BETSY BROUN: My name is Betsy Broun, I’m the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. There are so many wonderful pieces in the exhibition called, “Our America.” It’s hard to choose, but among my personal favorites are the three works by Margarita Cabrera. She did a “Brown Blender,” a “White Coffee Maker,” and a “Black and Grey Toaster,” and the three of them are objects I want in my kitchen.
She has managed to make works of incredible charm. They are made out of vinyl plastic, sewn together with copper wire and thread, so they have a kind of way of looking slumped, slightly exhausted, a little as if they’ve just been through a very long day. They have bits and pieces of threads where they’ve been sewn sort of hanging out the edges, so you can actually see that they’ve been stitched together, and they’re just very evocative. I’m sure they, in some ways, harken back to the soft sculpture of Claes Oldenburg, but they have an entirely new kind of vitality to them, a liveliness. They feel to me like organic, living things. A charm, a kind of familiar but different quality.
And then of course, they also have a very important political point to make. Margarita Cabrera was actually born in Monterey, Mexico, and I believe part of what she wants us to think about is the labor that goes into making our kitchen appliances. So many of these appliances that we buy for just a few dollars in the store are actually assembled in factories in Mexico, where the workers are paid very, very little. There’s an awful lot of labor and not a lot of money in that process, and I think by showing us the stitching and the slumped plastic, and calling our attention to the labor in the work, she’s also making a very, very important point about how the objects in our lives are sourced. So, to me, these pieces have it all. They have charm, but they also have a lingering, lasting, thoughtful aspect to them.
Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art presents the rich and varied contributions of Latino artists in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, when the concept of a collective Latino identity began to emerge. The exhibition is drawn entirely from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s pioneering collection of Latino art. It explores how Latino artists shaped the artistic movements of their day and recalibrated key themes in American art and culture.