Visit any gallery and you likely won’t find a single work produced by a Latinx artist. Though U.S. Census estimates show the Hispanic population reached a record high 60.6 million people in 2019, Hispanic artists remain woefully underrepresented in American art institutions. In fact, a 2019 study from researchers at Williams College and the University of California, Los Angeles found Hispanic and Latino artists accounted for just 2.8 percent of the artists featured in 18 major American museums.
Fortunately for the Latinx community, the West Orange Arts Council is unwilling to accept such a startling discrepancy. “Visiones de Identidad: A Latinx Perspective” — the council’s latest exhibit that’s running both virtually on the WOAC website and in-person at the West Orange Arts Center through Dec. 12 — puts the spotlight on the long overlooked Hispanic community by highlighting the works of 12 Latinx artists based in the New York area.
At the same time, it’s paying tribute to a culture that rarely gets the credit it deserves.
“The Latin community is an important community because it’s offered so much in terms of its history and everything in America that’s evolved from it,” exhibit co-curator Maria Estrela said, adding that Hispanics “need to be represented and need the support of everybody.”
The show features paintings, photographs and even horseshoe crab shell art produced by artists hailing from Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and beyond. The subject matter of the work is just as diverse as the artists themselves. Exhibit patrons will find depictions of everything from animals to musicians to abstract imagery, with no two artists sharing the same style.
This eclectic mix was deliberate, according to co-curator Rey Arvelo. Though people might
assume a Latinx exhibit would emphasize Hispanic themes, Arvelo said the show was always meant to highlight the artists’ unique perspectives rather than their cultural heritage. By doing so, he said the exhibit conveys the true spirit behind the term “Latinx” — a collection of genders, nationalities and voices.
“It’s inclusivity — that’s the whole point,” Arvelo continued. “The Latinx community is not one (identity) or anything. It’s a plethora of stories. And I hope that gets across to people and it makes a difference. I hope that sparks conversations.”
Two of Arvelo’s own works featured in the show actually do touch upon his Puerto Rican heritage — though not directly. Drawing on his love of biology, the artist painted plants and organisms that reflect stories related to Puerto Rico. For instance, on the surface his work “Colonial Superiority and a Zooid” is just a painting of a Portuguese man o’ war towering over zooids, but it really symbolizes Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. as an American territory.
Estrela’s photographs in the exhibit are also rife with symbolism. Those photos — titled “Transition I” and “Transition II” — feature the blurred image of a musician joyously playing his keyboard at a Latin jazz festival. The 3-D blurred effect was actually an accident, but the photographer loved the power of the imagery after seeing it for the first time. In her mind, she said the blurring stands for how artists enter a new dimension when they create, their spirits connecting on a higher level.
It’s exciting to have her work displayed in the show, but Estrela is even more thrilled by the fact she was able to make “Visiones de Identidad” a reality in the first place. As she explained, the exhibit originated as a one-off show Estrela arranged for Bloomfield’s Hispanic Heritage Month celebration this year. Wishing she could do more to bring attention to local Latinx artists, she jumped at the chance to expand that show into a full exhibit when WOAC Chairwoman Patricia Mitrano approached her with the idea for “Visiones de Identidad.” But she didn’t want to work alone.
Having never curated an exhibit before, Estrela asked Arvelo to partner with her on “Visiones de Identidad,” and the duo quickly set out to find the most diverse collection of Hispanic artists they could assemble without any limitations on the themes or sizes of the works. Just two weeks later, the curators had made their selections and installed all 31 pieces in the West Orange Arts Center.
And while Estrela and Arvelo’s hard work certainly made the exhibit what it is, Estrela acknowledged the show would not be possible without the WOAC’s support.
“It’s like a dream,” Estrela said, explaining that the WOAC gave the curators freedom to pursue their creative vision for the exhibit. “I really don’t like to have restrictions on what we should do or not do. I want to be able to do what we are envisioning. And (the WOAC) never put restrictions on us, so that was a good thing. I’m really blessed they opened the doors for us and trusted our judgment on how we put the show together.”
Arvelo, who moonlights as the West Orange Arts Center’s volunteer gallery manager, is also grateful the WOAC offered Estrela and him the rare opportunity to curate “Visiones de Identidad” exactly as they saw fit. He’s additionally glad the organization is giving people the chance to discover new works when many galleries have closed. At a time when everyone is under stress due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Arvelo encourages everyone to check out the show online or in-person and experience the healing power of art. They won’t regret it, he promised.
“We need art,” Arvelo said. “We need anything that can get our minds not back to normal, but into a safe place.”
Those interested in “Visiones de Identidad: A Latinx Perspective” can view the virtual gallery at https://www.westorangeartscouncil.org. People can also experience the show in-person by visiting the West Orange Arts Center, though appointments are required to ensure social distancing. To reserve your time, email email@example.com.