Max Aguilera-Hellweg, The Lovers; river edge, the Rio Grande, Mexican side, somewhere east of Piedras Negras, 1989
Courtesy the artist
As an English major in college in the 1980s, I studied the then-recognized masters of modern poetry: Wallace Stevens, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, T. S. Eliot. At first, I thrilled at learning the commandments of high art, but as I commenced reading the “greats” in earnest, felt something unnatural happening to me—a rift between my life with my immigrant family, who had crossed the border in the 1960s, and these devotions to the aesthetics of white American men. Tomás Rivera was not in my curriculum, nor was Langston Hughes or Countee Cullen, Gloria Anzaldúa or Estela Portillo-Trambley. I had not yet heard of these authors, some of whom had been publishing in the United States for over a half century. I wrote my treatise on the mid-twentieth-century poetry canon in my bedroom, whose walls radiated with family photographs. I underlined the inchoate allusions in Eliot’s The Waste Land: “Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee / With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade.” I realized that I had no idea what I was doing, and I felt intellectually lonely.
I wandered the house, poking in our bookshelves at art and photography tomes to find any works that might reflect my life, but all I found were anthologies of masterpieces that venerated the likes of Édouard Manet and Ansel Adams. Returning to my bedroom, I looked at one of my favorite photographs, which I had hung in a plastic frame by my headboard. The image, taken in 1968, shows a beautiful woman with a bouffant hairdo and European Latina features standing by a seated, younger, and equally beautiful woman with Indigenous Latina looks and a chic pixie cut. The younger woman holds a very fat infant who scowls at the camera while wearing a lacy baptism dress. The infant is me, and the women are my mother and grandmother. I plucked the frame from its peg on the wall and inserted the photograph into my copy of The Waste Land, like a bookmark. Whenever I opened Eliot’s literary monument, the image of my grandmother, mother, and baby me flashed between the pages. That photograph evidenced my family’s hard-won survival and anchored me while I set about my studies, reminding me that there are more classics in the world than just those found in college syllabi or other promotions of Western civilization that decline to list the achievements of women and people of color.
Harry Gamboa Jr., Salomón Huerta, Artist, 2008, from the series Chicano Male Unbonded
© the artist
Harry Gamboa Jr., Father Richard Estrada, Priest, Church of the Epiphany (Episcopal Church), 2017
This memory resurged in 2021 when I examined several recent accomplishments in the world of Latinx art, including Elizabeth Ferrer’s Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History (2020); the watershed contribution to Latinx studies found in Arlene Dávila’s Latinx Art: Artists, Markets, and Politics (2020); and the changes made to the U.S.’s national arts institutions by the curator E. Carmen Ramos. Each of these Latinas has faced down the Anglo arts canon, a tradition as much bound by white supremacy, elitism, money, and elision as it is rooted in recognition of any artist’s individual talent. Ferrer, Dávila, and Ramos work to expand and challenge our understanding of art history by inserting Latinx artists into white spaces. These leaders recognize the brilliant offerings of Latinx art, study the market forces that have barred artists of color from inclusion, and inaugurate new collection practices that usher Latinx artists into major museum collections. Ferrer, a writer, curator, and vice president of contemporary art at BRIC, in Brooklyn, has made several groundbreaking strokes with Latinx Photography in the United States. The book gathers the profiles of more than eighty image makers ranging from Epifania “Fanny” de Guadalupe Vallejo, a pioneering daguerreotypist in the 1840s, to the artist Guadalupe Rosales, whose Instagram account, known as Veteranas and Rucas, assembles crowdsourced images of the Latina inventors of the 1990s party-crew community in Southern California. Ferrer’s decision to compile this resource stemmed from her realization that Latinxs had been omitted from the annals of U.S. and world photography, and that despite their “considerable talents,” they were “understudied and underappreciated.”
Latinx Photography in the United States defies our received notions of photography’s inevitably white “greats”: Edward Weston, Robert Capa, and Irving Penn, among the many men; Diane Arbus, Annie Leibovitz, and Cindy Sherman, among the few women. Ferrer’s selection criteria drew her to photographers such as Laura Aguilar, Louis Carlos Bernal, Harry Gamboa Jr., and Delilah Montoya, who have achieved widespread recognition, albeit only in the past five to ten years. Ferrer then expanded her search beyond these few Latinx photographers who have “made it,” adding various stealth figures who earned their place in her review by their unsung “significant creative contributions” to the field, as well as selecting some younger photographers for their innovative work.
By interpolating these names into photography’s canon, she breaks its rules, following other forward-thinking art workers of color before her: the artists working in collectives including Kamoinge, AfriCOBRA, Asco, and En Foco; the leaders of exhibition spaces such as New York’s El Museo del Barrio and El Taller Boricua; and Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem. Ferrer transforms photography’s heritage from a slim hagiography of saints into an archive alive with family photographs, studio portraits, photojournalism, and street photography authored by a vast array of artists. Ferrer describes her research for Latinx Photography in the United States as a process of “unearthing information on little-known photographers and piecing together a history that was previously unwritten.”
Ferrer transforms photography’s heritage from a slim hagiography of saints into an archive alive with family photographs, studio portraits, photojournalism, and street photography authored by a vast array of artists.
What treasures await us with this new approach? Ferrer’s expansive guide traverses time, geography, and genre. She brings us revelations about Latinx studio photographers, among them Michoacán-born Jesús Murillo, who, starting in the 1920s, worked in Houston, first for a studio and then photographing actors and dancers from the perch of his own firm in the city’s downtown. Another rediscovery is the Cuban American Jesse A. Fernández, who, in the mid twentieth century, alternated between street photography and portrait work that captured the writer Jorge Luis Borges and the Mexican comedian Cantinflas. We also learn about photographers such as John Candelario, who showed his spare images at the Museum of Modern Art, in 1944, and Justo A. Martí, who documented Latinx and Puerto Rican communities in New York after World War II.
Ferrer additionally begins to limn the Black and Asian Latinx photography tradition with her entry on María Magdalena Campos-Pons, an artist who arrived in the United States from Cuba in 1988 and traces her ancestral roots to Nigeria and China. Ferrer undertakes a careful study of Campos-Pons’s large-format polyptychs, in particular Finding Balance (2015), which stars Campos-Pons dressed in a majestic gold-embroidered dragon robe, her head surmounted by a birdcage, looking like the avatar of an ancient Chinese or Yoruba empress. With Finding Balance, Campos-Pons elaborates on the wide history of migration to Cuba and the United States and contemplates the costs of exile, slavery, racism, and indentured servitude that often prove an inextinguishable part of the complex process of being Latinx.
Latinx Photography in the United States also canvases artists partaking in feminist, activist, race-conscious, and narrative methodologies. In Rachelle Mozman Solano’s series Casa de Mujeres (House of women, 2010), Mozman Solano’s mother plays the roles of both family matron and darker-skinned maid. In En el Cuarto de la Niña (In the girl’s room, 2010), the “two” women languish in a child’s bedroom, possibly that of a grown and departed daughter. The light-complected mother sits on the bed, looking away from a porcelain doll and staring blankly at the floor. The maid hovers in the background, similarly gazing down. With this image, Mozman Solano excavates a singular part of female and Latina biography, illuminating the heartbreaks and betrayals that can come with being brown and female.
Ferrer’s work arrives at a threshold moment, as the visibility she brings to Latinx artists complements similar attempts by Arlene Dávila and E. Carmen Ramos. In Latinx Art, the New York University professor Dávila surveys the state of Latinx arts across various media and finds that it has been misconstrued by misleading and racialist taxonomy. Through interviews with collectors, gallerists, and curators as well as intricate analyses of everything from press releases to art reviews to the physical layouts of art fair exhibition spaces, Dávila examines how the market’s use of simplistic categories erases Latinx artists.
Discussing the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Dávila notes how the artist found renown as a Black American creator, but that both in- and out-group delineations of Latinx identity, which often ignored Black Latinxs, failed to identify Basquiat’s Puerto Rican and Haitian heritage as part of the Latinx tradition. Similarly, she recounts gallerists’ and curators’ problematic conceptualization of Cuban-born Félix González-Torres, the auteur of billboards from 1991 depicting an unmade bed, symbolizing the passing of his lover from AIDS-related complications. Dávila reveals how powerful arts workers minimized González-Torres’s Latinx identity by omitting the accents from his name in press materials and “framed [his work] in relation to international art currents” as opposed to placing him within a Latinx art movement. González-Torres also participated in this redaction himself, sometimes balking at being identified as a Cuban or gay artist; nevertheless, in reorienting González-Torres’s place(s) in the art world, Dávila allows us to associate him with artists such as the queer Puerto Rican–born photographer Luis Carle, as opposed to situating him solely within the problematic bracket of Latin American art.
Dávila mounts a scathing attack on this latter classification, showing how the category of Latin American art draws top dollar even as it further reduces the visibility and audibility of Latinx artists who emphasize their U.S. roots. According to Dávila, Latin American artists appeal to an elite cadre of collectors because their works may be purchased in art fairs held in cities such as Buenos Aires, Mexico City, and Bogotá, giving these buyers an opportunity to “consume and access exotic countries and authentic ‘multicultural’ experiences of leisure and travel.” Latinx artists who seek the blue-chip credibility found by their Latin American colleagues must participate in what art-world insiders describe as “the formula,” which consists in patrons, curators, and other “stakeholders for Latin American art” funding and working on Latinx shows only where Latin Americans’ “beautiful and aesthetically attractive” art is also represented. This formula results in exhibitions that dilute the impact of Latinx art, particularly affecting those works that emphatically dissect U.S. racism and racial identity.
Dávila also teaches us how the formula and the category of Latin American art, in general, also issue from “anti-Blackness,” as these conceits have typically failed to amplify Black Latinxs. It comes as little shock to see how few Latinx photographers have benefited from the lucrative marketing strategy of U.S. galleries since many of these photographers—Carle, Laura Aguilar, and the La Raza photographer Luis Garza, to name a few—deploy explicit anti-racist strategies in their art. Nevertheless, many artists remain unapologetically Latinx: Teresita Fernández, for example, says that she doesn’t “want [her] identity to be whitewashed.”
Dávila’s solutions focus on the ways in which these canonical abridgments deprive Latinxs of access to art markets, a divestment that not only shunts them from view but also denies them the potential capacity to earn sound livings from their work. She argues for the support of smaller and artist-run galleries while also emphasizing that changes must be made to U.S. copyright laws that eliminate visual artists’ abilities to obtain royalties under its first-sale doctrine. With a burst of grassroots organizing, Dávila concludes by providing a “Noncomprehensive List of Artists Everyone Should Know,” which announces the names of over two hundred important Latinx creatives, among them the photographer Elizabeth Delgadillo-Merfeld and Elia Alba, a multidisciplinary artist whose work includes photography. Dávila’s ambition is to see the full inclusion and sustainability for Latinxs that current art-world gatekeeping makes impossible. With Latinx Art, Dávila addresses “why there is so much silence on Latinx identity, and why there was no space to talk about this racism,” adding in an interview that “the official script about the art world does not allow all these voices.”
Latinx artists will continue to struggle for credit as major contributors to U.S. and world culture unless, and until, they are collected—and that mandate makes the contributions of E. Carmen Ramos indispensable. Ramos, today the National Gallery of Art’s chief curatorial and conservation officer, and formerly the chief curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, rose to prominence, in part, because of her work as an “activist collector,” as she calls herself. The Smithsonian began collecting its first pieces of Latino art in 1979, and in the 1990s received rich holdings of Puerto Rican art from the collection of the philanthropist Teodoro Vidal. Since joining the Smithsonian in 2010, Ramos has spearheaded the acquisitions of photographs, paintings, and sculptures by Latinx artists, including Campos-Pons, whose Polaroid composition Constellation (2004) meditates on braided and dreadlocked hair.
At the Smithsonian, Ramos also built one of the largest museum holdings of Chicanx graphics on the East Coast. Another noteworthy shake-up saw her curation of Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art (2013), which showcased works by many Latinx artists that Ramos had introduced to the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. One such inductee is the Los Angeles–based, Mexican American photographer Christina Fernandez, whose series María’s Great Expedition (1995–96) presents an affecting narrative of María González, Fernandez’s great-grandmother and the first member of her family to migrate to the United States. Ramos’s embrace of Fernandez’s work offers just one instance of her photo-based strategy to enlarge the U.S. art world. Even in its recent history, the Smithsonian’s photography exhibitions hewed to surveys that emphasized Anglo cynosures such as Irving Penn, Ansel Adams, and Eadweard Muybridge, with some group exhibitions straying into images by Black and Latino photographers, for example, Roy DeCarava and Alfredo Jaar.
Seeking change, in 2017 Ramos instigated Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography, which spotlighted the documentary work of photographers, including Manuel Acevedo, Oscar Castillo, Anthony Hernandez, and Perla de León, and offered new ways of defining not only the meaning of the canon but also the fundaments of its creation. In the exhibition, Ramos mapped image makers who focused on people of color living in distressed U.S. cities. Down These Mean Streets expanded our understanding of who belongs in the canon by commemorating these Latinx photographers’ conceptual risk-taking as well as introducing their class- and race-conscious contributions to the country’s fund of knowledge. One of its most stunning entries was de León My Playground (1980)—an image also featured in Ferrer’s Latinx Photography in the United States—created in the years when de León worked as a public-school teacher in the South Bronx. My Playground shows the devastation that arsonists caused in the area and reveals a little girl standing in the midst of a smoke-filled lot full of trash, charred bricks, and other remains as she plays with a piece of rubble. De León’s image stands as a powerful document of the costs of inequality.Ferrer, Dávila, and Ramos have examined the accepted list of so-called masters that once shaped whose art appeared in museums such as the Smithsonian. Unsurprisingly, they found it a tool of race and class supremacy. And, through the compilation of recent publications, the initiation of Brown art into Anglo art emplacements, the development of new social criticism, and the incitement of collection upheavals that further social justice, they have succeeded in lifting Latinx artwork from the private sphere, layering it into history, and constructing its visibility.
Back when I was in college, and conducting saturnine rituals out of landmark texts and personal photographs, I felt stranded by my interaction with the narrow scope of the great books. Soon, though, I sought out and found some of the Latinx, Black, Asian, queer, and woman-made art that not only illumined the world that I inhabited but also made me feel sane again. Today, I write my essays and fiction with the photograph of my family on my desk—it is now framed in silver and fills my work space with an encouraging force. Ferrer’s, Dávila’s, and Ramos’s efforts look toward a future where identity struggles like my own, and those of countless others, do not have to occur in isolation. These visionaries have opened the canon to a multilayered creative practice celebrating the anarchic record of our lives.
This article originally appeared in Aperture, issue 245, “Latinx,” under the title “Making Worlds.”