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Do Art Museums Need Curators of “Latino Art”?

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The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) recently announced the appointment of E. Carmen Ramos as its first curator for Latino art.

According to the museum’s press release, Ms. Ramos will be responsible for acquiring artworks for the museum’s permanent collection and producing a major exhibition and catalog based on the museum’s Latino holdings for fall 2013. She begins work on Oct. 12.

Elizabeth Broun, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the museum, welcomed the hiring with the comments that she was “thrilled that E. Carmen Ramos is bringing her expertise and insights here to help us feature Latino artists who transform personal experiences and cultural heritage into vivid artworks,” and furthermore added that Latino artists’ “stories are culturally specific, but also American and universal.”

I have an issue with the segregation of artists based on race, or as in this case, with an invented ethnicity which appears to exist solely in the USA and which more often than not showcases a spectacular cultural ignorance about the actual ethnic diversity of the 35 or so nations that make up the countries in the Americas.

But before I get to that, I am a little confused as to what exactly is a “Latino” and thus what makes up “Latino art.” I am told by some references that the term “Latino” refers to people who are either (a) born or living in the US and who have a family ancestry from one of the Spanish (and I think also Portuguese) nations in the Americas. Or (b), that set of people plus anyone from those same nations. Thus, an artist from Argentina (let’s say Guillermo Kuitca, or closer to home here in the Washington, DC area, Felicia Federman) is an Argentinean in his or her home nation, but also a “Latino/a” when in the US.

That’s not to be confused with “Hispanic,” which I am told in addition to “Latinos” includes the two nations from the Iberian peninsula of Europe (Spain and Portugal). Never mind that the word “Hispanic” is derived from the Roman name for Spain (Hispania) while Portugal’s name was Lusitania and poor Portugal spent centuries defining a separate entity, language and culture from Spain, only to be grouped together with its larger neighbor under this also uniquely American ethnic label.

So I think that Latinos = Spanish/Portuguese folks from the Americas and Hispanic = those same folks plus the two European nations. All the other European “Latins” (such as the Italians, Romanians, French, etc.) are excluded.

So, let’s assume that the definitions, as I understand them, are correct: if you’re born (or have ancestry from) any Latin American nation, then you’re a Latino.

But as soon as we examine this uniquely American ethnic label, it falls apart. Never mind if your parents were born in Japan and immigrated to some South American nation (there are more Japanese immigrants in South America than in the US), or born in Wales and immigrated to Argentina (there are more people of Welsh ancestry in Argentina than in Wales). Or my personal favorite, the millions of Native American tribes south of the border, who find themselves labeled as “Latinos” in the US instead of Maya, or Inca, or whatever Native American nation they truly belong to.

But that is another issue which reveals spectacular cultural ignorance on the part of the people obsessed with labeling everyone with an ethnic or racial label.

Let me think out loud on the issue of a major American museum collecting “Latino artists who transform personal experiences and cultural heritage into vivid artworks.”

I’m fairly sure that Ms. Broun didn’t really mean this statement in the way that it came out (or as I interpreted it), but to me it shows an immensely limited view or expectation (and worse: knowledge) about the kind of artwork produced by those we have labeled in this nation “Latino” artists.

Simply visit any major Latin American museum or examine an art book on Latin American artists and you will soon discover that (just like most Western artists) they explore all sorts of things in seeking the inspiration for their work, and not all of them deliver “vivid artworks” and not all use their “personal experiences and cultural heritage” as a inspiration for their artwork, at least not all the time.

Not all Latino artists are Frida Kahloesque in their artwork, and certainly not all Latino artwork is “culturally specific.” In fact, one could submit that most Americans of Latino ancestry are equally (if not more) influenced by their American culture than by their parents or grandparents.

As a quick example, I’m having a hard time finding a personal experience, or cultural heritage, or even any vividness in the work of the forementioned Guillermo Kuitca (soon coming to the Hirshhorn Museum in DC – October 21, 2010 to January 16, 2011).

I realize that I am being pedantic, but such wide statements as this one do tend to bug me more than they should. It is driven by my firm belief that museums should collect artwork based on the merit of the artist and the art, and not based mostly on the artist’s ethnic, sex or racial background.

And I really think that statements such as the unfortunate one from Ms. Broun do have the unintended consequence of revealing a rather galvanized and incorrect view of how one culture sometimes tends to view another culture.

I’m not sure if I have made my point clear, as it is a confusing issue, even to me. Perhaps the best way to showcase this issue is to pretend that SAAM was hiring a new curator for Nordic art. Nordic is another ethnic label which often misses the mark about the people whom it is intended to label. As a result, this would immediately cause some confusion in defining Nordic (as there is confusion in defining Latino). Are Germans Nordic or Teutons? How about Finns? Certainly not Finland’s Laplanders, but they are also Finnish. And Ms. Broun’s statement would read:

“I am thrilled that E. Karmen Ramosdottir is bringing her expertise and insights here to help us feature Nordic artists who transform personal experiences and cultural heritage into brooding artworks. These stories are culturally specific, but also American and universal.”

In any event, F. Lennox Campello welcomes E. Carmen Ramos to Washington, DC.

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About Lenny Campello

  • http://jonsobel.com/ Jon Sobel

    A fascinating question. How much of this is legitimate cultural inquiry, and how much is false American racial conceptualizations? What do you think of El Museo del Barrio in New York?

  • http://dcartnews.blogspot.com Lenny

    Good questions. I have less of a problem (but I still have them) with focused “neighborhood” museums and cultural entities which seek to address their immediate surroundings. Thus El Museo del Barrio in the Bronx, or the Nordic Museum in Seattle fit under that category. I have even more issues with the National Museum of Women in the Arts segregating artists by sex.

    The goal should be to fight to include in our major museums all of the artists who deserve to be there, regardless of race, sex or ethnic background. Clearly there are some clear holes which need to be filled, but segregating by ethnic, racial or sexual identity is not the answer.

    As one travels in Latin America and Europe, the “made up” American labels for some ethnicities often confused as races by some, falls apart. No one in Spain, or Argentina, or Brazil, etc. considers themselves “Hispanic” and in some Native Central American cultures it is even an offensive term: someone with Native American bloodlines who is trying to “pass” for white.

    I’m still a little confused as to what “Latino” means, to be honest. Most Argentineans are of Italian ancestry, so an Argentinean is a Latino, but his Italian parents are not? Weren’t the Italians the original Latins?

    Makes my head hurt.

  • andreatks

    Thank you for your refreshing perspective!

    We — individuals, organizations, the media — have been using the term “Latino” for years, without any clear idea of what it means.

    It’s great to take a step back and ask, what DOES it mean?