Monday, November 10, 2014

Grandes Maestros at NHM and Day of the Dead at MOAH

L.A. and the Antelope Valley acknowledge our shared Hispanic heritage

above: Manuel Jimenez Ramiriz. Feline, 2001. Oaxaca, Mexico.

Two events this past week help validate how much social progress California is witnessing. When I grew up in East L.A., the Latino side of our shared cultural history often was ignored. There might be the odd Cinco de Mayo event here or there, and certainly many of my friends spoke Spanish in the home, but the visible manifestations of official state culture remained astoundingly white.

This bias was present everywhere and has been a hard prejudice to break. In school, the Hispanics called me "Paddy" (even though I am not the least bit Irish), and in trade, I called them ---- well, I called them things I much regret and no doubt will need to answer for some day in Heaven (or the other, warmer place).

Two exhibits help reveal the progress that is happening all around us.

At NHM, aka the Natural History Museum of L.A. County --- that grand institution that's 101 years old and located in Exposition Park near USC --- they have opened a survey titled "Grandes Maestros: Great Masters of Iberoamerican Folk Art." Over 800 objects (one tour guide told me 1,200, but the official website says 800) are on display, and all of them are examples of the best vernacular Latin American art, collected from living artists located in 22 countries. The Los Angeles Times calls it "Folk Art with a Twist."

Unlike the Norton Simon, the Getty, or LACMA, the Natural History Museum is doable by public transportation from AVC. Just take the Metrolink downtown, then at Union Station take the Red or Purple subway lines a few stops, and transfer at Metro Center for the last part of the ride on the Expo Line. (Doing this successfully the first time, and not having to pay parking at the destination side of the trip, can make you feel like an honorary New Yorker.)

It's a trip worth taking. Not only are the objects pretty much at 11 on the one-to-ten coolness scale, but because the exhibition is organized by medium (wood, textiles, and so on) and not by country, it really makes you appreciate the physicality of the objects. Somebody took a simple thing like a block of wood or slab of clay, and in a very basic workshop, turned it into art. You don't need a fancy New York gallery and you certainly don't need an MFA in art from Yale --- you just need a basic trust in yourself and a willingness to sit down and do good work.

Here is an image of Manuel Jimenez Ramirez, the genius who carved the blue jaguar shown above.

This is one of those shows where you don't know where to turn next, and that in my case, brings out a certain degree of envy. Here is something I would like to own, but lack the dedication to create myself. In case it's not clear, this is a full-sized cape. It fills the whole wall.

Credit on this is as follows: the artist goes by the name Dielson Jose. This 2008 piece from Brazil uses "cotton embroidered with fishbone stitch." As in, WOW. Next time I fumble around trying to mend a stray button, I am going to remember this --- and remember that I need to try harder.

The exhibits include digital captions, something I suppose will be inevitable as we go forward through history. Given how many objects there are (and that we can't be in touching distance of all of them), this makes good sense, even if it feels a bit counter-intuitive at first, at least to me. Here's how it works. First here is my shot of the object, then see a close-up of the the touch-screen iPad sort of thing that supports each mini-gallery.

There are also uniformed guides in each gallery as well, ready to help you understand more about what the objects mean culturally. In the end, I found it worked really well.

For us at AVC and the larger L.A. area, just what does this show (and the ones described below, at MOAH on Lancaster Blvd.) mean for us in Los Angeles County?

I talked about that with Kristin Friedrich, Director of Communications at NHM.

AVC Blog: What should the people of L.A. know about the show, or perhaps even be proud of?
L.A. is the first U.S. city to host this exhibit, and we have such strong ties to Latin America. What’s great about the Natural History Museum being the venue is that our audiences are totally aligned with the diversity of the city. Forty-five percent of L.A. traces ancestry to Latin America; 45 percent of this museum’s visitors are Latino.

This means that a lot of people will identify motifs and iconography they’ve seen in their familial homes growing up; some will recognize things they’ve known to be used in their family’s daily lives. Some will have seen similar objects in their travels. 

 And even if a visitor has no ancestral connection to these 22 countries, it’s amazing art, and it makes you see Latin America—and in many ways, L.A—in new ways. Some of the work is wickedly funny and irreverent, some absolutely serious and devout, some takes tradition seriously and some of it turns tradition totally on its side. And everything in between. 

AVC Blog: Yes, that's true in a piece like this. 

Cecilia Vargas. Pitalito Express (Eustorgio Inchima and Yorleny's Wedding), 2007.

Humor in Mexican folk art has been there since the 19th century, if not before.  
This of course is a print by Jose Guadalupe Posada, titled in English, The Bicycle Skeletons (circa 1895). He's satirizing the fate and political leanings of the main Mexican newspapers, some of whose names you can read as floating captions inside the print. (It may be hard to see in this narrow blog format: sorry). I had to make a decision about 10 years ago what art I might collect, and had to force myself to decide NOT to start collecting original Posadas. At the time, they were not that expensive (they've gone up since then), but I needed to make some choices, and one choice I made was to enjoy him via books, not as vintage prints.
His humor though can be seen in many aspects of our Day of the Dead culture today, north and south of the Mexican border.
Here is a deliciously faux-serious mask from the exhibition:
Caption on this is Moorish Ambassador, 2010, by Celio Efrain Lopez Gomez. Red-faced and bearded, with a slightly stunned look? After a day at the beach, this is more or less just what I look like. 

Next question for Kristen: how does NHM see this show as fitting in with the other aspects of the collection and/or mission? 

Our mission is to explore natural and cultural worlds, so this really hits the “culture” part of it, but interestingly, the “nature” part too. Folk art isn’t like other art. It’s more tied to the planet’s natural resources. In Grandes Maestros, there are objects made of wood and shell and plant dyes and bones. 
And there are a lot of animals that turn up. So you can walk inside and outside the museum, see those materials in their original incarnations, and then walk into this exhibit and see what these artists have done with them, or how they’ve been inspired by them.  
AVC Blog: Do you think this reflects a growing awareness of (or at least professional acceptance of) Latino culture by mainstream US institutions?
Absolutely. I think a lot L.A. institutions are aware and accepting of Latino culture. So though I think it’s a bit surprising we got the show, as a natural history museum, the fact that the show is in L.A. first is no surprise at all. 
What will be more interesting, to me at least, is to see where this show lands next. The group that helped us put all this together, Fomento Cultural Banamex, is in talks with several U.S. cities, some in the middle of the country. I think the journey the show takes, post-L.A., is going to be pretty revealing. 
For me, how that plays out visually will be fascinating as well. To take a painting from Guatemala, such as this one by Diego Isaias Hernandez Mendez, how he uses color in very different from the ways that a traditional, European-centered artist might approach the palette --- different yet successful. This one is titled in English, Danger in Picking Flowers and Bringing Down Kites on the Day of the Dead. It's from 2004.
It breaks up the pictorial plane in exciting ways, and makes me rethink my narrative assumptions about how to "read" a painting. This also quotes Mayan weaving and challenges the idea of representation in terms of named individuals, which otherwise is so dominant in Western art. Adding these choices into the conversation does not diminish traditional art history, but instead, expands it very productively.
In all, Grandes Maestros a fun show. Do add it to your to-do list, as it is up for some months yet.
While at NHM I was able to stock up on supplies for the weekend's other main event. Namely, I was able to restock my supply of temporary tattoos.
I am speaking now of things I picked up in order to attend the Day of the Dead fundraiser at MOAH, the Museum of Art and History on Lancaster Blvd. 
For me, I love any event that uses something like this as table centerpieces:
The evening had a full agenda.
Here is Mark (sorry, I did not get your last name?), providing music.

For those of us who didn't want to use our reading glasses to follow the program, MOAH was kind enough to post the large-print version.
 I think it's fair to say that everybody came to support the museum, but maybe in some tiny part of our hearts, we liked dressing up, too.
Here is a shot of Ron and Sharon, giving a visual version of the expression, "You complete me."
My photo of Andi and Angela being cell-phoned reminds us that if it's not on Facebook, it didn't happen.
The event is tied in with the current set of exhibitions, all of them centered on Hispanic artists and themes. One provocative gallery shows works from classical art, including the Mona Lisa, reshaded with supposedly "Mexican" skin tones. One of the points of this is to show how fake the coloration looks: nobody is just "brown," and in fact, humans come in an interesting range of tonal ranges, Latino and Anglo alike.
No, the walls are not brown too --- that's a color-balance problem on my camera. Here is the upstairs photo gallery, and I like it that the visitor studying the art seems to be dressed to match the images.
MOAH director Andi Campognone shared some of her feelings about what the museum is able to do. "That's the beauty of having the museum here on the Boulevard. Art is a great equalizer," she told me. "Look at everybody we have here tonight. We have members of the City government, folks from County leadership, members of the Hispanic business community. MOAH wants to help energize people, help us decide on our direction as a community. At an event like this, we have a chance to talk, to share our vision, to grow and change as a community."
As she and I traded stories on our own upbringings, she reminded me that when her Italian grandfather married into the family, the Scandinavian side of the union was appalled --- in essence, the Italians were too dark-skinned, too "ethnic" if you will. Yet even the Native Americans who crossed the Bering Land Bridge at the close of the last ice age, they too came to American relatively recently. "When you come down to it, we are all immigrants," Andi agreed. "Let's get a conversation started. Each part of American society has something interesting to share with the others."
That was the vibe throughout the evening. Hi to Monica Mahoney, below, whose outfit was exactly perfect. She is the Public Engagement Liaison at the museum. That means she curates shows and all public engagement programming with a focus on artist-centered engagement. I like her perspective, since she says that "I believe the arts come alive when engaged with in meaningful ways. We live in an exciting time where many museums are activating their collections and engaging the community with innovative strategies, making art and the museum experience more accessible and meaningful to all. Honoring the diverse cultures in our region is our priority."

Monica is also the lead grant writer and manager on special projects. For example, works with the Green MOAH Initiative, a hands-on  community engagement program that utilizes art and science as a catalyst for living creative and sustainable lives. The Initiative is project-based with a focus on illegal dumping, water scarcity, green energy, food justice, sustainable design.

Busy person, and a model for others. If I remember correctly, she was also doing some last minute touch-ups by face painting other guests. Is that something one can list on a c.v.? "Grant Manager, Public Liaison, and Day of the Dead Face-Painting Artist." (Probably at Google or Kickstarter, it is exactly what one should put on a c.v., along with references to yoga teaching skills and whether or not you have your own hot air balloon. At Antelope Valley College, I don't think HR is quite there yet, in terms of screening for equivalences.)

All of this progress feels very personal to me. I am not saying that Lancaster should not also have "Wild West Days" or that we can't dress up like cowboys, G.I. Joes, ballerinas, or whatever else turns us on. It just is wonderful to see NHM and MOAH and so many other area museums (the Autry, for example) finally giving full energy to Latino culture and heritage. This is something my family has been involved in for some time now. My aunt was an activist for Navajo and Hispanic rights in the 1950s and 1960s, and one way that she tried to prepare the ground for events like these was through children's books. Here is one that she wrote, focusing on Hispanic Christmas traditions.

(Yes, book design has come a long way since then. We're used to thinking of the '60s as being Woodstock and Jimi H and all of that, but a lot of the 1960s really just more of the same, in terms of really still being the 1950s.) 
In scanning the book for this blog, I was amused to see my aunt's 1967 dedication to me and my brother.

I love that she signs it with her name, followed by "the author." I want to follow that tradition now when I sign copies of my own books to people. (Maybe I can add an exclamation point, too.) 
AVC hosts a Day of the Dead altar each year on campus, managed by Communications Department Chair Tom Graves. I encourage blog readers to become involved and to contact him in order to help next year. His email is 
There is more to Latin American culture than just doing tequila shots on Cinco de Mayo and shuddering at news reports of yet another drug cartel beheading. I want to praise NHM and MOAH both, for helping to share with us a larger, more inclusive vision. 
It has been a long time coming. 

This week's AVC Blog posting was made by Charles Hood, Language Arts, and he can be reached at The blog is not an official policy statement of the Board of Trustees nor the District as a whole, nor does it mean to imply that shots of tequila are not, in themselves, fun. Drink responsibly, see these shows, and please help Mr. Graves with the AVC altar next year.