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My Met Media: Belleza Mexicana Empowers Women Through Art

The room was packed, live music was bumping and the lights were glowing. No, this is not an entrance to a nightclub. It was the opening night of the Belleza Mexicana exhibition at the Emmanuel Art Gallery.

Renee Ferrafino, left, and Camisha Lashbrook joins more than 100 others at the Belleza Mexicana opening reception on Jan. 18. The free show highlights Mexican fine and folk art pieces of the Abaraca Family Collection at the Emmanuel Art Gallery on the Auraria Campus.

The theme for the show is strong Mexican females in traditional and non-traditional roles. It was co-curated with Adrianna Abarca and CU Denver students using Abarca Family Collection. Opening night was Jan. 18 and drew a crowd of a couple of hundred people. The exhibition will run through March 2 and is free for students.

“The show is about the power of women, and it is called Belleza which means beauty, but it is not beauty in terms of pretty. It is beauty in terms of majesty and respect and power,” Lambson said. “Sort of like the beauty of the ocean where it is so powerful it is awe-inspiring that is can be tranquil and beautiful but can also grab you in a riptide and pull you under and drown you.”

All of the pieces from the exhibition are from Adrianna Abarca’s private collection. It started with Abarca’s father, Luis Abarca, who died five years ago. As the family food business, Ready Foods, became more successful, Luis was getting to know local Chicano artists and began collecting their work to encourage them to make more art.

In the late ‘90s, Adrianna and her father began traveling to Mexico to collect from local artists. Throughout the years, they collected different folk and fine art pieces from the southwestern part of the U.S. and Mexico, all with a Chicano or Mexicano theme.

“Some of it my father collected, some I collected and some we collected together. Like, we would be on a trip together and meet the artist and say we want this for the collection,” she said.

All of the art is precious to her, but there are two pieces that stand out. One is her mother’s favorite, “Madre Dormida.” The piece depicts a woman sleeping next to her child. The second, “Rebozo Rojo (Red Shawl),” a painting of a woman wearing a red shawl, was created by her father before he died and holds a special place in her heart.

Abarca said that the artist holds a tremendous amount of pride, dignity and tradition. When putting the show together, Abarca deliberately included pieces from painter Frida Kahlo, writer Sandra Cisneros and singer-repetitive songwriter Selena Quintanilla to help demonstrate the talent of Hispanic women.

“Not only are we the children, the sisters, the aunts, the mothers, the grandmothers. We are the glue that holds family and community together and we have a lot of artistic expressions that we are proud of,” Abarca said.

Director and curator of Emmanuel Art Gallery, Jeff Lambson, said he had many reasons for bringing the art to the gallery.

He said this show is about women because they have been overlooked throughout history and it is important to acknowledge the central role that women have in every facet of life.

Adrianna Abarca waits in the Emmanual Gallery for passerby’s to stop in during the school day on Jan. 19. Abarca co-curated with students of CU Denver the “Belleza Mexicana: Art from the Abarca Family Collection.”

Lambson also believes with all the divisiveness in the country, it is important to understand different points of view, and that’s what this show depicts. Finally, he mentioned the history of Auraria and how, historically, the area was a Mexican-American neighborhood before it became a campus.

Art students from all three schools use the gallery to gain experience in curating shows and an opportunity to display their work. They helped pick, ship and install the art for this show. It took about two months to select the pieces and install them in the gallery. They created a narrative from early childhood to the afterlife, using themes of feminism, power, sexuality and spirituality.

Giovanni Cantor is a CU Denver student that works at the gallery and played a role in setting up the exhibition.

“I think it is important that the students have this background knowledge of Mexican heritage and Mexican-American heritage,” Cantor said.

Elle Cross, an MSU Denver art history theory and criticism major said, “The way that the show is curated really makes it flow beautifully and logically in a way that it could be understood without knowing anything about the art.”

Emmanuel Art Gallery started the spring semester off strong. Belleza Mexicana showcases the strong female Chicano and Mexicano culture, and one that can be hard to find in everyday life. The exhibition gives students a window into these cultures for those who are willing to stop by and spend time with it. Abarca is planning on making the Mexican Heritage Museum the permanent home of the family’s treasured collection.


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