Local artist Alberto Aguilar often uses cognates—or as he describes them, “words that can be read in English and in Spanish simultaneously”—in his work. He knew he wanted to incorporate them when the National Museum of Mexican Art asked him to participate in its 30th anniversary exhibition, “Memoria Presente: An Artistic Journey.” One of his contributions is the first work visitors encounter, a window sign that reads PORTAL in bright red letters above the entrance. It’s a word that takes you places: into another dimension, another world, another time. With the White House planning to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and increasing raids in immigrant communities—one of which resulted in a federal agent shooting a man in Belmont Cragin last week—entering a space where those communities are celebrated can indeed feel like being transported to a different reality.
The National Museum of Mexican Art was founded by Carlos Tortolero and a group of educators in 1987. Originally called the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, the space expanded in 2001 and in 2006 adopted its current name. It’s the only Latino museum accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. Cesáreo Moreno, the director of visual arts and chief curator, says the mission of the institution has remained the same throughout its history: To display the beauty and depth of Mexican culture, to develop a Mexican art collection, and to cultivate Mexican artists.
“I think our mission is still strong, it still holds true,” he says. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t seen changes in the Latino art-world community since he started at the museum in 1995. He notes a big increase in female artists, and a greater diversity of content and material in artwork. In the 80s and 90s, he says, artists of Mexican descent had their ethnic identity in the forefront of their work. “Today’s artists, I think, have a much more complex identity,” Moreno says.
For this exhibit, Moreno, who curated the show along with Dolores Mercado and Ricardo X. Serment, sought to include a wide range of artists—31, in fact, from Chicago and vicinity were invited to participate. “We want people to see and understand that there is a huge variety and diversity in the Mexican community,” Moreno says. The works on display represent an array of mediums. There’s graffiti, painting, video, and a kinetic sculpture, among other contributions.
Some of the strongest pieces are mixed- media installations. In Suffocated From the Inside (Party Chain) v2, Ivan Lozano pays tribute to the murdered son of the poet Javier Sicilia. Lozano downloaded and printed images of drug-cartel murder victims from the Internet, transferred them onto packing tape, and then formed them into paper chains like the ones you find in an elementary school classroom. Installed in a corner, the chains are lit by a lightbulb underneath them; a photo of a sunset adorns the wall. Yvette Mayorga’s Make America Sweet Again, a sugar-coated critique of the American dream, is inspired by her family’s work in the confectionery industry: pink and blue faux frosting on the walls is shaped into cakes and American flags.
Georgina Valverde addresses the history of the museum’s location for her installation, Temazcal, named for a Mesoamerican steam bath traditionally used to “cleanse the body, heal the sick, or assist women in labor.” She learned that Harrison Park, which borders the museum, originally housed a natatorium, or indoor swimming and wading pools. Space constraints led her to make a model of the bath, composed primarily of melted plastic bags covered with crocheted yarn. Valverde says the craft that went into making Temazcal was important, as her culture “still has a strong artisanal tradition.”
“It also speaks about the labor that is here in this country that makes possible so many aspects of our lives,” she says, “all from the contributions of immigrants.”
In conjunction with “Memoria Presente,” the NMMA is also running an extensive programming series for the local Mexican community. Events range from a street tour of public art to a presentation of 60 political cartoons in 60 minutes by artist Eric J. Garcia. Moreno notes that education and engagement have always been priorities for the NMMA. “That’s how we start to change a society, through education,” he says. “We firmly believe arts education can build bridges between communities.” To that effect, the NMMA remains one of the few museums in the city that’s always free.
“In a time in the United States when being Mexican and being an immigrant has really been tarnished,” Moreno says, “I think that we have an even stronger struggle ahead of us to provide an accurate understanding of what it means to be Mexican and what it means to come from an immigrant community. Now the museum more than ever needs to really stand up and kind of show the other side, the beauty of our culture and the strength of our community.”
There’s another piece by Aguilar above the exit of “Memoria Presente”: Titled Éxito, it’s a sign that reads TERMINAL made of painted butcher paper, black streamers, and black masking tape. Another cognate, but this one has darker connotations. Yet the word éxito suggests an alternate meaning, “more like celebration or wishing someone good luck,” Aguilar says. “I like to do this thing where I just am factual, like I just state facts,” he continues. “I hope sometimes that in doing that, that poetry sort of naturally emerges, rather than me forcing it.”
The same could be said of the NMMA. It could be more overtly political in the exhibitions it stages, but the museum doesn’t force the issue. By representing a wide range of artists with a diversity of experiences, it lets a different story emerge, one that celebrates our differences instead of fearing them. v