Unraveling stories of “dreamers and changemakers” at the Xicanx exhibition

UBC’s Museum of Anthropology hosts art exhibition on Mexican political, social, and cultural issues

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gold and white painting of a praying woman or saint
Xicanx: Dreamers + Changemakers showcases the interconnectedness of art and activism. Krystal Chan / The Peak

By: Pranjali J Mann, Staff Writer and Yelin Gemma Lee, Arts & Culture Editor

Content warning: mentions of racialized violence against Latinx folks, El Paso mass shooting, undocumented status, systemic racism 

The Museum of Anthropology (MOA) on the UBC Vancouver campus displays art as a powerful form of activism and sociopolitical critique. The Xicanx: Dreamers + Changemakers exhibition opened on May 12 and is gracing MOA until January 1, 2023. It aims to expand on “the idea of Xicanx art while continuing to address the personal, social, and political issues of our times.” Being a student learning about similar issues relating to the India-Pakistan partition and loss of family and culture across borders, this theme intrigued me. 

Xicanx is a gender neutral term for chicano/chicano — used to connote “people of Mexican origin living in the United States since the early twentieth century.” In the context of the exhibit, the term “reflects those who fought for and claim this designation, and incorporates the ‘X’ from the Spanish transcription of the Nahuatl sound, ‘ch.’ Nahuatl is one of the major Indigenous languages in Mexico.”  

The exhibit covered experiences which “transcend borders and gender,” through themed sections: neighborhood, borderlands, activism, home, and identity. Displaying a wide range of artworks from 1970–2022 by 33 Mexican American artists including murals, mixed-media installations, and paintings, the vibrant exhibit was captivating.

According to the exhibit co-curator, Jill Baird, the exhibition presents stories significant to Mexican culture, activism, and the US border. The moment I entered the exhibit, a ceiling full of colorful flags and hot pink walls welcomed me into the space with a powerful quote by Tomás Ybarra-Frausto: “The power of place is tangible and evident in the way we speak, how we identify ourselves, and the values we profess.”

Borderlands

According to Baird, this section of the exhibit captures “peoples’ concerns of crossing the Mexican American border, but also the idea of how that impacts people’s lives.” 

A piece by Carlos Fresquez titled Salon de los Ilegales particularly stood out to me the most from the borderlands section. The piece uses the silhouette of a family that was used on “yellow highway caution signs” at the US-Mexico border “to warn drivers to watch for Mexican families running or crossing the roads.” This recognizable silhouette of the running family is placed on various thrift-store landscape paintings. The paintings are displayed across a map of the US.

“I ‘illegally’ place a representation of the Mexican into their utopia. Therefore, by placing the running family into these landscapes I am documenting the undocumented,” wrote Fresquez in the description of the artwork.

I was immersed in reflecting on the stories of perseverance depicted in this piece. Would the kids running ask their parents why their identities were constructed this way? What conversations would they have? Where are they now?  

Another piece read, “We did not cross the border. The border crossed us,” attributed to Tomás Ybarra-Frausto. The exhibit referenced a map of 1848 borders, when Mexico made up a larger part of the US.

In Our Lady of the Checkpoint, a woman with a halo and prayer hands is depicted crossing the border. The piece was crafted by “woodcut and vinyl on archival paper” by Celeste De Luna. The artist statement read, “The common experience of brown women of the border, both documented and undocumented, is how bodies are considered potentially criminal vessels and are objectified by both governmental agencies and people all around us.”

Activism

The section focusing on activism highlights the negative impacts of fighting the status quo on their bodies. The two-piece painting by Roberto Jose Gonzalez featured skeletons on a Black background and appeared to be connected by two skeletons’ hands meeting at the same point along the edges. One was titled El Paso 8/3/19 and the other No Hate, No Fear. El Paso 8/3/19 depicts a chilling scene of skeletons strewn about on the ground on top of each other, with one skeleton leaning a hand on the edge of the canvas. Gonzalez described that this piece was on the El Paso, Texas massacre, a racially targeted mass shooting. 

“The shooter wrote that he was specifically hunting Mexicans. It is a tragedy where few words can express the pain and sorrow experienced,” wrote Gonzalez in his artist statement. No Hate, No Fear extends off of the death-pictured piece, depicting what appears to be the grieving loved ones of those in the previous panel. Even through skeletons, Gonzalez successfully expressed human grief and tragedy of lost life in an emotionally impactful way. 

Neighbourhood

The Brown Dot Project by Linda Vallejo featured “data pictographs” which represented statistics in different shades of brown relating to class and color. The project came from Brown Belongings where Vallejo collected “the experiences, knowledge, and feelings” of “Chicano/a and American Indigenous communities.” In her statement the artist said, “I ‘long’ to find a visual language that will open a dialogue about how Latinos see ourselves, how others see us, and how we can find understanding and joy in both our differences and our similarities.” The infrared orange colour of the pigment prints as a way to present data and make commentary on racialized experiences was powerful. 

The Xicanx exhibition stirs a strong message of social justice by allowing a platform for artists that are “dreamers and changemakers.” The most important takeaway is to go and visit these masterpieces while they are here. As Baird revealed, the viewer might be able to catch some of the artists as they sometimes drop by the museum to talk about their impactful pieces. MOA plans to host a celebration in honour of Day of the Dead on November 2. 

To learn more about the exhibit and purchase tickets to Xicanx: Dreamers + Changemakers, visit MOA’s website. You can virtually preview the exhibition here.