Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 1, 2020
To Tame a Wild Tongue: Art after Chicanismo
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, in person (May 21–August 23, 2020) and online (ongoing)
Ramiro Gomez, No Splash (After David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, 1967), 2013, acrylic on canvas, 96 x 96 in. (243.8 x 243.8 cm). Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, Museum purchase with funds from the International and Contemporary Collectors (artwork © Ramiro Gomez; photograph provided by Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego)

(Click here to view the exhibition in English, or click here to view in Spanish.)

To Tame a Wild Tongue: Art after Chicanismo uses the aftermath of the Chicano Art Movement (1960s–70s) as a point of departure to bring together over twenty-five artists active since the 1980s who explore the distinct yet interconnected sociopolitical paradigms of contemporary Chicanidad. This digital, collection-based exhibition invites us into an important conversation about belonging, resistance, and identity through a transborder perspective. To Tame a Wild Tongue explores the idea of cultural hybridity by considering how Chicanx and Latinx artists in the United States have carved out multiple places of belonging through acts of radical resistance. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD), the works on view include painting, sculpture, photography, installation, mixed media, print, and textile.

Given the exhibition’s subtitle, Art after Chicanismo, one is prompted to ask: Is there such a thing? Has Chicanismo ended? If so, when? Twenty years ago the exhibition Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation (CARA) offered a twenty-year retrospective of the Chicano Art Movement featuring 128 pieces and 54 mural images by 140 Chicano and 40 Chicana artists. According to Chicana cultural critic Alicia Gaspar de Alba, CARA became “the first major national art show organized and represented by Chicanos and Chicanas in collaboration with a mainstream art institution . . . [that in turn] . . . countered the aesthetic traditions of the mainstream art world [by] challenging institutional structures of exclusion, ethnocentrism, and homogenization” (Gaspar de Alba, Chicano Art: Inside/Outside the Master’s House: Cultural Politics and the CARA Exhibition, University of Texas Press, 1998, 7). After touring for three years through more than ten US cities, CARA began to shift mainstream perspectives that had categorized Chicanx cultural work as “low” or “folk” art. Art after Chicanismo suggests that the sociopolitical identity of Chicanx has transformed altogether since the Chicano Art Movement. Collectively, the exhibition imagines Chicanismo as an identity with a deep investment in dismantling hierarchies along the lines of race, class, citizenship, sexuality, and gender—inside and outside Mexican American communities.

The digital exhibition’s title and mission is inspired by queer Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldúa’s famous essay “How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” in which she reflects on the racist and gendered ways language—her way of expression—was controlled. Anzaldúa recalls how when speaking English in school her Mexican accent racially marked her as “Other.” Surrounded by educators who sought to uphold the racist myth of America as an “English only” nation, Anzaldúa was forced to take speech classes to erase her accent. Back at home, her imperfect Spanish also marked her, as a pocha, an “anglicized Mexican” (“How to Tame a Wild Tongue,” in Anzaldúa, Borderlands, Aunt Loot Books, 1987, 36). Alongside these racial categorizations, gendered norms also controlled Anzaldúa’s voice. As a woman in a Mexican household, Anzaldúa was expected to be docile and quiet; she was never to talk back to authority, particularly male figures. She concludes that to be Chicano is to exist within a culturally ambiguous terrain. However, she reminds us that existence as a Chicana also requires an active resistance to the patriarchal violence of imposed silence. She writes, “Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut out” (34).

Five cultural and political themes organize the exhibition: “Activism,” “Labor,” “Rasquache,” “Domesticana,” and “Border.” If we are to think of art “after” Chicanismo, Ester Hernandez’s La ofrenda (The Offering) (1988) stands as a perfect example. La ofrenda is included in “Domesticana,” a theme that aims to challenge traditional understandings of rasquachismo—a working-class sensibility and aesthetic practice—by questioning the gendered power dynamics that categorize women in limiting roles such as caretaker or mother. Chicana lesbian feminist scholarship has turned to Hernandez’s print for its challenge to traditional heteropatriarchal understandings of La Virgen de Guadalupe. The religious icon usually appears as a tattoo on masculine bodies, deployed as a symbol of an all-forgiving, all-sacrificing mother. Hernandez’s print presents the Virgen as a tattoo but this time on a queer Latina/Chicana’s back. From the lower left-hand corner, a woman offers a rose to both the Virgen and the tattooed woman, the act symbolizing a queer sexuality and a lesbian desire (Gaspar de Alba, 141). In “Domesticana,” the exhibition reminds us that Chicanismo requires a queer feminist praxis, one that does not silence but rather listens to and welcomes wild tongues.

Each visit to the digital exhibition offers a unique experience, as one is able to “attend” through one’s personal computer or mobile device. To Tame a Wild Tongue is one of the many museum exhibitions that during the COVID-19 pandemic have transformed a physical experience with art into a digital engagement. In addition to the static website, the exhibition offered visitors an opportunity to engage with exhibiting artists through live programming via the MCASD’s Instagram page. Dubbed The Charlas—alluding to an informal conversation among friends and family—this programming was led by curator Alana Hernandez and features conversations with five exhibiting artists. The first charla featured artist duo Cog•nate Collective, who spoke about their installation piece Regresa a mí/Come Back to Me, which is included in “Border,” the section highlighting the US/Mexican border as a violent structure that has informed how people understand their identity as either Chicanx, binational, or bicultural. Cog•nate Collective’s Regresa a mí showcases 130 votive candles placed on a wooden house-shaped frame, one large votive candle, and a beaker with sand and wicks. The 130 candles represent the approximate number of beds at the Otay Mesa Detention Center, which, according to the artists, are legally categorized as “housing units” in order to disguise the violence within. Ordinarily, a prayer is printed alongside such Catholic votive candles. However, in Regresa a mí, the artists replace the prayer with a call to end the carceral state and to reunify separated families. In The Charlas, the artists explain that they see the carceral state as an interconnected machine (the prison industrial complex, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the border) invested in extracting labor, criminalizing Black and Brown bodies, and terrorizing families. Originally installed alongside a performance piece that invited visitors to light a candle, Regresa a mí transforms the private/personal act of prayer into a collective effort toward solidarity across racial and ethnic groups.

Scrolling through the site, the viewer is met with the striking blues of Ramiro Gomez’s No Splash (2013). Gomez’s painting is included in “Labor,” a section honoring what labor-rights activists call the “invisible” or “unseen” workforce largely made up from undocumented migrant communities. No Splash is a reimagining of David Hockney’s painting A Bigger Splash (1967). In Hockney’s original depiction, a luxurious and serene Los Angeles home fills the painting’s background. A pool completes the foreground, and a splash signals the homeowner’s presence. In No Splash Gomez removes the splash altogether, replacing the subject of the painting with a pool cleaner and a housekeeper. It is not enough to say that Gomez humanizes undocumented migrant workers—the painting also shatters the fantasy of luxury altogether. Indeed, Gomez reminds us that working-class migrant labor is not simply “jobs,” but rather a produced condition on which global cities like Los Angeles crucially depend. In similar fashion, the other artists in “Labor”—Amos, Ruben Ochoa, Jaime Ruiz Otis, and Ester Hernandez—also critique the fantasy of luxury by centering the workers and materials that keep cities running.

To Tame a Wild Tongue: Art after Chicanismo is a timely contribution to the developing conversation about the shifting sociopolitical understandings of Chicanismo. Moreover, the project’s digital platforms exemplify how museums can continue to engage audiences during socially distanced times; the exhibition’s website offers an aesthetically seamless engagement, while The Charlas live programming helped bring visitors into dialogue with artists. Whether Chicanismo has ended or transformed itself remains unclear. However, the resistance to defining Chicanismo altogether is exactly where the exhibition’s strengths lie. While some of the works and themes do rely on familiar Chicanx paradigms, the curatorial efforts offer space to think beyond limiting conceptions that have relegated the sociopolitical identity to a sometimes rigid category. To Tame a Wild Tongue successfully offers Chicanismo as an entry point into questions of identity formation, structural violence, resistance, and belonging.

Vicente Carrillo
Doctoral Candidate, César E. Chavez Department of Chicanx & Central American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles