If there were such a thing as a “hole-in-the-wall” gallery, the Emmanuel Gallery on the Auraria Campus in Denver, certainly qualifies. Housed in the Emmanuel Shearith Isreal Chapel adjacent to the Auraria Library, the gallery easily goes unnoticed, but through March 2nd it hosts a wealth of treasures in the exhibit “Belleza Mexicana.”
As the exhibit is in its final days, La Vida Latina took the opportunity to view the show’s expression of feminine beauty in Mexican culture and speak with its co-curator and the founder of the Latino Cultural Arts Center (LCAC), Adrianna Abarca.
Being the first of its kind at the University of Colorado-Denver, the exhibit contains paintings, photographs and textiles on loan from the Abarca Family Collection.
“It is over four decades of collecting,” Abarca said of her family’s art collection. My dad started it here in Denver. He started collecting the works of the local Mexican-American artists and Chicano artists who were his friends and then a few years after that he also started collecting some of the Mexican fine artists’ works and Mexican folk art.”
This show, which features work by local artists like Emanuel Martinez, David Ocelotl Garcia and Ernie Gallegos, was created in conjunction with the University of Colorado-Denver’s department of Arts and Media. Students and faculty within that department took part in electing the theme of the exhibit, tailored to focus on the feminine beauty of Mexican culture.
“There are a couple of ways to interpret that theme,” Abarca said of Belleza Mexicana. “It’s about the beauty of Mexicans, but specifically we chose female subjects to be the theme to highlight Mexican feminine beauty. For the most part, they are actual females, but we have a transvestite and a transgender in the exhibit as well.”
Those pieces, in fact, were among the most salient. Shinzaburo Takeda’s oil on canvas painting “Naciendo I” from Oaxaca, Mexico, for example, brings to light a rich piece of Oaxaca, Mexico’s indigenous culture. According to the gallery’s description, the painting depicts a “Muxe from the indigenous Zapotec people who live in and around the town of Juchitán in Oaxaca. Muxe is a name for men in the community who choose to live as women or work in traditionally female professions.”
The woman portrayed bears a stiff, long neck and masculine features. She looks stoic and powerful, a quality that can be seen throughout the exhibit.
“We explore things as basic as concepts of innocence and modesty, concepts of self-empowerment, wisdom, creation and women as creators,” Abarca said. “We have Frida Kahlo, Sandra Cisneros and Selena, all as creators and artists.”
Abarca illustrated those concepts by pointing out the juxtaposition of two adjacent photos. On one hand, a plain-looking indigenous young woman from Oaxaca, whose long unkempt hair covered her naked chest – but not in a provocative fashion, rather in a cultural one; on the other hand is the diva-like Selena at the prime of her career dressed sensually and with everything (hair, eyebrows, fingernails) perfectly in place.
“You see the long hair, no makeup and an indigenous, hand made dress,” Abarca said of the young Oaxacan woman. “And then you look at Selena with the waxed eyebrows and more provocative clothing. The contrast here is pretty huge. Two Mexican girls about the same age and they have such a different expression of self and of femininity based on where they were raised.”
A similar, perhaps more poignant and impactful expression of self comes from the black and white digital print titled “Corazón” depicting a transgender woman seated in front of an image of Jesus Christ while derogatory slang seemingly leaps out from the wall behind her. The subject looks directly at her audience (in defiance or with sarcasm) as she expresses her struggle for social and religious acceptance.
With over 3,000 visitors in its six-week run, Belleza Mexicana has been able to leave its mark on several viewers. Something that Abarca knows her parents would have cherished.
“The fact that my parents started this collection over 40 years…I think they would be very proud that this collection stayed in the community and is now being shared in community,” she said.
Belleza Mexicana will be at the Emmanuel Gallery on Auraria Campus through March 2nd. The Gallery is open from 12-5 p.m. A free public reception to celebrate the initial run of the exhibit will be on March 1st from 6-8 p.m.