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Houston museum highlights contributions of Latin American artists to 20th century art

In the midst of the pandemic and a nationwide reckoning on race, The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston opened a new building that highlights its growing collection of Latin American and Latino works. Jeffrey Brown visited recently and reports for our arts and culture series, CANVAS.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now widening the lens to see more of art history.

    In the midst of the pandemic, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, opened a new building that highlights its growing collection of Latin American and Latino works.

    Jeffrey Brown visited recently for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Wire sculptures from the 1970s and '80s by the Venezuelan artist known as Gego, Gertrud Goldschmidt. Abstract paintings by several Brazilian artists in the 1950s. A 2017 installation holding the belongings of a deported migrant titled Temporary Storage by Mexican artist Camilo Ontiveros.

    Different shapes, styles, forms, all part of a 20-year project to expand the story of art history. Now the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, has a new showcase, the Kinder Building, designed by architect Steven Holl, to house its collection of modern and contemporary art. And a quarter of it, everywhere you look, is by Latin American or Latino artists.

  • Curator Mari Carmen Ramirez:

    That's a statement in itself, isn't it?

  • Mari Carmen Ramirez:

    Absolutely. Absolutely. And it's a statement that very few museums in this in this country can make.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And why is that an important statement for this museum, for you?

  • Mari Carmen Ramirez:

    Because of the ascendance of the Latino population and other groups here in the United States. These are the populations that are going to be defining the future of this country, in my view.

    And so it's important for the museum to position itself in that debate.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Since coming to the museum in 2001, Ramirez, who was born in Puerto Rico, has helped build an enormous collection of works little known to the American public and rarely seen in most U.S. museums.

    What did you want people coming to this museum and Americans more generally to know about Latin American art?

  • Mari Carmen Ramirez:

    I wanted them to know that Latin Americans were not just practitioners of 20th century art, that they actively contributed new ideas and new approaches, because we have — in this field, we have been fighting from the very beginning against the notion that Latin American art is derivative of U.S. or European art, that everything that Latin Americans did was to follow Picasso or Mondrian or Rauschenberg or many of the artists.

    And that's a fallacy.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Americans might know the great Mexican muralists like Diego Rivera, and the painter Frida Kahlo is a phenomenon unto herself.

    But beyond Frida? The Houston museum expands the picture dramatically, to Brazilian abstractionists from the 1950s and '60s like Lygia Clark.

  • Mari Carmen Ramirez:

    It is what she called a Bicho, which is translated as critter. It is about the sensorial experience of manipulating the object.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And in a very different mode, there's the Argentinean Antonio Berni's painting with found objects' including street trash, a commentary on the migration of the poor from the countryside to the city.

  • Mari Carmen Ramirez:

    But the idea is that this is the reality that these people live. And so what better way to represent their plight than to use the same garbage and the same trash that they're exposed to every day?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The concern with social issues has continued in more recent years, as in Mexican artist Teresa Margolles' harrowing Lote Bravo from 2005, 400 adobe bricks made from the earth where bodies of murdered women were found, the femicides in Ciudad Juarez.

  • Mari Carmen Ramirez:

    She picked up earth from those places, and then, working with an artisan, they produced these bricks. And…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, each one represents a woman.

  • Mari Carmen Ramirez:

    Each one represents a woman. You can think of it as a memorial, but you can also think of it as a cemetery.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A big focus for the collection now, art by American-born artists of Latin American descent, already numbering more than 400 works by some 70 artists, like Houston-based Vincent Valdez's painting of a young man suspended in the air from his series titled Stranger Fruit.

    Ramirez sees a vibrant and growing Latino art world, but one still in need of what she calls an infrastructure.

  • Mari Carmen Ramirez:

    Galleries, museums, collectors, institutionalized study programs, without these elements, the art cannot flourish. I mean, it can flourish at the level — the artists are producing in, but nobody's going to get to know what they're doing or to really understand its importance and its significance.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Do you see that changing, though?

  • Mari Carmen Ramirez:

    Yes, I see that changing. I think the change is coming. It's going to take a while still. But I'm hoping that, in 20 years, it will be in a different — at a different level.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The Kinder Building opened amid the pandemic, and amid a social justice movement that's led museums nationally to rethink their missions.

    The timing may have been serendipitous, but Ramirez says the effort here fits that larger reckoning.

  • Mari Carmen Ramirez:

    Latin American or Latino art or African-American art, it's not about a fad or a tendency or a trend or some fashionable movement that is in vogue right now. It's about the fact that museums really need to reinvent themselves.

    They need to really reflect the demographics and the profile of the audiences that they are serving. This country is living a transformation. And museums need to position themselves to address that transformation.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    A new world just as artists like Argentinean Gyula Kosice have long been dreaming of and creating, now for all to see.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

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