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Historic Chicano prints from civil rights era set to premier at the Smithsonian Museum of Art

The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C. is premiering a 2020 exhibition to showcase nationwide works by Chicano artists through the civil rights era, also known as, ¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965-Now.

The exhibition was previously set to premier on Sep 11, 2020. Due to COVID-19, the opening has been postponed, but the Smithsonian American Art Museum anticipates the exhibition later this year.

To accommodate viewers, a virtual experience of the exhibition will be available online in addition to in-person showings.

The exhibition will capture how Chicano artists used graphics to advocate for social change through civil rights, labor, anti-war, land rights, LGBTQ, women’s and other social movements. Additionally, the exhibition will present how the continued expression of Chicano graphics remains critical in the world today.

The show will be represented by a collective group of 75 artists nationwide from regions including California, Texas, New York and the Midwest.

“Our goal is to really highlight and celebrate this remarkable history of printmaking by Chicano artists,” said E. Carmen Ramos, Acting Chief Curator of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and curator of Latinx art.

In 1995, the museum received a donation of 60 civil rights era prints by Dr. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto. The gift started the museum’s Chicano graphics collection, according to Ramos. Since receiving Dr. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto’s gift, the collection has tripled thanks to collectors such as Ricardo and Harriet Romo, Gilberto Cárdenas and Dolores García, and the estate of Margaret Terrazas Santos.

Many Mandelas, 1986. Screenprint on paper by artist Juan R. Fuentes. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Tomás Ybarra-Frausto. Photo: Mildred Baldwin

The exhibition draws from what the museum now hails as the largest collection of Chicano graphics on the east coast.

¡Printing the Revolution! came to life in 2016 when Ramos began working to expand the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection.

“Our exhibition will show how Chicanx artists and their collaborators embrace a wide range of techniques and presentation approaches, from screenprinting —the most prevalent technique among artists— to linocut and digital printing, as well as installation art and public interventions,” Ramos said.

Additionally, the exhibition will feature the evolution of graphics in the digital age. “We will present digital-born artworks that are meant to circulate on the internet and social media platforms, as well as augment reality prints,” said Ramos.

Untitled, from Galeria de la Raza Calendario, April 1975. Screenprint by artist Juan R. Fuentes. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Margaret Terrazas Santos Collection. Photo: Mildred Baldwin

Juan Fuentes, 70, is a featured artist in the exhibition. Growing up in rural Watsonville, California, Fuentes and his 10 siblings worked in the farm labor camps picking produce. Like other Chicano artists, Fuentes’s art naturally gravitated toward the farm labor activism movement.

Attending San Francisco State University in the late 60s, Fuentes was among the first wave of students to be exposed to ethnic and, as they were called in those days, third-world studies. He grew ties to the Mission District, which was a progressive environment for artists and activists.

Fuentes’ works have advocated social change for issues such as the labor movement, the Palestinian freedom struggle and Native American political prisoner injustice.
Fuentes currently lives in Bayview, CA and continues to work with the Mission District community. Notably, he is currently involved in celebrating El Tecolote’s 50th Anniversary.

Fuentes hopes “[viewers] get the sense that the works are connected to a community, the Mission District was in an art renaissance.”

Rupert Garcia, a mentor of Fuentes, remembers what it was like working in San Francisco during the civil rights era. “It was a very dynamic, important and necessary activity to be involved in,” he said.

Attending San Francisco State using the G.I. Bill, Garcia worked in the Mission District. Printmakers, along with other artists including poets, used their art to convey civil rights messages, according to Garcia.

“There was a variety of voices, not just a singular view on how to make poetry or pictures, it wasn’t one dominating attitude for the movement,” Garcia said. “I’m very excited, what will be revealed is the tremendous visual experience of both the Chicano and post-Chicano movement regarding Latino’s approach to making posters.”

The exhibition is expected to travel to several other locations, including California.

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