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Exhibiting Mestizaje: Mexican (American) Museums in the Diaspora by Karen Mary Davalos

 

Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2006. Pp. 352. Pp. vii, 246.

An important read for individuals in curatorial studies and a must-read for curators of culture-specific exhibitions, Exhibiting Mestizaje by Karen Mary Davalos takes a look at how popular Chicano cultural representation was established and reinforced through the practices of curators, artists, critics, and public institutions. Yet the crux of Davalos's study is her investigation of the exclusionary, intracultural complexities that lie beneath the surface of this mainstream representation.

Written during the 1990s at the height of Affirmative Action and just as other 'equal opportunity' initiatives were coming into place in the public sector, Davalos begins her study by illustrating how throughout history, public art museums and other cultural institutions through their architecture and curatorial practices formulated the nation's collective identity, deeply rooted in representing a patriarchal European America. In the chapters that follow, Davalos then looks at the development of Chicano art—from early mural works in heavily-populated Latino neighborhoods to featured exhibitions and commissioned projects supported by public and private institutions.

What differentiates Exhibiting Mestizaje from many works examining the rise of Chicano culture up until the 1990s is that it is written through what Davalos refers to as a 'radical/lesbian Chicana perspective.' As Davalos states, 'following the method of radical/lesbian Chicana feminism, I interrogate… the Chicano cultural nationalist's denial of women, homosexuality and diverse political affiliations and agendas, as well as the multiple cultural and racial identities of the Mexican-origin population.' (10) Davalos concludes that writing in this perspective 'forces the complexities and ambiguities of Mexican-origin representational practices into view, allowing scholars to rethink "the community," the "althernative" character of arts organizations, "authenticity" and Chicana artists.' (10) Thus, Davalos does not simply document how the efforts of many Chicano artists, curators, and activist organizations increase Chicano/a presence in cultural institutions; instead, she simultaneously raises important questions as to how the development of culturally-specific institutions and government initiatives run by individuals of Mexican-American origin bring about a representational perception based on patriarchal, heterosexual male Chicano notions of difference, nationalism, and community—perpetuating the 'us' vs. 'them' mentality.

While Davalos's criticism of the politics of identity is undoubtedly valid, she often asks the reader to rely solely on her radical/lesbian Chicana perspective to interpret the outcome of certain case studies that result in the unfair or exclusionary treatment of heterosexuals and/or women from popular Chicano representation. Unfortunately, Davalos does not provide enough first-hand accounts through interviews with artists, curators, and other participants directly involved to support her own interpretation. Ultimately, this lack of one-on-one interviews and accounts from artists and curators is the main weakness in this book. Curators and artists are never given the opportunity to discuss their own opinions on many of the very important questions Davalos raises in this book.

At the end of Exhibiting Mestizaje, Davalos brings up a new series of challenges (or opportunities) for cultural representation: the United States has seen an increase in corporate sponsorship and other pro-capitalist marketing tactics; while globalism was primarily embraced in the 1990s, there now resides a looming fear of cultural homogenization; and finally, government funding for programs promoting ethnic diversity have been decreasing at an alarming rate. How do these challenges mean to change the politics of identity and what roles of responsibility will curators, artists, and policy-makers assume in these ever-shifting tides? While she does not provide readers with the answers, as the author of Exhibiting Mestizaje, Davalos becomes the prime example to her readers that through determination and a clear perspective, one can begin to tackle these challenges.


Sandy Garcia is currently the Director of Administration for Rena Shagan Associates, a leading artist management firm specializing in contemporary dance and theater. As an independent curator, Ms. Garcia produced NEW.MASS.ART, a mixed-media art exhibition at the Contemporary Artist Center in North Adams, Massachusetts. In 2005, she served as production coordinator for PERFORMA's two commissioned projects by visual artists Sislej Xhafa and Francis Alys for the PERFORMA biennial. Prior to moving to New York to attain her master's degree in Performance Studies, she worked at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) for 3-1⁄2 years. Her article titled "Private Art for Public Protest" was published in e-misférica's Fall 2004 issue.

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