In September 2017, the Trump administration announced that it would end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. By spring 2018, President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy had separated more than three thousand migrant and refugee families at the US-Mexico border. As construction began on an unprecedented border wall, President Trump stood before the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 2018, and stated, “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” The relationship between the United States and its Latin American neighbors is growing increasingly contentious. The shared values that undergirded civic life in the United States—namely liberty, equality, and democracy—are under ever more urgent threats.
In this moment, I could not help but recall the Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar’s provocative This Is Not America which was projected in New York’s Times Square in 1987. Jaar critiqued the United States’ coopting of the designation “America” to the exclusion of the remainder of the hemisphere, and his declaration has taken on an unforeseen poignancy in the Trumpian age. Visual culture created across Latin America, the United States, and in diaspora has been interconnected with social activism for centuries. The study and critical analysis of Latin American and Latinx visual culture has never been more vital.
Each issue of Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture brings together sophisticated scholarship on Latin American and Latinx art, with topics ranging from the art of ancient cultures to colonial and nineteenth-century research as well as modern and contemporary subjects. LALVC is a platform for academic discourse, debate, and analysis that crosses borders and bridges divisions from interdisciplinary and transnational perspectives. Its scholarly contributors come from around the world to address the intellectual, methodological, and pedagogical challenges of working in these fields in the twenty-first century.
This first issue of LALVC represents the current state of the field of Latin American and Latinx visual culture studies in its global context. The contents exemplify the chronological, geographical, and methodological breadth that we aim to put forward in every subsequent issue. From publicity journals of energy companies and dream diaries to imported Flemish dolls and poignant documentary photographs, these pages cover an interdisciplinary spectrum of Latin American and Latinx visual culture. Unintentionally on the part of the editors, but tellingly, the essays here all interrogate the relationship between cultural identity and cultural production.
Kaitlin M. Murphy’s analysis of Mexican photojournalist Moysés Zúñiga Santiago’s series La Bestia (The Beast, c. 2011–16) opens the issue. Taking as his subject matter Central American migrants who use Mexico’s freight trains to travel to the US-Mexico border, Zúñiga draws our “attention to bodies and experiences that are otherwise systemically overlooked, and to the violence and gross human rights violations that are so deeply embedded our transnational economic system,” as Murphy puts it. Zúñiga’s documentary photography bears witness to the struggle to survive that is embedded in the experience of contemporary migration at the same time that it reshapes the viewer’s perception of the humanity of the migrant subjects depicted.
Byron Ellsworth Hamann’s “Producing Idols” considers the destruction, creation, excavation, and commodification of idols in sixteenth-century New Spain. At a time when “false images seemed to be everywhere,” postconquest Mesoamerican cultural production was shaped by the actions of both Indigenous Americans and Europeans. While it is well known that Christian discourse labeled American sacred objects “idols” in the early colonial period, testimonies like the ones found in the records of Diego de Landa’s 1560s extirpation campaign indicate that many of the objects brought to the Franciscans were in fact newly created or rehabilitated. In this dynamic cultural environment, idol commodification blossomed in response to demand from European and Indigenous parties. Drawing on extensive research in primary sources ranging from official reports and Inquisition documents to dictionaries, Hamman reworks James Lockhart’s concept of Double Mistaken Identity to demonstrate how preconquest Mesoamerican and European histories were activated in the cultural entanglement of early modern New Spain.
In her study of commercial lithographic maps, “Unfolding Maps during the Maximato in Mexico,” Delia Cosentino investigates what it meant to be Mexican during the postrevolutionary Maximato period between 1928 and 1934. She focuses on the cartographic reinterpretation of Mexican geography as a unique cultural landscape in the works of Miguel Gómez Medina, Emily Edwards, and Carlos Mérida. At the behest of government and corporate patrons, these artists created maps with unprecedented cartographic scale and focus on Mexico City, designed to recalibrate Mexico’s national reputation on the world stage. Mexico’s capital city was a cultural and economic center driven by technological evolution at the same time that it was reimagining its relationship to its Indigenous past.
The Latino artist Raphael Montañez Ortiz was a key figure in intellectual and social movements in the mid-twentieth-century United States, and instrumental in the creation of new artistic forms such as recycled film and music, mixed-media sculpture, installation, performance art, guerilla theater, piano destruction concerts, and computer art. However, as Chon A. Noriega demonstrates in “‘Emptiness Is Fullness’: Raphael Montañez Ortiz’s Early Destructivist Works, 1957–58,” Ortiz is largely absent from the history of US modern and contemporary art. Noriega uses Ortiz’s earliest destructivist works, recycled films created between 1957 and 1958, to explore how Ortiz’s story is the story of the time in which he produced his art. In contrast to Bruce Conner’s A MOVIE (1958), Ortiz dismantled the master narrative of modern art in his 1957 film Golf, in which he used a hole punch to perforate at random a 16mm golf tutorial film. Part biography, part revisionist art history, part social commentary, and part postcolonial critique, this essay thoroughly challenges the accepted history of avant-garde film in the United States.
Each issue of LALVC includes a “Dialogues” section where guest editors gather scholars from across the field and around the world to discuss and debate critical issues related to the study of Latin American and Latinx visual culture. For the first edition, Cecelia F. Klein, professor emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles, gathers six contributions on the state of the field of Pre-Columbian art history from an international group of academic and museum professionals. As she states in her introduction, “All were asked . . . to answer the questions from the perspective of their own particular geographic location, academic training, professional experiences and responsibilities, research interests, and moment along their career trajectory, and to consider the current and future of the field as a whole.” The responses gleaned discuss the history of Pre-Columbian art history, the growth of the field, the financial and interdisciplinary challenges faced by scholars working in the United States and across Latin America and Europe, and opportunities for the study of Pre-Columbian art history in the twenty-first century. Contributions from Thomas B. F. Cummins, Lisa Trever, Jesper Nielsen, Elizabeth Baquedano, Matthew H. Robb, and Joanne Pillsbury demonstrate the need to reframe the study of Pre-Columbian visual culture using new strategies such as “decoloniality” and “global indigeneity.” This “Dialogues” section demonstrates how Pre-Columbian art history as a scholarly discipline is inseparable from Latin American and Latinx visual culture and can point the way toward the future of the field.