In many ways, “Before the 45th: Action/Reaction in Chicano and Latino Art” is a time capsule of the development of culture in Southern California as it examines the output of a wealth of Chicano artists in 60 artworks from the ’70s until present.
The carefully curated exhibit, which includes paintings, sculpture, installations and mixed media works, visually records the dialogue between the United States and the Chicano population, the largest immigrant population in this country. But it is important to keep in mind that not all Chicanos are immigrants, as many parts of the largely Latino Southwest, including California, were once part of Mexico.
In a diverse and grandiose display, “Before the 45th” sheds light on that population and how it has developed and evolved over the decades through a visual montage.
Curated by Julian Bermudez, the works included represent the ever-changing status of Chicanos in the United States, but also clearly demonstrates the continuing relationship these residents have with the motherland, Mexico.
“There are still people who don’t know much about Latino/Chicano art or culture. There are still people in certain regions who don’t really think about us at all,” Bermudez said.
Part of that response by the Chicano community has come through the films of John Valadez, whose work is included in the exhibit. The filmmaker produced three episodes of the PBS series “The Latinos,” as well as other films shown on PBS. Most recently, he was a guest at Howard University where he showed his film “The Head of Joaquin Murrieta.”
“[Nearly 15 million] people watched the initial broadcast of ‘The Latinos,” and those films end up being shown in high schools and colleges and become part of the curricula, and, by default, part of the American story,” Valadez said in a panel discussion about Latino art that complemented the exhibit.
The question, according to Bermudez, is whether the visibility of Latinos is changing for the better. Through the works on display on the ground floor galleries of the Mexican Cultural Institute, extending through the fourth-floor galleries, the creative engine of artworks that show Chicano life in Southern California is highly productive and socially relevant.
Many will find the simplistic colorful scenes everyday life by Carmen Lomas Garza familiar and approachable. But the realistic portraiture of photographer John Valadez (not the filmmaker) is less well-known and more revelatory of the hardness of life in Chicano California, grappling with the realities of economic disparity and criminal activity.
The timespan of the exhibit stops at 2016, before the 45th president was elected on the platform of “building a wall” to halt further immigration from Mexico, the closest neighbor to California, Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
“We’ve entered kind of a dark period,” Valadez said. “For a long time it felt like we were making progress here, then all the sudden it feels like the brakes are on and we might be sliding back. Not might be, we are sliding back. This is a very tenuous and tense time. But in the longer run, I’m probably more optimistic.”
The thrust of the exhibit, which remains on view through Dec. 29 at the elegant mansion that once housed the Embassy of Mexico but now houses the Mexican Cultural Institute, is that Chicano art and culture are part of the greater American fabric.
“This is a little bit of a blip — or a hiccup — but I personally think I have been seeing it progress,” said Bermudez, a Los Angeles native. “We have an initiative called ‘Pacific Standard Time: LA LA,’ which means Los Angeles and Latin America, that is meant to have 60 cultural institutions do exhibitions and performances that talk about this dialogue between Los Angeles and Latin America.”
The works come chiefly from the collections of AltaMed Health Services, the largest Federally Qualified Community Health center (FQCH), based in Los Angeles, where the exhibit originated. AltaMed’s collection is made of more than 1,000 works including prints, paintings, photographs, drawings, sculpture and mixed media.
“Art is a form of visual story telling that transcends language and cultural barriers,” said Castulo de la Rocha, president and CEO of AltaMed Health Services. “It’s a powerful documentation of history and has the capacity to inspire future generations to not repeat the mistakes of the past.”
The Mexican Cultural Institute is located in D.C. at 2829 16th Street NW. For more information and gallery hours, go to www.instituteofmexicodc.org.