LAS CRUCES, N.M. — There is a constant struggle between the Latinx communities and our representation in the mainstream media. The public craves stories that focus on pain and struggle, constructing fetishizied images of violent clichés. Contemporary artists, whether part of these communities or not, continue to create work feeding into these narratives. The problem is not, of course, the fault of any particular sector, but the arts that inform, educate, and lead us are a massive instrument of the tropey dynamic. Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium, on view at the University Art Museum at New Mexico State University (NMSU), creates a space in which 15 Mexican and Mexican-American artists can analyze their identity beyond the ideas we have been taught to associate with our experience.
Guest curator Dr. Emmanuel Ortega had the daunting, yet exciting, task of working with the museum’s retablo collection to reimagine and recontextualize ex-votos — tiny oil paintings done mostly by anonymous artists commissioned by people of all walks of life in Mexico during the 20th century — which served as a token of gratitude for miracles granted by the many Catholic saints.
The incomplete, classist understanding of retablos, Dr. Ortega told me, is parallel to the artistic representation that Latinxs currently experience: a colonialist eye that diminishes and limits, stripping the artistry of worth unless it falls under the narrative of dominating cultures.
Using this argument as a pillar, Dr. Ortega invited the artists to focus on the devotion, resilience, and belonging that are elemental to the pieces in the collection. Most of the artists looked to their past — their culture, their family, their struggles — as they created. Juan Molina Hernández’s embroidered portrait of their great-grandmother, using hair as thread, invokes the quasi-religious idea of motherhood in Mexican culture while playing with the notions of gender in relation to hair. A plastic flower bouquet on the floor alongside pearls creates a contemporary corner of reverence to the feminine ancestors.
Krystal Ramirez’s chapel built with hand-made gypsum and cement with a neon sign that reads “¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer ésto?” (What have I done to deserve this?) combines the blue-collar construction work background of her immigrant father with the title of director Pedro Almodovar’s 1984 movie, which dealt with the hardships of housework. The piece proposes a dialogue about gender roles in the Mexican machista culture, contrasting pop imagery from mainstream artistic movements with traditional family values.
Xochi Solis approached the exhibition with culturally unorthodox views. Her collage A Tourist Dream, visually reminiscent of Deana Dawson’s Assemblage, connects the idea of the divine to science through hand-dyed papers, paints, plastics, and found materials. It is a refreshing understanding of culture beyond tropes, distancing itself from the regional concept of religion while maintaining its connection to the sources.
The artists in the show go beyond the ideas we have of Latinx communities without losing an honest and raw cultural identity. The result is a surprisingly diverse body of work around the concept of devotion: What are the objects, ideas, or people that give us the meaning and strength to move forward? Although some of the pieces in the exhibition may push the limits of reinterpreting ex-votos, making their reasoning hard to follow, their rebellious attitude is a playful response to self-representation, raising the question of who gets to decide what, and under what circumstances, is relevant. Maybe the church, the elites, and the contemporary arts are not so different after all.
Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium continues at the University Art Museum at New Mexico State University (1308 East University Avenue, Las Cruces, New Mexico) through December 22.