For art scene, a Latino flourish
Community's influence is increasingly on display
Long a whisper in a cultural landscape that remains predominantly Anglo, the voice of Latino artists in Boston is growing stronger.
It can be heard in Jamaica Plain, where the abstract compositions of Uruguayan muralist Robert Chao decorate bus stops and public parks. It is present in the massive, postmodern granite sculptures by Carlos Dorrien, an Argentine artist of Mexican descent, found at the Minuteman bike path, Winthrop Park in Cambridge, and South Boston Maritime Park.
And yesterday, its call echoed in the South End, where a show featuring nine Dominican artists opened in a gallery owned by a Dominican-born curator, one of many exhibitions across the city that showcase Latino art.
In many ways, in many places, an increasing number of Latino artists, gallery owners, and promoters across Boston are declaring, ''Aquí estamos presente," or ''We are here."
The emergence of a Latino art scene reflects the growth in influence and diversity of the rapidly expanding Latino community in Boston, according to artists and gallery owners.
''It is time for people to start looking at us as a whole community. We're not just baseball players, not just gangs, not just workers who come to clean the house," said Rosa Sanchez, who operates Asor Art Gallery from her Brookline home. ''We have a culture that is very vast and very rich, and art is part of our culture. We have artists who are producing high-quality fine art, not a stereotype."
At the Samson Projects, a Harrison Avenue space tucked into a row of upscale galleries, the works on display in the show ''Dominicanazo!" address a variety of political and social themes that reflects the heritage of the gallery's owner, Camilo Alvarez. The show's opening yesterday coincided with the day celebrating Altagracia, the patron saint of the Dominican Republic; the exhibit is set to close Feb. 27, that country's independence day.
Next month, La Casa de La Cultura/Center for Latino Arts will offer ''Volando a Argentina" (Flying to Argentina), an exhibition of paintings by Esther Garcia Eder, who was born in Argentina and lives in Milton. The center, which opened last year, is a venue for Latino performers and an exhibition space for local and international Latino artists.
''I want people to see that there is more to contemporary Dominican art," said Alvarez, 28, who moved to Boston from New York last year. ''There are internationally known artists who are involved with performance art, installations, and issues related to Third World politics and the cultural divide."
By painting a portrait of their community, rather than letting the outside world draw conclusions, Latino artists are dispelling stereotypes and giving voice to a growing population, Sanchez added. ''The community identifies with these works. They feel honored, respected, and represented."
Since opening Asor three years ago, Sanchez has presented exhibits by Colombian-born Jorge Drosten, whose paintings vividly recall his homeland; Francisco Mendez-Diez, who specializes in portraits and teaches at the Museum of Fine Arts; and Juan Jose Barboza-Gubo, a Peruvian sculptor and painter.
''There are some very good, very important artists, many of whom are more well known in their countries of origin than here," said Ricardo Barreto, director of urban art at the Massachusetts College of Art. ''They are here. They produce here and contribute to the larger cultural life of the city. The core has been here for quite a long time, but people outside the Latino community are starting to appreciate them more."
Twenty years ago, a cadre of young Latino artists who called themselves Grupo Ñ; sought to express their presence by placing their symbol, the letter Ñ, on city sidewalks, building exteriors, and posters slapped onto fences and walls.
After the experiment Grupo Ñ dissolved, and for years, Boston did not have a collective Latino art community, such as those found in New York, Miami, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. The artists in Grupo Ñ, who once lived in the Piano Factory lofts, scattered to various parts of the city. There was no gallery or exhibition space devoted solely to Latino art, and little cohesion among Latino artists.
''That reflects on how the community itself is," said Alex Alvear, performing arts director at Casa de la Cultura and a musician acclaimed in his native Ecuador as an artistic pioneer. ''It is a large community, but it is not a united fist. There is ghettoizing of groups rather than unifying in terms of number and strength. Boston is a very cold and segregated environment for this type of thing, so the movement for change has to come from within."
The diversity within the Latino community has sometimes been a stumbling block in forging a united voice. Latinos in Boston come from dozens of countries and various economic and educational levels. There are affluent college students, highly educated professionals, and working-class immigrants.
Within the artists' ranks, there are also a multitude of styles, philosophies, and approaches, as well as a desire to defy easy categorization, said Drosten, who has lived in Boston nearly 27 years. He pointed out that Grupo Ñ split up after members disagreed on whether to present themselves as Latino artists or as artists who happen to be Latino.
''We did not want to put ourselves in the ghetto," Drosten said. ''Some of us thought that would not help our expansion as artists, because people would expect only a certain type of art from us. In my generation, we wanted to avoid being labeled."
As gallery owners, Sanchez and Alvarez say they are fighting the stereotype of Latino art as landscapes tinted with nostalgia, whimsical depictions of tropical fruit and fauna, or still-life paintings.
The work on display at ''Dominicanazo!" shatters such preconceived ideas. The exhibit features a piece by installation artist Tony Capellan, in which he attached rubber nipples from baby bottles to a curved glass window from a VW Beetle found on the beach. The nipples are pierced by needles.
''There is a lack of knowledge or sometimes a lack of interest about Latino art," Sanchez said. ''We have to cut through all of that to shine. We're taking baby steps, but they are steps. . . . We can no longer be ignored as a community. Just as our community is growing in all different ways, we are growing as an artistic community."
Casa de la Cultura is the area's first cultural showcase dedicated to Latinos. It is meant to be a place where Latino artists can feel at home and non-Latinos can get a fuller view of the culture, director Sabrina Avilés said.
The center is building a database that will list local Latino artists, performers, and dancers and serve as a resource guide to sources of funding.
''We invite people to come in and take a peek at who we are," Avilés said. ''We're not all salsa and merengue. There's more to our culture than just food or music. Our community needs to be heard, and as representatives of the community we need to give them a voice."
For artists like Garcia Eder, the center is a long-awaited haven. In preparing works for her upcoming show at the center, she took greater risks than she had at shows in non-Latino venues.
''It helped me identify myself as Argentine," said Garcia Eder, who moved to Boston in 1986. ''I always identified myself as Argentine, but there was always a doubt in my mind. Here, I was able to develop a certain confidence in myself and to believe in my own imagery."
Her show, ''Volando a Argentina," is a visual narrative about the emotional and spiritual connections between the country of her birth and the place she lives.
For young Latinos growing up in Boston who are learning to balance those two worlds, art can be a powerful ally, Drosten said.
''There's a sense in this country that the Latino culture is a secondary culture, one for people who can't integrate here," he said. ''But the arts reinforce the idea that it is OK to have both cultures. It instills a certain pride and connection. It's like returning to the nest."
Monica Rhor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org