Little Village Artist Debuts Work at NMMA

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Noticias Locales

By: Ashmar Mandou

Artist and Chicago native Maria Gaspar has displayed her work at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the Urban Institute of Contemporary Art in Michigan, and the Alpineum Produzentengalerie in Switzerland, but Friday will mark another poignant moment in her career as she returns to the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) to debut her most recent endeavor. Gaspar, who attributed NMMA as one of her earlier influences, will reveal her latest work, Brown Brilliance Darkness Matter, during an opening reception on March 25th. Gaspar shared her thoughts with Lawndale Bilingual Newspaper about her inspirations and how NMMA influenced her work.

Lawndale Bilingual Newspaper: This Friday will mark your first solo exhibition at the National Museum of Mexican Art, how are you managing all the excitement and nerves? 

Maria Gaspar: It has been a great opportunity to go through the museum’s permanent archive and spend time preparing for an immersive exhibition space that I hope will be exciting for others. 

Walk our readers through what they should expect to see during your Brown Brilliance Darkness Matter exhibition? 

Brown Brilliance Darkness Matter is a site-specific installation project that is immersive and incorporates textiles, collaged imagery and ceramics. The installation is intended to create an experience for the viewer, implicating their body within the various sculptural components of the work. The context of the project engages issues of the past by using historical materials and references all stemming from the National Museum of Mexican Art’s Permanent Collection, like postcards, pre-Cuauhtémoc objects, or regional ceremonial materials. I use these artifacts to blur the line between what is original and what is not original. The exhibit is in a way, speculative — the objects and images are reinvented and I incorporate some images from my own family. At the opening reception and the Latino Art Now Reception, five performers will be acting as museum docents for my sculptures and sharing fictions based on the provenance of each object. 

What served as the inspiration behind Brown Brilliance Darkness Matter

There are many issues and ideas that inspired the direction of this new project. As an artist who is deeply engaged in site-specific and collective art projects, especially on the West Side of Chicago (my native community), I was interested in examining the location of the museum and its history within the city and within places like Pilsen. For example, in the 1980s the National Museum of Mexican Art itself was started by its president, Carlos Tortolero and a group of educators who understood that Mexican or Xicano artists were seemingly invisible within art and culture in the Chicago. Since Chicago has the second largest Mexican American community in the country, this created a critical problem. Little to no spaces existed to create an artistic and cultural space. Local educators recognized this issue and over time formed the NMMA. At the same time, one sees how other important educational and community institutions were entirely formed by local activists, artists, and educators. Places like Benito Juarez H.S., or Casa Aztlan (now defunct), Mujeres Latinas En Accion, or the Little Village Lawndale High School – a school created by the tireless efforts of dedicated parents who fought to have a new school built because of overcrowding. Given the recent anti-immigrant rhetoric further catapulted by xenophobes like Donald Trump, my exhibit, in many ways, comes from thinking about the struggles and brilliance of people of color in Chicago and the way that folks in the city have really inspired many others to challenge systems of oppression and carve out spaces for themselves in critical and tender ways. As an artist, I am using the National Museum’s archive to dig through the past and contemplate what the future looks like — I see brown brilliance. 

What does having an exhibition at NMMA mean to you? 

The NMMA was really generous and open to my archive digging. It was a really rich experience to explore their collection – from pre-Cuauhtémoc objects and Carlos Cortez prints to works by Ester Hernandez, to the contemporary posters art of Favianna Rodrigues or Arturo Romo. It was insightful to look at how history is preserved, while also considering the question around what kind of history is being preserved. I continue to think about what is missing from the narrative and how does one make space for that missing narrative – a probing question I think about a lot for any kind of cultural institution. I hope visitors who experience the installation can ask themselves those questions.

Maria Gaspar is the recipient of a 2016 Joan Mitchell Foundation Emerging Artist Award and a 2016 National Museum of Mexican Art Sor Juana Women of Achievement Award. The National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA), 1852 W. 19th St., presents Brown Brilliance Darkness Matter with an opening reception on Friday, March 25th. Admission is free. The exhibition will run through July 31st.

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