Arts Magazine: Yoltéotl

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Yoltéotl: An exhibition of works by five Minnesota artists from the Chicano and Latino communities proclaims a rich diversity.

Yoltéotl" an exhibition on display in the Minnesota Gallery beginning October 13, 1992 is a living lesson in the paradoxes and obfuscations of labels. Yoltéotl is a Nahuatl word (a language indigenous to Mexico and Central America) that means "with a heart rooted in God." The exhibition gathers together contemporary artists with roots in Mexico, South America, the Caribbean and Spain, seeking to promote awareness of these often overlooked cultures. But rather than revealing a uniform category of people and styles, "Yoltéotl" proclaims a rich diversity and pays tribute to individuality and uniqueness.

Organized by guest curator Armando Gutierrez G., "Yoltéotl" alludes to the origin of the artistic process in the artist's heart and spirit. In its native Mexican and Mesoamerican context, the work described the true artist-one who conversed with the heart. The five artists in the show are indeed linked in their keen connections to their roots and their sensibilities to both the outer and inner worlds. Yet together they defy containment under one category.

"I was not looking for commonalities as far as styles are concerned," says Gutierrez, a Mexican muralist and native of El Paso who has lived in Minnesota since 1972. "The artists come from different walks of life and from different people from the Americas at this time of year, as people are aware of the Columbus quincentennial." The preview opening of the exhibition on October 12, 1992 was chosen to coincide with Dia de la Raza, a Latin American holiday, which is a day when cultural differences become significant and are celebrated according to Gutierrez.

The exhibition's title was also carefully chosen to acknowledge that cultures existed in the Americas before the Europeans arrived. But at the same time the exhibition tells an intricate story of the artists' myriad influences-native, European, political, psychological-and their unique syntheses.

Robert Coane, a native of Puerto Rico, uses oil on canvas as the vehicle for his political activism. "Some people throw bombs," he says, "I throw paint." His painterly political cartoons, three of which are featured in the exhibition, reveal a muralist's lexicon of ingenious symbolism and a satirist's acid edge.

In The Vision Thing, for instance, a flag-draped George Bush peers through rose-colored glasses apparently oblivious to the multitude of signs that indicate all is not well in paradise. Japanese flags loom: He is flanked by a child in a dunce cap, an allusion to the high illiteracy rates in the U.S., and by another child in an electric chair, a reference to rising juvenile crime and capital punishment. A stethoscope, a pink triangle, a clothes hanger, a biblical quotation in Latin-no element of the picture is gratuitous.

"My sociopolitical narratives are not mass appeal pieces," says Coane, an ardent proponent of Puerto Rican independence from the U.S. "They require a certain level of education, historical sense and intellectual curiosity."

Because of this, Coane insists that explanations of the iconography accompany these paintings when they are exhibited. In Y Los Cuentos, Cuentos Son (And with Tales of Freedom: An Allegory of the Americas), for example, Coane lists chronologically by country all U.S. interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean since the enactment of the Monroe Doctrine.

Artistic technique plays a crucial role in establishing the credibility of his message. "I decided a long time ago that I was going to do the best possible art so that my work could not be dismissed as trash by conservative critics," says Coane, who began studying art in Puerto Rico and later moved to New York City, where he taught art at Parsons School of Art and Design, and at his own studio.

Using as metaphors the motions of swimming and flying, Maria Santiago seeks to portray the common human enterprise of negotiating in uncharted territory, encountering obstacles and finding new passages.

Her large abstract oil paintings, Swimming in My Mind and Night Flying, have emerged from posing the questions to herself and the viewer-Where am I, and Where am I going?

"Swimming and flying are the symbolic motions of the unconscious mind," explains Santiago, mentioning her appreciation of Jungian symbols and archetypes. "For me both actions signify traveling through consciousness with courage, making one's way around barriers and negotiating the unknown."

"When a person emerges from one passage, others will inevitably present themselves," says Santiago, a native of upstate New York who has lived in Minnesota for 16 years. "You don't emerge into certitude. There is an element of chaos, because life itself is unresolved. Certitude is a trap. Comfort is an illusion, because things are always in a state of flux, they are always changing."

Santiago attributes her parlance in metaphors and in metaphysical queries in part to the influence of her father, a native of Spain and a spiritual medium and healer. "He was a medieval Spaniard in the wrong place and time," she says. "He was very metaphysical and spiritual and interested in symbols. I used to facetiously call him the man from out of town."

Maria inherited a similar since of displacement. Since childhood, she said, she has explored these questions of negotiation and one's place and compels viewers to question their own placement and passage.

Let's play a word-association game, suggests Ray Roybal. Ready? American art.Images of soupcans; idyllic Midwestern towns; family scenes on front porches.

It's a safe bet that Aztec symbols and images of wise women and people with brown skin and eyes would not perch on even the fringes of the mind. And that is a racist blind spot that Chicano artist Ray Roybal is striving to eradicate.

"There are 15 to 25 million Mexican Americans in the United States," he says. "We are Americans. It's as simple as that. It's time for this country to stop groveling in Eurocentrism and come out and meet the OTHER."

Roybal hails from northern New Mexico, his ancestral home dating back to before 1848, when that part of Mexico was annexed by the United States. He is a longtime Minnesota resident and has been an important proponent of the Chicano movement in the Twin Cities.

But in those 30 some years of activism, claims Roybal, "I have had no chance to describe myself." The Mexican American culture, he states, has suffered from at best ignorant distortions of their experience and at worst vituperous hostility and economic exclusion.

Despite the pressure to conform, Roybal has clung tenaciously to a heritage that would otherwise have been asphyxiated by Anglo culture. "A lot of people think that multiculturalism is something new," he says, "And of course it is for those whose minds have been filled with Eurocentric propaganda. We Chicanos have been working on multiculturalism for decades. To then we say, 'Welcome aboard! Where have you been?'"

His images are replete with symbols and stories from his native roots-from the indigenous people of Mexico, the characters of migrant worker camps, the inner-city barrio. His Cuentos: Don Cacahuate y Doña Cebolla(Tales of Mr. Peanut and Mrs. Onion), one of the paintings by Roybal featured in "Yoltéotl," was inspired by the curandera-that is, the woman healer-who used to babysit him in his childhood and told stories precisely, he now realizes, for the purpose of preserving the community's Mexican identity."Thitry or so children would gather around her to listen to these wonderful stories," recalls Roybal. "She told them so we wouldn't forget who we were."

Renato Lombardi, a recent arrival to Minnesota from Argentina, is multilingual in more than the verbal way. Adept in Portuguese, Spanish and English, Lombardi also speaks different languages of creativity-he is a musician, a poet, an actor and a visual artist.

"These are all different languages that I use to talk about the same thing," says Lombardi, who is 27. "They are branches that grow from the same trunk." Painting is one of his most recently learned languages. His abstract paintings, two of which are featured in the exhibition, focus on texture, color and shape. Lombardi particularly enjoys painting in what he calls "the colors of the earth and the sun," important to the indigenous people of South America. Reds and purples figure prominently. This preference may also have something to do with the fact that, he says with a smile, "when I started painting I got only red and blue. I didn't have enough money for the others."

The abstract work, he says, is intuitive, and Lombardi trusts the shapes and colors to communicate the significance to the viewer. "We who have been educated in the European manner are so verbal. We insist on scientific confirmation. Other cultures, like the Mayans, believe in the power of nature and in listening to it. We have lost these strengths."

Silence, he says, has its own sound and its own colors, which often find expression in his abstract paintings.

From the time she was five years old, Amy Cordova wanted to be an artist. "And every September, at the start of school, I looked forward to getting that box of Crayola Sixty-fours," she says.

Today, Amy Cordova is an artist and she works with oil pastels ("like luscious, rich crayons") and the voluptuous colors and images of her Hispanic heritage.

Her works portray a world of creatures, children, mothers, grandmothers, spiritual forces and archetypes.

Her Nuestra Senñora (Our Lady) works combine evocations of the traditional Roman Catholic tributes to Mary the mother with native symbols and earth images, creating a new icon that is at once specific to her New Mexican culture and timeless and universal its symbolism. "Much of my work is about connecting, about relationships-mother and child, connecting to the earth and to our emotions and spirit," says Cordova, who grew up in southwestern Wisconsin. Her work is also about transcending boundaries between cultures and between the emotional and rational sides of the mind.

Cordova's Nuestra Señora del Nuevo Mundo (Our Lady of the New World), featured in "Yoltéotl," emerged from her research into the conquest of Mexico while she was on the committee developing the Native Views counterpart to the "First Encounter 1492" exhibition at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Corte's native slave woman, called La Malinche, serves in this picture as the Virgin Mother. La Malinche bore a child by Cortes and is considered the mother of the mestizos(persons of mixed native and European ancestry) of Mexico.

"My deepest emotions provide the power for my creativity, and I try always to lift up, to search for harmony," says Cordova.

Holly Bridges Elliott is a freelance writer and editor who lives in St. Paul. She is a member of the speakers bureau of the Resource Center of the Americas, specializing in presentations on alternative celebrations of the Columbus quincentennial.

Citation: Holly Bridges Elliot, "Yoltéotl: An exhibition of works by five Minnesota artists from the Chicano and Latino communities proclaims a rich diversity." Arts 15, no. 10 (October 1992) : 15-18.