You already know the work of Frieda Kahlo but she is just the beginning of a coterie of artists who challenge what we think and how we view our relationship with Latino art. Artists usually have something they need you to hear. The medium they choose is that of a visual art where the viewer is often challenged to see beyond the immediate and find something that is deeper or at least not so superficial.
Jean-Michel Basquiat died of an opiate overdose in 1988; he took up the habit after the death of Andy Warhol, Basquiat’s collaborator and friend. Basquiat was part Puerto-Rican and came to prominence with his pop art depictions of Madonna and David Bowie. His work now carries the resonance of that time in New York City as well as having tones of its tragedy hidden in it.
Rufino Tamayo was heavily influenced by the Mexican Revolution and used his work to represent his native land in its basic essences. He was painting at a time when there was a general belief that Latino artists did not have the skills of European ones. It was a perspective he rejected roundly and his point was made when a painting of his sold for over $1 million.
Cundo Bermúdez was a Cuban born painter who lived until 2008. His work is highly stylized and reflective of color in sunshine like so much Latino art. Another Cuban Luis Cruz Azaceta could not be more different.
Azaceta’s work is a moral pulse taking for Cuba. His work is haunting and uncomfortable. The 1999 piece The Crossing represents the courage and the desperation of those who left Cuba in worst of times; their loss of home, their uncertain future and their willingness to take on something so much bigger than they are.
Shifting States IRAQ painted in 2012 compellingly represents the tensions in the country and juxtaposes them against themselves. His work questions the morality of the actions we take as a society and if the feelings he gives us are uncomfortable – so much the better.
American born Malaquías Montoya was a leading light in the Chicano Art movement which attempted to establish Mexican American artist identity. It was influential in the 1960s and 70s. His own work encompassed social justice themes and he did a large series of works which centered on the death penalty, representing those who were executed, but also questioning the justification of the ultimate penalty.
Like Azaceta his work was not limited to American themes like the death penalty and immigration he created paintings on Palestine which had a distinctly Palestinian sympathy – a theme that was not popular at the time he painted them.
What all of these artists have in common beyond the obvious heritage is a desire to make the viewer sit up and take notice. They demand that we don’t look away and they require that we question. Sometimes it is by a direct challenge other times it is much subtler.