Friday, August 27, 2010

The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present

photo by Agustin Casasola, 1910

“The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present”*
The DuSable Museum, through Nov. 14

Returning to Chicago following a nationwide tour that began four years ago at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen, this didactic exhibit might be considered a commendable promotion of ethnic harmony between African American and Hispanic populations. Using photographs, reproductions of art from the colonial era, and contemporary arts and crafts, the exhibition documents the African presence in Mexico over the past five centuries. But, unfortunately, this exhibit is less about African culture than about identifiable African facial features. As Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post has noted “And so the exhibition becomes a game: Find the African identity. This puts the viewer in the strange, and sometimes uncomfortable, position of looking for blackness in the faces of strangers, in images of people who would not necessarily consider their African descent of much importance, but who would, in this country, be labeled "black.”” But is that really a game we want to continue playing? And what is really the benefit of presenting a one-sided historical argument, including, for example, many pieces by the prominent African –American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett just because she happened to move to Mexico ? While the other contemporary arts and crafts on display don’t seem to rise above either the folkloric happy-talk of the paintings by Aydee Rodriguez Lopez or the angry bombast of the woodcuts by Mario Guzman Oliveres. ( Where, again, the primary connection to Africa is skin tone and other facial features.) Like the Dusable Museum’s animatronic Harold Washington, this exhibit seems mostly to have been targeted at school children. But shouldn’t even school children be encouraged to take both history and art a bit more seriously?

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