Art review

Philip Kennicott on 'African Presence in Mexico' at Anacostia Community Museum

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sometimes you have to look out to see in. An exhibition at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum about Africans in Mexico is not about race in America, or African American identity or what it means to be black in the United States. But by focusing on the particulars of African existence in Mexico, it reveals far more universal wisdom about race and identity than so much of the often rancorous "discussion" of the subject on this side of the border.

"The African Presence in México: From Yanga to the Present" was first seen at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago in 2006. Using art from the colonial era, photographs and contemporary crafts, sculpture and imagery, the exhibition documents the arrival, disappearance and reappearance of African identity in Mexico over the past five centuries. Beginning in the early 16th century, when enslaved Africans were brought on the first missions of discovery and conquest, it explores how the Spanish (long familiar with interracial existence given their proximity to Africa) articulated race into categories, including mulatto (half Spanish, half African), mestizo (half Spanish, half native) and 14 other permutations. The Catholic Church kept the records, slotting every newborn into one of the basic categories that would determine one's chances for an education, a career and even the most basic of rights.

After the war of independence from Spain from 1810 to 1821, these categories were suppressed as an unwanted vestige of Spanish colonial rule. The shorthand for ethnic identity recognized skin color, with fairer tones more privileged. Distinctions were still made between native and Spanish-descended identity, but African descent -- the "third root" -- got lost in the mix.

The most striking images in the Smithsonian exhibition document what was hiding in plain sight. As Mexico created a new melting-pot identity that paradoxically assimilated but denied blackness, artists documented the racial diversity that was officially disappearing. The three figures in a lithograph by Carlos Nebel, a German artist who traveled in Mexico from 1829 to 1834, all "read" black, at least to an outsider. Even two of the country's most prominent leaders during the struggle for independence (José María Morelos y Pavón and Vicente Guerrero) were of African descent, though they tended to appear in the history books with light skin.

What is 'black'?

And so the exhibition becomes a game: Find the African identity. This puts the viewer in the strange, and sometimes uncomfortable, position of looking for blackness in the faces of strangers, in images of people who would not necessarily consider their African descent of much importance, but who would, in this country, be labeled "black."

Your mother told you not to behave this way, and we live in a society that at least professes colorblindness as a political ideal. But the exhibition seeks to document a suppression of identity that was, at first, perhaps progressive, but became over time a collective denial of the contributions of African-descended people. By the time you reach the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), the popular conception of a new Mexican identity had successfully marginalized the presence of Africans.

Politically, and ethically, this creation of a "brown" identity was a complicated and ambiguous project. Having dark skin or African features was not the automatic ticket to poverty and discrimination that it was in most of the United States. But there was a cost: the loss of heritage, history and identity.

Even an idea as seemingly futuristic and idealistic as the "raza cosmica," or cosmic race, was a double-edged sword. This ideology of identity focused Mexican history on an epic encounter between the Old (and European) World, and the New World of indigenous Americans. Introduced by a prominent Mexican educator and politician in 1925, it offered the idea of a superior and emergent race, forged from the many identities that came together in places such as Mexico. It was a strange mix of colorblindness and racialist thinking that, after the dark chapters of the past century of world history, seems painfully ham-fisted.

A three-pronged show

The exhibition divides into roughly three chapters, beginning with the Spanish years, followed by the 19th- and 20th-century suppression of African identity, and closing with art that explores the emergence of a newly configured Afro-Mexican identity in recent years. After sorting through a cache of photographs made in Guanajuato, curator Cesáreo Moreno of the National Museum of Mexican Art assembled a wall of faces, most of them obviously black. But even Moreno's uncle, who lives near where these standard portraits were made by a local photography studio in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, told his nephew that there weren't any black people near the town.

And when Moreno was researching the exhibition, he says, he was shocked to rediscover the blackness in a striking photograph made during the Mexican Revolution: of a dark-haired woman with full lips. Her image is reproduced large, and she stares at the viewer with an enigmatic expression of determination and dignity. Take her out of her Mexican clothes and context, and put her in the segregated South and she would have been sent to the back of the bus, confined to the use of "colored" drinking fountains, forced to enter through the door reserved for African Americans.

But it wasn't until Moreno looked for it that he found her blackness.

"Once you start seeing it, it is everywhere," he says.

The problem, of course, is the definition of "it." Would this young woman, who like a surprising number of women carried arms and fought during the revolution, have defined herself as black? And if she didn't, who are we to "rediscover" it in her?

That leads to the powerful ambiguity of the third chapter of the exhibition, devoted to artists who have, in different ways, focused on the newly emerging idea of an Afro-Mexican identity. The African American photographer Tony Gleaton has worked extensively in Mexican regions with large African-descended populations, creating haunting images of dark-skinned people. But as an essay in the exhibition's catalogue points out, he wasn't perceived as "black" when he traveled in Mexico.

And as a journal he kept in 1988 during his time in Mexico points out, he was also projecting his own ideas about race: "The photographs that I create are as much an effort to define my own life, with its heritage encompassing Africa and Europe, as an endeavor to throw open the discourse on the broader aspects of 'mestizaje,' the 'assimilation' of Asians, Africans, and Europeans with indigenous Americans."

There is an essential difference between finding something and forging something, and the third chapter of the exhibition is about the latter activity. If blackness seems to peer out of the silence of old images from earlier centuries, it is presented more boldly and sometimes stridently in art made since the slow reawakening of Afro-Mexican identity during the past few decades. The most provocative of the works is a painting commissioned for the exhibition from Alfred J. Quiroz, a painter living and working in Arizona. His 2005 "Kozmic Race" mobilizes just about every stereotype in the Mexican and American catalogue, from a hook-nosed and glowering conquistador to an African with chains on his arm and a bone through his nose, to a native Mexican, apparently holding human hearts as if fresh from some grisly Aztec ritual. It also includes a reference to a lynching in Florida in 1938.

Identity redefined

It is a strange and lurid assemblage, and an equal-opportunity offender. As art, it is intentionally cartoonish, and as a political statement, it eludes clarity by mobilizing intense and contradictory reactions with no sense of resolution or direction. As the capstone to this fascinating and thoughtful show, it leaves one thinking something that people south of the border have thought for centuries: Yankee go home. Quiroz is Mexican American, but his painting feels very American, a projection of a particularly confrontational way of thinking about race and identity into a field, a country, a social entity, where this American habit may offer nothing particularly useful, and possibly much that is destructive.

Quiroz's painting makes one wish that "Afro-Mexican" identity could be studied and observed as if an objective fact found in an old photograph. But there is no observing it without to some degree importing American and other ideas about race (including the French concept of negritude, which valorized racial ideas in opposition to colonialism). And just as you're about to dismiss Quiroz's painting, it dawns on you that art has always been used to forge ethnic and racial identities. His painting is a part of a centuries-old project.

But is it a good project? Does it need to continue? Is a forgotten or suppressed identity best left dormant? Or is there a way to awaken difference without division, identity without animosity? Like all good exhibitions, "The African Presence in México" raises more questions than it answers. But it goes beyond the merely good by raising provocative and painful questions in a forthright way alien to all too many exhibitions about race today.

The African Presence

in México: From Yanga

to the Present

is on display at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum through July 4. The museum, 1901 Fort Place SE, is free to the public and open daily (except Christmas) from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 202-633-4820 or visit

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