Latino American Artists Ready For Their Close-Up in St. Petersburg

Dec 28, 2016

Hispanic artists have long been part of the visual landscape in Florida and in other parts of the country. But often, Latino art is overlooked. That's why the Smithsonian American Art Museum is growing its collection of Latino art and created an exhibit to reflect America's evolving culture. That show is now on the road and currently in St. Petersburg. 

Tucked inside the foyer of the Museum of Fine Art's columned entrance, DJ Pedro is spinning tracks while families dance along Beach Drive. Others watch as a chef from La Nueva Cantina is preparing fresh salsa. Nearby, students from Tampa's Leto High School file out of the museum after getting a tour of "Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art."

"It was like an explanation as to how American culture wasn't just strictly Anglo-American culture," said student Erick Castro. "It incorporates lots of different ideas."

Like many students at Leto High School, Castro is Hispanic. A son of immigrants from Columbia and Guatemala, he says he rarely gets to see his culture in art. For Cuban-American student Maria Fleitas, seeing a photograph of two empty chairs facing each other on a beach also connected on a personal level.

"First I was sad because I was really thinking about my grandpa and how I didn't get to say goodbye," she said. "But at the same time I was happy because I know that he's still looking out for me."

That photograph was shot by Iliana Emilia Garcia-a Brooklyn based artist born in the Dominican Republic. It's one of about 75 works by 60 artists in the "Our America" exhibit, which also features artists with roots in Cuba, Puerto Rico and Mexico.

From paintings to sculpture, the contemporary exhibit displays a wide diversity of styles. But MFA curator Jerry Smith says there is a unifying thread. To challenge expectations of what it means to be American.

"A lot of people think of America and it conjures up images of a Norman Rockwell painting," he said. "So often these artists are left out of the canon and this shows that these artists have been there all along."

"Our America" explores themes like identity and tradition, and the exhibition notes are written in English and Spanish. While the show gives museums an opportunity to reach out to a broader audience, Smith says it has wider appeal.

"People like myself," he said. "I've trained in American art and yet I'm learning about new artists that I feel I should have known about already."

Xavier Viramontes "Boycott Grapes, Support the United Farm Workers Union."
Credit Smithsonian American Art Museum

Some of those artists include Maria Brito from Miami, a painter and sculptor whose work evokes themes of displacement and loss. She came to America in 1961 by way of "Operation Pedro Pan" which brought thousands of unaccompanied Cuban children to the U.S. The exhibit also features the most well-known image from Mexican- American artist Xavier Viramotes, the lithograph poster, "Boycott Grapes." It depicts an Aztec warrior smashing grapes with his fists as a protest against pesticide use and its effect on migrant workers.

But the exhibit is more than a story of struggle. Several works in the show are contemporary pieces that simply reflect the art of its era. 

But more importantly to the students at Leto High School, it's a reflection of their cultural identity. 

Their teacher Henry Bryson says he's a little surprised at how much the "Our America" exhibit resonated with his students.

"Hopefully this country can remember to embrace our immigrant population and that they're some of the hardest working and best people I've ever had the privilege to know," he said.

And at a time when tensions over race is at the forefront of our national conversation, the museum's curator says art may help change perceptions and provide an antidote to some of our cultural divides. 

"Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art," is on view at The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg through January 22nd.