Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Un-Typing Casta: An interview with the Artist Maria Cristina Tavera

Ms. Tavera addressing guests.
Last Thursday evening UMD's Tweed Museum of Art presented "Un-Typing Casta," an exhibition exploring contemporary Latinx identity by Mexican-American Minneapolis artist, curator, and activist Maria Cristina Tavera. Dr. Jamie Ratliff, assistant professor of Art History at UMD's School of Fine Arts, collaborated as curator on the exhibition.

Tavera's work reflects the influence of her transnational upbringing split between Minnesota and Mexico. Muchof the work is either screenprinting or mixed media depicting Latin American legends and popular culture icons that question the societal constructs that racially categorize people of Latin American descent.

During the reception we paused to hear Ken Bloom thank everyone who came out and then introduced Dr. Ratliff who shared a few insights about Tavera's work, which references Mexican pop art and fine art tied to the Colonial casta style. Her images confront stereotypes about ethnicity and identity. Dr. Ratliff noted that the layered and nuanced installation was especially important in light of our current political climate.

Maria Cristina Tavera then shared a little about her art, but began by saying, "It's a huge honor" to have her work here in the Tweed and she thanked everyone involved in making this show possible.

Ms. Tavera, who grew up in Minnesota, was born to an Irish father and Mexican mother. The oldest of her siblings she speaks Spanish and has spent a lot of her life thinking about how people absorb cultures.

Having lived in Mexico for a year myself, I was very interested in seeing how an artist would address these themes. I asked to follow up and what follows are additional insights about her art and its themes.

EN: Your show is titled Un-Typing Casta. What is Casta?

Maria Cristina Tavera: Casta is a term describing a hierarchical system of race classification created by Spanish elites during the seventeenth and eighteenth century to socially rank people of mixed race. The interest in understanding mixed ancestry developed in Spain after the conquest of Mexico as the Spanish began having relationships with Mexicans of indigenous and African descent. The Casta system determined economics and taxation based on the "purity of blood" (the amount of Spanish blood) measured by place of birth, color, race and origin of ethnic types.

EN: How did this evolve?

MCT: My installation Un-Typing Casta stemmed from an interest in racial identity in contemporary society today. My particular interest is in the Latino community as I am of Mexican-American descent. I also am interested in how people identify as a certain race based on culture such as language, foods, customs, and where they live.

EN: Is this a uniquely Latin American issue?

MCT: I am talking about people "Latinos" who are of Latin American descent and live in the United States. As you can see by the United States census, the government struggles with how to categorize Latinos and has to separate race from ethnicity as Latinos can be black, white, Asian, etc. The government category is "Hispanics" based on language meaning from Spanish speaking countries but many people do not speak Spanish. And this does not include people of Brazilian descent as they speak Portuguese.

EN: What are you attempting to show in the picture that features the lower half of six men's faces? 

MCT: The print is called "En Busca de Pancho Villa" which means "Searching for Pancho Villa," who is a Mexican revolutionary. All the men are Mexican except one. I find it fascinating that many people who are Mexican or familiar with Mexican culture can identify each photo even though you can only see their mustache and chin.

Often a big mustache is a stereotype of a Mexican man. The piece is meant to ask the question, can a mustache be of a particular race? The bottom right is Orlando Bloom, an actor who is not Mexican, but he has a Sharpie-drawn Pancho Villa mustache to raise the question can someone become Mexican through the changing of physical traits.

EN: What are you attempting to show with all your "eyes"?

MCT: Eyes are very symbolic of the gateway into the soul of a person and are commonly associated with consciousness and truth. Also, eye color can reflect recessive and dominant genes demonstrating someone's ethnic background. The main image used for Un-typing Casta includes DNA charts showing how eye color is determined by genetic mixing.

EN: What is the relationship between race and machisimo, if any?

MCT: Machisimo is a common stereotype of Latino men. How these stereotypes develop and often continue for generations is very interesting to me. Sometimes it may be because of cultural customs such as the emphasis on how a man should be masculine and the woman should be feminine. However we need to be very cautious as each relationship is distinct. Also, what are considered acceptable practices changes over the years. The "El Coyote" piece is paired with a series of questions from a teen magazine from the seventies which asks if your "Chico is macho" for young women to identify masculine traits of their man. Questions such as "Does he restrict what you wear when you go out?" When the article was published the questions of how he treats you were viewed as charming and entertaining. In today's society, a man who restricts a woman's behavior may be showing warning signs of domestic abuse.


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Tavera's work will be on display through early 2017. She will be giving an artist's talk in the gallery on Thursday, January 19. Visit the Tweed website for additional details.

Meantime... El arte continúa a su alrededor. Vas a verlo.

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