Printmaking has long been an essential component of social activism around the world and in particular in the United States, conveying political messages to both local communities and the world at large. One current exhibition looks at the ways in Chicano, Chicana, and Chicanx artists have been essential in the struggle for equal rights for Chicanx and Latinx people in this country since the 1960s, and how their innovations within the graphic arts have been influential beyond Chicanx communities.
Drawn largely from its permanent collection of Chicanx prints, many of which were donated by legendary Chicano art historian Tomás Ybarra-Frausto in 1995, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now” sets out with an epic goal: to reshape our understanding of who gets to tell U.S. history. Its wide-ranging artworks address the United Farm Workers’ struggle for better labor rights for migrant workers, immigration and gun reform, the fight for LGBTQ+ rights, and calls denouncing police brutality made by the Movement for Black Lives and other groups. Also featured are images of icons like Selena, Dolores Huerta, Frida Kahlo, Emiliano Zapata, and Alice Bag, as well as works created for Día de los Muertos celebrations.
To learn more about the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue, ARTnews spoke with the show’s curator, E. Carmen Ramos, acting chief curator and curator of Latinx art at SAAM, which is closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. “¡Printing the Revolution!” will eventually reopen along with the rest of the Washington, D.C. museum, and does not currently have an end date.
ARTnews: How long has the show been in the works, and what was the impetus for it?
E. Carmen Ramos: This show has been in the works since at least 2017. I’ve always been aware of Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s great gift to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and we’ve used works from that gift in many different contexts. Several of those prints were in “Our America” and in other exhibitions. But part of me wanted to reflect on his gift in the same way that institutions always reflect on gifts of donors. That’s a staple type of exhibition that American art museums do all the time: “The gift of so-and-so,” “The collection of so-and-so.” But it’s a model that we haven’t seen a lot with Latinx art.
With all of my exhibitions at the museum, I use them as an opportunity to build collections. Tomás’s gift is a time capsule of the the early civil rights era of the 1960s. And I knew that our collection needed to grow and better represent the full sort of historical period of Chicanx graphics, which is ongoing and thriving to this day. This was an opportunity to build this collection and through this project, we did that in a significant way. The collection of Chicanx graphics has increased by 300 percent, so it’s far beyond what is represented in the exhibition and the catalogue.
Trying to understand the meaning of that gift was on my mind, and also the realization that the histories of Chicanx printmaking are pretty marginalized within the histories of American printmaking. I sort of knew that, but then when I really started working on this exhibition, looking at museum catalogues on American printmaking, there is so little. It was shocking, even to someone like me. That’s something that I wanted to change.
Any time we present an exhibition of Latinx art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum—because we’re a museum of the art of the United States, because we’re in the nation’s capital, because we’re part of the Smithsonian—it has this other kind of aura to it, this aura of really challenging exclusionist history that is such a big part of the history of the art of the United States, which has historically excluded Latinx voices. I wanted to challenge that exclusion in this hallowed space where I work. I think this exhibition is bringing some of these histories to the fore and allowing for people to better understand what our true history is as a nation.
What were some of the discoveries you made when researching Chicanx art within the context of printmaking in the United States?
Part of what I saw was how much the art world is segregated. I think that’s what is revealed when you when you read some of these histories—how so much of it is built on the systemic oppressions of our society, and then that filters down into how people relate to each other. That’s one of the reasons, obviously, why Latinx artists and cultural workers establish their own institutions, because we were not included, welcomed, or feel comfortable in other institutions.
There’s a lack of understanding and awareness of the long history of Chicanx graphics. There was an exhibition on American printmaking, “The American Dream: Pop to the Present” at the British Museum in 2017, and the only Latinx artist that they included was Enrique Chagoya, who is a more contemporary artist and not an artist that started working in the 1960s. That was kind of shocking to me. How could that be when there’s this huge history? I think many art historians and curators tend to focus on the current moment without doing the research to understand that there’s this long, long history that precedes the current moment. It’s part of this tendency to view Latinx artists and communities as recent arrivals, without seeing how deeply embedded we are in this country. The canonical history is an incomplete history. There’s a lack of awareness that there are other histories that are taking place simultaneously and have not been integrated into that history.
You mentioned that, when mounting large exhibitions like “¡Printing the Revolution!,” you use them to help build out SAAM’s collection. What gaps did you see in the collection that you wanted to fill?
One of the first things that I did, working with Claudia E. Zapata, was come up with a huge list of people that we wanted to talk to; it was a research project. We spoke with scholars and artists. We toured various cities throughout the United States in an effort to really broaden our understanding of the field. That was necessary as we were trying to build this more comprehensive collection. Being a national institution, I’m always very conscious of trying to be much more representative. We’re not an institution in Los Angeles or California. We’re not an institution in Texas. We have a national purview and I wanted to be much more inclusive of artists working in different parts of the country. SAAM’s collection of Latinx art has to be broad. It has to encompass the complexities of who we are, the geographic diversity of who we are.
I’m always eager to go to complicate our understanding of Latinx art. We opened up the show to think about what’s the impact of Chicanx graphics and part of that impact is not just on other Chicanx artists. It is on artists from other communities. And acknowledging that other artists from other communities were always part of [Chicanx graphics] history. We wanted to defy certain expectations of who is included in this history. That we use the term “impact” in the title is to understand that this movement has had these ripple effects and some of those ripple effects have been in other communities, like through the work of the Dominican York Proyecto Grafica, which may have not been founded had Pepe Coronado not had any contact with Sam Coronado, or Sandra Fernandez, who is an Ecuadorian-American artist, who also had a key transformative experience in Austin with Sam Coronado. We wanted to treat the subject matter in a new way, but that was true to its actual history and based on the research that we had done. Spaces like the Mission Cultural Center in San Francisco and Self-Help Graphics in Los Angeles were places of cross-pollination between artists of different generations. We were seeing this interconnected network, where an artist like Favianna Rodriguez could learn from Yreina Cervantez at Self-Help Graphics and then Favianna can build links to Jesus Barraza and Melanie Cervantes and then Oree Originol. So much of printmaking takes place in a collaborative space, so these relationships are nurtured there.
We wanted to show how this community of artists has been incredibly innovative in its and its approach to graphics. One of the most important ways that it has done so is that it has consistently privileged engagement with the public. In my essay, I talk about this as a form of social practice art, which is another history that tends to minimize the role of Chicanx and Latinx artists, even though we have been essential to that history. We were doing community engagement before museums were worth even thinking about that. And we also wanted to think that in terms of the language of today, the digital revolution that we’ve all been part of, and how Chicanx connects artists have been at the center of that, to advance advocacy within the digital space.
What are some examples of innovation that you highlight in the show?
I think about groups like the [Sacramento-based] Royal Chicano Air Force in terms of this history of social practice art. They were a group that in many ways the visual mouthpiece of the United Farm Workers, even though they weren’t directly affiliated with the union. They immediately went to work as soon as they heard that the UFW and Cesar Chavez was coming anywhere near them. Their printmaking was really used as the basis for their direct community engagement. They would have workshops with community members. Yolanda López’s Who’s the Illegal Alien Pilgrim? [1978/81], the first version of this poster was created for a nonprofit, not an art center. It was created in association with an institution that was fighting for immigrant rights. Yolanda Lopez’s Free Los Siete  was created directly in response to the events happening in the community and it was carried at rallies but also it was circulating community newspapers, like Basta Ya!, which was created in association with the Black Panthers.
And Oree Originol’s piece, which opens the exhibition, is really emblematic of how these artists are working in a digital space. This work started with Oscar Grant. Oree is originally from California and moved to the Bay Area in 2014. He came upon an annual vigil to remember the life of Oscar Grant and that event really impacted him, and it started this project Justice for Our Lives, in which Oree reached out to family members of victims of police brutality and requested photographs of their deceased loved ones, and then created these digital images that he made available on a Tumblr site for people to download and use. He just completed the project in 2020; he wanted to create 100 portraits, and he’s reached that number. Over the summer, he created images of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which are in the exhibition. This work demonstrates artists’ interest in an engagement and providing the community with tools to do their own activism.
Lalo Alcaraz’s I Stand with Emma (2018) also got me thinking about Chicanx graphics in the digital space. This came across my social platform screen, and when I saw this, it hit me: “This is part of this history.” It’s circulating in a different way. It’s not something that I could hold onto in terms of an actual print, but it’s being disseminated and responding immediately to events much the same way that the Royal Chicano Air Force was responding to news of the UFW coming to town. It’s very much in the same spirit, but what’s shifted is its production and the way that it travels through space and time.
How do you think the exhibition connects to our current moment and the protests that were sparked last summer after the police killing of George Floyd?
By 2017, it was very clear that activism was on the rise in the United States, so it was clear that this exhibition would resonate with American audiences across the board. I think the show become more and more relevant as we continued to organize it, and as events like Charlottesville or the Black Lives Matter movement took place, there was a growing intensity throughout this project. I wanted to make sure that we positioned Chicanx artists and their cross-cultural collaborators as being part of these dialogues and how efforts to blend art and aesthetics with activism have these very deep roots and to show that connection. That through-line from the past to the present is really important.
When the killing of George Floyd happened, it was obviously very difficult for many of us to see that. But even before that, we had decided that the exhibition was going to start with a work about police brutality. I was aware that that was a risk, and I wasn’t sure how the world would respond to that, to be honest. The first works that you see when you enter the show are Oree Orignol’s Justice for Our Lives (2014–20), about recent police killings, and Amado M. Peña Jr.’s Aquellos que han muerto (1975), about Santos Rodriguez, a 12-year-old boy who was senselessly killed by a police officer in Dallas. Amado Peña created this work in the midst of the ongoing protests around his killing. I wanted to bring those two works into conversation right at the beginning of the show, not only to emphasize this through-line but how these issues are still with us. Police brutality was also an issue during the civil rights era—this is not a new thing. Immigration reform is not a new thing. All of these are issues that we’re still debating with as a nation. I think it emphasizes how much our democracy is still an unfinished project.
Obviously, the show is incredibly relevant and perfectly timed in many ways to the events of today in that it’s showing this how the histories of what we’re debating today have very deep roots and how Latinx artists have really pioneered bringing these issues to the fore in an artistic way. This moment of historical reckoning in terms of how we define our history as a nation can also be read that throughout the exhibition. I think many institutions today are having these discussions: “How are we presenting American history?” One of the largest sections in the show looks at how Chicanx artists and the other artists in the show have reframed American history. These artists from the get-go have prioritized the experiences of BIPOC people, and I think that we can really learn from that. Institutions can learn from that in terms of how they’re defining American history and what voices and what experiences have been left out.