419 Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas) through June 19. The exhibition was curated by Isabel Servantez, curator of exhibitions and programs at the Mexic-Arte Museum.