“¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now” at SAAM
CLAUDIA ZAPATA: This exhibition features the best of the best of Chicano art history. “Sun Mad” by Ester Hernandez, “You Are Not a Minority!!” by Mario Torero, “Cesen Deportacion!” by Rupert Garcia, “Yo Soy Chicano” by Malaquias Montoya.
CR: But the show really continues to the present day because this graphic arts movement that emerged during the Civil Rights era is still thriving among artists working today. One of the most important concepts, I think, for this exhibition is one of engagement. Many artists define themselves as activists that use their own creativity to support and raise visibility for social justice in the United States. For example, there were several artists that supported the efforts of Cesar Chaves and Dolores Huerta to organize farm workers.
The 1960s and ‘70s were a transformative moment in American culture. The Mexican-American community responded to really the example of the African American Civil Rights movement and started to define what civil rights meant to them, what it meant to be a person of Mexican descent in the United States. Many artists were interested in investigating aspects of Chicano culture and defining that culture really for the first time in a public kind of way.
CZ: In 1970, Ruben Salazar famously wrote, “A Chicano is a Mexican American with a non-Anglo image of himself.” When Ruben Salazar defined what it was to be Chicano, it was at a very specific moment when people were really reclaiming and embracing their identities. They no longer were accepting of being these marginalized communities. They have continued since then, constantly fighting this battle of being interpreted as less than.
Looking back at Salazar’s definition, we really have gone beyond it. I always see Chicano as this open-source concept. Using the example from computer software language where there’s a bit of code that’s constantly and collaboratively always updated and improved. In this exhibition, you’ll see several forms of the Chicano term, from Chicano to Chicana to Chicanx. The term Chicano has progressed and evolved, but people still hold onto it. That’s the most important part, and they want to acknowledge its validity and its power, and they want to stay connected to the elders that really began the fight. Chicano, originally, is very much about loving oneself.
CR: The graphic medium is so important as a site of this articulation of Chicano and Mexican-American identity because it was affordable. It was easy to reproduce and disseminate, and it was also an artform that could be public. Many of the works in the exhibition are posters meant to be displayed in public space, meant to convey information about an event or a cause.
CZ: In present day, this sort of dissemination happens now in the digital sphere. More of digital works may have never existed in paper form. Often times, artists create these works in order to share quickly a message across social media networks. Anyone can download the works, print it, and use it in a protest.
CR: The Chicano graphic movement was inclusive from the very start, incorporating people that were non-Chicano. We wanted to make sure to acknowledge that. In “Printing the Revolution,” you’ll see works by white artists, you’ll see works by Latinx artists from other communities, you’ll see works by Asian-American artists. It really reflects the cross-cultural nature of activism. Artists today are continuing to explore some of the themes and issues that emerged in a very public way in the 1960s; immigration reform was something that emerged strongly in the early 1970s and continues today among artists.
CZ: Several artworks feature victims of police brutality from the 1970s to present day.
CR: Part of what’s revealed is that, of course, our social goals to create a more perfect union are incomplete.
CZ: There’s never been an exhibition like “Printing the Revolution.” An exhibition of this scope is rare, and no exhibition prior has included digital images.
CR: This exhibition I thought was very well matched to the Smithsonian American Art Museum because it has been the goal of our Latinx Territorial program to really document the work of Latinx artists who have been largely excluded from the narratives of American art. We were very interested in bringing this amazing history to light, to share it with our audiences, and to really investigate the perspectives of Chicano artists that have led us to think about American history in a whole new way.
In the 1960s, activist Chicano artists forged a remarkable history of printmaking that remains vital today. Many artists came of age during the civil rights, labor, anti-war, feminist and LGBTQ+ movements and channeled the period’s social activism into assertive aesthetic statements that announced a new political and cultural consciousness among people of Mexican descent in the United States. ¡Printing the Revolution! explores the rise of Chicano graphics within these early social movements and the ways in which Chicanx artists since then have advanced innovative printmaking practices attuned to social justice.