Tangled Lineage 

Artspace poses the question: What is Latin American art?

The resulting showcase of talent and tradition is rich and diverse, a testament to the tangle of lineage — European, Native American and African — that spawned the Latin-American demographic in the first place: a population whose only consistent characteristic is the use of Spanish or Portuguese as a native language.

So if "Latin American" is a slippery ethnic designation, does it grip any better as an art term? Is there something truly "Latin American" about Latin American art?

"I think of myself as an artist first, who happens to be Latin American," says Colombian-born Diego Sanchez, whose lusciously surfaced paintings of cultural artifacts and icons are on display in "Celebraci¢n."

"When I was teaching at Virginia Union University we were talking about the art of ancient Greece," he says, "and it dawned on me that I was this Hispanic artist teaching at an African-American university about classical art. The whole thing just seemed so odd."

Sanchez shakes his head at the memory.

"It made me realize that it doesn't matter who you are or what you paint. If you're Hispanic, it doesn't mean that you're going to make 'Hispanic-looking' paintings, whatever that means. Every country in Latin America is, culturally and ethnically, completely different."

Cuban-born Jorge Benitez agrees. "I'm of Spanish descent," he says, "which means that I have almost every bloodline that's ever been in Western Europe and probably parts of the Middle East too — but I've never consciously made 'Latin-American' art."

Benitez is a realist painter whose current politically charged work consists of small, delicate renderings of landscapes and nuclear explosions painted in wispy watercolors. He believes any cultural identity codified in his art has less to do with bloodlines than with "having grown up Catholic, and with an iconography," he says. "Even though I don't do religious art I do have content that is, to a degree, iconographic.

"But when it comes to music," continues Benitez, an amateur guitarist, "I have to say that I owe a huge debt to the African heritage of Cuba, even though I don't have African blood. That's the kind of cultural mixing that is so common to Latin America — it's what we call in Spanish a mestizo or 'mixed-race' culture."

That "mixed-race" culture is the fastest-growing ethnic group in America, and Near believes that, like other American minorities, they are underrepresented in the art world: "People are ignoring this very exciting culture that's right in our midst."

Sanchez disagrees — at least at the local level. "I don't think there are enough Latin-American artists in the Richmond art community to be underrepresented," he says. "I'm a member of 1708 Gallery and we rarely get Hispanic artists who want to have a show, despite actively looking for them."

Benitez concurs. "I think it's going to take another generation or two for that representation to happen naturally. The priority of the immigrant is to feed the family and to start businesses — art-making simply isn't at the top of the list."

Consuelo Navarro, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor of literature, believes Latin Americans are underrepresented "in all communities, including the art community." An advocate and lover of Latin-American literature, film and theater, she is frustrated by the ubiquity and domination of American pop culture. "Everybody knows about Ricky Martin or Shakira," she says, sighing, "but Latin America has a very rich 'high' culture, too."

Certainly it would be interesting to discover what percentage of Americans who can hum along to "Livin' La Vida Loca" has heard of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's novel, "One Hundred Years of Solitude." However, Navarro tries to bring depth to others' experience of Latin-American culture through the time-honored tradition of storytelling.

"Latin America has a very rich oral tradition," says the Ecuadorian-born Navarro, who will tell tales at "Celebraci¢n." "Some of my stories are literary adaptations — others are legends that have been passed down." She hopes that the festival will educate the non-Latin public about her culture and stress a common humanity. "Once you get to know the 'other one,'" she says, "you get to know us as your neighbors."

Benitez feels the same way. "What I want Richmond to know is that we're really not much different from everybody else! And as artists we're talking about the exact same issues. You know, Zola said that 'Art is a corner of creation seen through a temperament.' Well, the only difference between 'us' and 'you' is that our temperament happens to filter the world a little differently, because of our background." He laughs. "But that's about it." S

"Celebraci¢n de las Artes Latinas" runs from May 1 through June 1 at Artspace, located at 6 E. Broad St. For more information, call 782-8672, or visit www.artspace-gallery.org.


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