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.

José Hernandez R., “Ex-voto: Lord of Mercy of the Encarnación de Diaz” (November 15, 1949), oil on tin, Ex-Voto Collection, Mexican Retablo Collection, NMSU Permanent Art Collection, donated by Mr. C. Andrew Sutherland (courtesy NMSU University Art Museum)

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. 

Unknown Artist, Ex-Voto to El Señor del Monte (19th century), oil on tin (photo by Marcus Chormicle, courtesy NMSU University Art Museum)

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. 

Juan Molina Hernández, “Yo seré tu memoria (I Will Be Your Memory)” (2022), hair embroidered on fabric with installation elements, 24 x 23 inches (photo Edgar Picazo Merino/Hyperallergic)

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.

Krystal Ramirez, “¿Qué he hecho yo para merecer esto!” (2022), Gypsum and cement blocks, acrylic paint, neon, 48 x 89 inches (photo Edgar Picazo Merino/Hyperallergic)

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.

Xochi Solis, “A tourist dream” (2022), gouache, acrylic, house latex paint, colored pencil, Dura-lar film, digitally printed Epson paper, hand-marbled paper, colored paper, handmade paper, found images from books and magazines, artist tape, brad nails and rosary nylon cord, 94 x 144 inches (photo Edgar Picazo Merino/Hyperallergic)

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.

Installation view of Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium at Contemporary Gallery, NMSU University Art Museum (photo Edgar Picazo Merino/Hyperallergic)
Installation view of Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium at Contemporary Gallery, NMSU University Art Museum (photo Edgar Picazo Merino/Hyperallergic)
Installation view of the retablo collection in Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium at the NMSU University Art Museum (courtesy the museum)

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.

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Edgar Picazo Merino

Edgar Picazo Merino is the founding director of the Azul Arena organization and a multimedia artist, producer, and activist from the El Paso and Ciudad Juárez border region. His work focuses on the ethical...