The Museum of Latin American Art is Showing A Chicano Exhibit For the First Time in 20 Years

Johnny KMNDZ Rodriguez, Atascado, 2015, acrylic on panel, 48 x 60 inches. Original commissioned painting courtesy of Cástulo de la Rocha and the AltaMed Art Collection and KP Projects, Inc.

A year ago,“Somewhere Over El Arco Iris/ Chicano Landscapes, 1971- 2015” – the most recent exhibit at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach – wouldn’t have been on display.  The 25 piece exhibition, featuring artists whose styles range from experimental expressionism to urban street art, is inspired by the Chicano experience of the last 40 years. Collectively, its mixed-media, photographs, drawings and paintings make evident how instrumental some Chicano artists have been in creating and defining LA’s contemporary art scene. But despite the contributions of Chicanos – and more broadly of U.S. Latinos – to the Latin American art dialogue, a long time MOLAA policy kept any Latino artists born in the U.S. from being featured. In fact, “Somewhere Over El Arco Iris” is the first set of works solely by Latinos born in the U.S. to ever be displayed at the museum since it was founded.

But why?

When he founded MOLAA in 1996, physician and art collector Robert Gumbiner wanted to educate Americans about contemporary Latin American art. “Our founder was interested in highlighting works from Latin America because he was so taken by the quality of work produced there,” said MOLAA CEO and President Stuart A. Ashman via email. But Gumbiner’s mandate that only artists who lived and worked in Latin America could be displayed meant that the contributions of local Latinos were excluded.

Ashman became the museum’s president and CEO in 2011 and was surprised at the limitation. “I talked a lot about it to staff (who agreed that it was indeed an unfortunate limitation) and members of the Board,” he said.

Wayne Alaniz Healy and David Botello, La Fiesta/Broadway, 1993,acrylic on canvas, 66 x 54 inches. Courtesy of the Artists.
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In 2014 Ashman, Board member Rose Ann Djelmane and others – including Cheech Marin – convinced the Board to hear a presentation on Chicano art by collector Armando Duron. Duron’s presentation persuaded the Board to change the policy, and a resolution was passed to include art of the entire Latino diaspora at the museum.

“It is people like [collector] Castulo de la Rocha, Cheech Marin, Armando Duron, Rose Ann Ramos Djelmane, who were a main force in opening up the exhibitions to Chicano/a Art,” said Yolanda Gonzalez, one of the artists featured in the exhibition. “I am honored and proud to represent Chicano/a Art at MOLAA.”

Policies like the one enacted at the MOLAA for many years touch on a greater conversation that has long followed Latinos in the United States – namely, what defines us as Latinos? Is it based on nationality? Descent? Individual choice?

LA-based visual artist Judithe Hernández says the policy, in this case, was making an exclusive definition about what Latin American art is. She says there are many artists of Latin American origins currently producing art throughout the U.S. who deserve a place at the MOLAA.

What defines us as Latinos? Is it based on nationality? Descent? Individual choice?

“It seemed a little extraordinary not to include [Latino artists born in the U.S.], to make a complete statement about what Latin American art is in the Americas,“ she said.

Hernández came of age during the 1960s Chicano movement, a time of political and social awakening for many young Mexican-Americans. She became a vital part of the movement as an artist, becoming a founder of the Chicano Art/ LA Mural movements and a member of East LA’s artist collective Los Four, the first group of Chicano artists to be featured at a major art institution in 1974.

Hernández feels Latin American art cannot be solely defined by physical borders. Some U.S.-born artists of Latin American descent have greatly been affected by their culture. “Those of us who were born here, north of the border have had a unique experience growing up in a country that has never really embraced us,” she said. “I think most people from my generation … look for something that is highly identifiably Latino about [work] that celebrates the obvious kinds of icons from our culture.”

“Luchadora Trilogy” (2009) – Pastel on paper, 44″ x 90″. Judithe Hernández
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Culture is something LA-based artist Ernesto Yerena Montejano also roots his artwork in. Latino cultural icons like Selena and Frida Kahlo are no strangers to his work.

Yerena represents a younger generation of Chicano artists. His work politically, culturally and socially touches on issues that affect people of color, especially Chicanos, through prints and other visual art like campaign posters. He founded and curated the 2010 Alto Arizona Art Campaign, which protested the SB1070 law and other human rights violations in Arizona.

Yerena’s talent has not gone unnoticed outside of political spaces. He’s worked with corporations like Red Bull and brands like Obey. He’s also done artwork for A Tribe Called Red and La Santa Cecilia.

Born in El Centro, a border town in California’s Imperial Valley, Yerena moved to Los Angeles in 2006. He says his work gets attention, but not from artistic institutions like the MOLAA . “I’m out of their sight,” he said.

This new policy change would potentially give him a shot at having his work displayed at the institution. “It definitely gives me a shot to enter into the spaces … I’m not like an academic artist … I didn’t go to like a really nice [institution] where I learned how to apply for grants or learned how to maneuver in the system,” he said.

Freddie Roach and Ernesto Yerena Montejano signing prints together at Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, CA. Photo via Hecho Con Ganas
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Hernández says an opportunity like that can be pivotal for young artists of color like Yerena.

“It’s a real opportunity to have your work seen by all kinds of people not just the people who love it,” she said. “This museum is so important, it has that kind of professional … importance in terms of an artist’s career. It’s an important thing for a young artist to be able to do a show at a museum.”

Growing up, Yerena said museums weren’t really accessible to him. “So the things that I thought were cool, you know t-shirt graphics, or album covers or stickers for posters and things … were much more accessible money wise,” he said.

Yerena says having a connection to his community is important to him as an artist. Art accessibility to communities like the ones he comes from is one of the reasons he thinks local Chicano art should be represented at places like the MOLAA.

“Institutions are a lot of times linked to education, to schools – colleges go there, high schools go there,” he said. “Younger kids, if they have access to those museums and they go that though process of being critical or the critical thought that political Chicano art has, it lets them know that it’s OK to think outside the box, it’s OK for them to have a political opinion … a lot of times schools don’t really teach that.”

Correction October 30 at 5:00 p.m.: The headline on this post has been changed to better reflect story. MOLAA is showing a Chicano exhibit for the first time in almost 20 years.