How Latinx Artists Were Shut Out of Art History

Valentina Di Liscia (Hyperallergic) reviews Arlene Dávila’s Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, Politics (Duke University Press, 2020) explaining how the author “considers the plights of Latinx artists through the lens of race and class disparities in both North and South America.” Here are excerpts:

Artists who identify as Latinx — the gender-neutral term for a person of Latin American descent who lives in the United States — face unique challenges. Their work is often devalued vis-à-vis that of their Latin American counterparts, who enjoy what scholar Arlene Dávila calls “national privilege”: a geographical presence in Central or South America and access to local spheres of influence, as well as the perception of authenticity from predominantly white, North American stakeholders. Conversely, the work of Latinx artists — especially those who were born in the US, are undocumented or have been exiled from their native countries, or otherwise maintain no ties to them, especially if they are Black or Indigenous — has been mischaracterized as illegitimate by the same audiences. 

The concept of “national privilege” anchors Dávila’s latest book Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, and Politics, an indispensable text that considers the plights of Latinx artists through the lens of race and class disparities in both North and South America. In five chapters loosely organized according to the obstacles they address — exhibition spaces versus the market, for instance — Dávila advocates convincingly for wider use of the “Latinx” identifier. She proposes that the prejudice against diasporic creation explains why this “productive category” is not used more frequently, and is often missing from biographies of artists like Carmen Herrera — who has lived in the US for over 50 years but is frequently characterized as “Cuban-born” — or why even ambitious exhibitions curated around transnational exchange, like the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, failed to adequately represent some of the most prolific and historic Latinx groups, Mexican-American and Chicanx artists. 

Provocatively, she also focuses on the role that elite Latin American institutions and decision-makers have played in ghettoizing Latinx artists — by perpetuating stereotypical interpretations of their work and favoring art historical narratives that center artists from countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina at the expense of smaller nations, people of color, and the Caribbean. In this way, Dávila makes a contribution far beyond the field of the visual arts: she tells the lie to the still frequently-peddled myth of Latin communities as less afflicted by race-based hierarchies; what she describes as the dangerous delusion that “we’re all mixed” perpetuates the denial of racism in places like Puerto Rico. 

This stigma of nationalism is propelled, not challenged, beyond the 50 states. In the first chapter, “What is Latinx Art? Lessons from Chicanx and Diasporican Artists,” Dávila recalls artist David Antonio Cruz’s shock when his name and those of two other Nuyorican artists — Wanda Raimundi-Ortíz and Yasmín Hernández — were left out of a press release listing the Puerto Rican artists in a group show at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. (Meanwhile, as Dávila points out, the island suffers from its own subjugated status as a US colony, unable to participate as a “nation” in the Venice Biennale yet inconceivable as American in the US imaginary.)

Latinx artists, who do not fall neatly into the American, Latin American, or European collection rubrics, or even the Black art classification often reserved for African American and not Afro-Latinx artists, are perennially trapped between identity and universality: to appear culturally faithful, they must have tangible links to their “native” countries; to be embraced by the art world, they are expected to adopt widely-appealing aesthetics that subsume racial elements (hence, says Dávila, the privileged place that geometric abstraction holds in the “LatAm” art historical canon.) [. . .]

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