by Shraddha NairSep 09, 2021
The El Museo del Barrio hosts its first edition of the triennial in over 50 years of functioning as a preserver and protector of Latin culture in the USA. Based in New York City, the museum was founded in 1969 by artist and educator, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, along with a coalition of Puerto Rican parents, educators, artists, and activists who noted that mainstream museums in modern America largely ignored Latino artists. Thus, the museum was founded to serve Puerto Rican, Caribbean and Latin American artists. El Museo’s varied permanent collection of over eight thousand objects spans more than 800 years of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino art, includes pre-Columbian Taíno artifacts, traditional arts, 20th century drawings, paintings, sculptures and installations, as well as prints, photography, documentary films, and video.
The Estamos Bien - La Trienal 2020-21 is the museum’s first large-scale survey, a curation of over 40 artists from across the United States and Puerto Rico. It is a look at the contemporary moment in the Latin art scene - more specifically, the Latinx community. The term Latinx is coined to refer to a more inclusive narrative of the community, an incorporation of all its representatives. Susanna V Temkin, curator of the museum and one of three curating Estamos Bien, tells us more about the phrase Latinx, “The term ‘Latinx’ emerged from queer studies as a gender-neutral alternative to the identities Latino/Latina. Expanding from this understanding, the curators of Estamos Bien understand Latinx as a broad and inclusive term that departs from binary categorisations toward not only gender, but also race, ethnicity, cultural background, and more. Such an understanding complicates normative or clear-cut definitions of a singular community by foregrounding multiplicity and intersectionality. This is embedded not only in the identities of the artists themselves, but also in much of their work, for example in Groana Melendez’s Ni Aqui Ni Alla (Neither Here nor There) photographic series, which explores the diversity within her own family. Other works reflect a turning away from Western hegemonic definitions toward art, by looking to indigenous and Afro-Diasporic knowledges, as in the cases of Sandy Rodriguez’s healers work from her Codex Mondragon series or Yelaine Rodriguez’s syncretic interpretation of the Orisha Oshun.”
Although, showcases of this nature seem to fit the zeitgeist of the moment, with new energies rising to voice concern against colonialist, heteronormative structures, one cannot help but wonder whether these cultural classifications unknowingly build boundaries in their attempt to celebrate diversity. In response to this, Temkin says, “A goal of this exhibition is not to create a definition for a specific community – in this case, Latinx artists – but rather to bring their diverse practices and experiences into conversation. Though there is no overarching definition or theme, we believe this leaves open multiple entry points or areas for discussion and exploration, be that in terms of concepts related to the family, race, or even our shared experiences living through this unprecedented contemporary moment”. In this respect, El Museo shines a light on the many stories that build the Latinx community. This subsequently eases the viewer beyond the stereotypes which shroud us in the single story.
Estamos Bien includes an array of artists including Eddie R Aparicio, Candida Alvarez, Ektor Garcia and others. One group of artists under the name Collective Magpie shared their installation as part of the online branch of the exhibition which debuted in the summer of 2021. Accessible to all via the El Museo website, ‘Who Designs Your Race?’ is a simple survey designed for the viewer to reflect upon their own notion of race, and their identity in the context of race. Temkin tells us more, “Who Designs Your Race? by Collective Magpie was one of the online artist’s commissions which debuted in the summer of 2020. First launched as an online survey derived from the US and Mexican censuses, the project asked participants worldwide to anonymously respond to questions that considered race from a subjective perspective. Respondents’ answers were translated by Collective Magpie into a large-scale infographic that is now presented in the galleries. Audiences visiting Estamos Bien can read through the anonymous responses, to see how and when people ‘feel’ race. Some audience members who participated in the survey look for their own answers in the galleries, while others may use the accompanying QR code to take the survey themselves.” Although the exhibition is a celebration of Latinx culture, this interactive work is one of the few which directly address our perception of race as identity and culture. A balance of works devoted to aesthetics, concepts and politics in equal measure make the exhibition one with myriad pathways for the viewer, expressing the cultural spectrum of the Latinx community.
Estamos Bien is on view at El Museo del Barrio till September 26, 2021.