Social Iconography and Graphics in Mexican and Chicano Art

The bilingual exhibition All the Signs are (T)Here: Social Iconography in Mexican and Chicano Art from Collections at The University of Texas at Austin emerges from my research this year as the Mellon Curatorial Fellow of Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art at the Blanton. As a Mellon Fellow, I sought to learn more about Mexican and Chicano works because they reflect a part of the Latin American populace that resides in Austin and in the United States.

Protest/Strike Sign, available upon special request, from the archives of the Benson Latin American Collection, from the series Historical Present, 2014 Archival inkjet print Housed at the Benson Latin American Collection at The University of Texas at Austin, part of John L. Warfield Collection for African and African American Studies
Protest/Strike Sign, available upon special request, from the archives of the Benson Latin American Collection, from the series Historical Present, 2014, Archival inkjet print, Housed at the Benson Latin American Collection at The University of Texas at Austin, part of John L. Warfield Collection for African and African American Studies

One of the many fortuitous discoveries during my research was Ricky Yanas’s 2014 Protest/Strike Sign, Available upon Special Request, From the Archives of the Benson Latin American Collection. The photograph tells a Texan Chicano narrative that also interweaves various other Chicano histories. The work depicts a sign used in the 1971 Austin Chicano Huelga, a strike staged by predominantly Mexican American workers in Austin, Texas. California-based civil rights leader César Chávez led the strike—which was part of the ultimately successful effort to gain bargaining rights with the strikers’ employer, Economy Furniture Company. The photograph not only succinctly outlines the historical and political context of Chicano history, it also plays upon art historical references: the clean lines of the sign’s handle and the dark molding along the floor divide the image into distinct planes reminiscent of geometric abstraction and minimalism. The black floorboard visually extends the sign to form an inverted cross, evocative of the Christian symbol of humility.

I discovered the artworks featured in my exhibition while reviewing The University of Texas at Austin’s collections as part of my curatorial research. All the works I included are drawn from those research collections, like Yanas’ photograph of a sign held in the archives of UT’s Benson Library. His work was exhibited at the John L. Warfield Center for African and African American Art in the exhibition at the exhibition Historical Present curated by Rose Salseda. The photograph is now part of the Warfield Collection.

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Installation view of All the Signs are (T)Here, Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin, Photo by Milli Apelgren

All the Signs are (T)Here makes connections between Chicano histories (Texan, Texican, and otherwise) as well as between Mexican and Chicano histories.  In most museum shows, these artistic practices have been narrated and exhibited separately. The exhibition at the Blanton, however, explores relationships between their shared histories. From mural movements to print workshops, Mexican and Chicano art is known for its emphasis on legible graphic communication as well as its social and political aims. All the Signs are (T)Here brings together a range of expressions—including many works reflecting upon or participating in popular and material culture—featuring the work of artists who playfully rework the tropes of these legacies. It considers the ‘graphic’ both in terms of graphic design—the way finding systems from exit signs to gendered symbols indicating which bathroom to use—and graphic content: images which depict violence or sex in ways that disturb. The exhibition considers the various ways artists use the sign, from social justice endeavors to formalist pursuits, as a flexible social directive that invites interpretation from the audience. The works on view deal with historical moments ranging from the post-revolutionary reforms of 1920s Mexico, to the undeclared Guerra sucia (Dirty War) in the 1960s and 1970s, to the workers rights and UndocuQueer movement in 20th century and contemporary Texas.

Manuel Felguérez
Manuel Felguérez, Signo convexo, 1975, Painted metal, 10 in. x 12 3/8 in. x 11 1/2 in., Archer M. Huntington Museum Fund, 1975.

The exhibition also features examples from the Benson Collection, including a Guided Meditation and reading from the book Borderlands/La Frontera by its author, Gloria Anzaldúa courtesy of the Gloria Anzaldúa Trust and Puro Chingon Collective. In addition to these collections, the show also features work from the Blanton’s collection by artists Pedro Friedeberg, Francisco Dosamantes, Manuel Felguerez (pictured here), Alfredo Zalce, and Anton Vidokle. [2] Also on view is a screen print by Patssi Valdez that is part of the promised gift to the Blanton of more than 350 Self Help Graphics collection prints from Gilberto Cárdenas.

A showcase of the Mexican and Chicano resources at UT’s research institutions, All the Signs are (T)Here features works that reflect upon key historical moments of possibility and change. I will lead a gallery tour of the exhibition on May 21 and look forward to continuing the conversation about these works and UT’s Mexican and Chicano communities.

Alexis Salas is a PhD candidate in Art and Art History at UT Austin, and the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Latin American Art at the Blanton. She received her BA in History of Art and Spanish from Amherst College and her MA in Art History from the University of Chicago. Alexis also studied at Universität der Künste Berlin and at the California Institute of the Arts prior to working toward her PhD. Salas has been a recipient of the Jacob Javits Fellowship, Fulbright Fellowship, the DAAD Fellowship, and several awards to conduct research, teach, and lecture in Latin America, Europe and North America. Her research interests concern socially engaged art practices and the social role of the artist.

[1] Independent of my research, the forthcoming book The Collections: The University of Texas at Austin, edited by Andrée Bober will explore UT’s holdings.

[2] Blanton visitors may remember Anton Vidokle’s 2003 Nuevo [New] which the museum featured in its permanent collection exhibition for several years. M Manuel Felguérez’ 1975 Signo convexo [Convex Sign] was exhibited in the 1970s at what was then called the University Art Museum.

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