The National Museum of Mexican Art is the largest of its kind in the United States, and although the museum produces ten new exhibits each year, the heart of this Pilsen institution is its permanent collection, nearly 8,000 objects including everything from indigenous artifacts to contemporary Chicago paintings.
For the first time since the museum’s 2001 renovation, the permanent collection exhibition has been revitalized. Three years in the making, the new exhibit Nuestras Historias opened this month to feature art by nearly 160 artists from the museum’s unseen storage areas as well as prominent new acquisitions. “The best of the collection is on display,” says curator and organizer Cesáreo Moreno.
Nuestras Historias was a chance for Moreno to rethink how to represent the story and history (the words for both are the same in Spanish) of Mexican identity. “The exhibition asks what it means to be Mexican,” explains Moreno. “We don’t want a stereotypical collection. Mexicans from L.A. are different from Mexicans from Oaxaca.”
One example is Rubén Ortiz-Torres’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, a tricked-out lawnmower, as a low-rider, that Moreno says is an homage to landscaping laborers. Alejandro Díaz’s “Make Tacos Not War” translates a familiar protest sentiment using humor and pink neon. (The artwork by Díaz was donated by Sandra Cisneros, author of The House on Mango Street and friend of the museum. Look for a special exhibition about her classic book at the museum in 2015.)
Nuestras Historias also features a section dedicated to Chicago artists. Several pieces depict the challenges of making a home in a new place. Activist painter Carlos Cortéz, for example, depicts life inside his jail in his untitled and undated painting. Ceramicist Nicole Marroquín is another artist who critiques cultural tourism and gentrification in her 2010 piece “Explore,” a portrait bust of a tattooed hipster wearing corncobs as designer goggles.
Mexicans in this part of the United States are at a juncture, says Moreno. Identity gets divided between respecting their ancestral birthplace and adopting the Midwest as home. No better place conveys this crossroads than the museum walls that read Xicago.