Since the 1960s, Chicanx artists have used graphic arts to educate and agitate, presenting a vast array of political and social themes designed to challenge the status quo. Their artworks are declarations of political advocacy, cross-cultural solidarity, and an effort to reclaim past histories. Radical Histories: Chicanx Prints from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is a continuation of SAAM’s first exhibition on the subject, the landmark ¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now.
While ¡Printing the Revolution! examined the rise of Chicano graphics as a movement and the continued advancement of innovative printmaking practices attuned to social justice, Radical Histories concentrates on Chicanx artists’ efforts to contest and reassert multiple views of American history. It focuses on artists creating graphic counter-histories—from ancient to contemporary times—defying notions of American exceptionalism, heteronormativity, whiteness, and borders.
Radical Histories features 60 works drawn from SAAM’s leading collection of Latinx art. The museum’s Chicanx graphics holdings rose significantly with an important gift in 1995 from the renowned scholar Tomás Ybarra-Frausto. Since then, other major donations and an ambitious acquisition program have built one of the largest museum collections of Chicanx graphics on the East Coast. Radical Histories includes work by more than 40 artists and collectives including Lalo Alcaraz, Yreina D. Cervántez, Dignidad Rebelde (Jesus Barraza and Melanie Cervantes), Juan Fuentes, Rupert García, Ester Hernandez, Luis Jiménez, Alma Lopez, Yolanda López, Malaquias Montoya, Royal Chicano Air Force, among others.
Radical Histories showcases Chicanx artists’ role in using political graphics to galvanize community support around issues of labor equality. They were pivotal in supporting the farm workers’ movements of California and Texas, creating vivid images using satire, politicized pop, and conceptualism, while also embracing innovative DIY printmaking methods. Chicanx artists employed sequential art narratives based on established traditions such as Mexican codices, reimagined popular calendar formats, and created elaborate multilingual event posters to augment political actions and bring awareness to anti-war and pro-peace movements. They continue to grapple with recurring themes such as the grim realities of immigration and violence in borderlands.
The exhibition also explores commemorative portraiture, a prominent art form that Chicanx artists utilize to reconceive the story of America. Using photographs as references, Chicanx artists resurrect and memorialize unknown and underrepresented artists and historical figures to provide long-overdue recognition for the important societal contributions of individuals who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color.
Highlighting the importance of language in Chicanx graphics, the exhibition examines the interplay between text and image—exploring use of poetry, graffiti, and historical quotations, among other literary devices— in the artists’ efforts to reconceive America.