Culture has a powerful ability to shape many aspects of personal identity including political, social and familial interactions. Gender also plays a powerful role in this equation. Much has been made about how cultures structure male and female roles, but what happens when this culture is transplanted to a new space and is forced to confront entirely new national ideologies?
Questions such as these serve as a thematic framework for the Mestizo Institute of Culture and Art’s (MICA) newest exhibition, Creadoras de Cultura: Activismo y Espiritualidad(Creators of Culture: Activism and Spirituality), a two-woman show featuring the art of Ruby Chacón and Natalia Deeb-Sossa.
Creators of Culture showcases Chacón’s Multigenerational Mexika Danzante Women, a painted series of individual portraits that frame the perimeter of the exhibition space. Natalia Deeb-Sosa’s Colors of Culture, a collection of photographic works, captures intimate depictions of female subjects. In unison, the two artists uncover the ways in which immigrants in America maintain the cultural traditions of their home nation, while maintaining and affirming their civil rights.
Renato Olmedo-González, gallery director and curator of the MICA, acknowledges the exhibition is the product of an intense collaboration. He cites Ruby Chacòn (featured artist and co-founder of the MICA) as a constant influence, testifying “Ruby’s work and activism laid the ground for Latino/a art and artists (and other underrepresented communities) to be included, acknowledged and represented in the conversations surrounding art and artists within our community and state. I strive for the exhibitions I curate at Mestizo Gallery to be a continuation of this work.” Indeed, Ruby Chacón has worked diligently to spread an awareness of cultural diversity in the state of Utah. Since co-creating the Mestizo Institute with Terry Hurst in 2003, Chacón has helped nurture artistic expression as a platform for intercultural exchange, all the while keeping busy with her own artistic projects.
Creators of Culture assesses how women communicate and modify cultural identity. Chacón and Deeb-Sossa each select subjects on a wide demographic and generational spectrum, showcasing the enormous impact of women in shaping and transmitting culture. Chacón’s series depicts the bodily movement and emotional association associated with Mexika Danzante—a type of dance prevalent in Chicano/a and Mexican-American communities. Her approach to each subject is nuanced, guided equally by the bodily movement and beautiful costumes of Mexika Danzante and by animated facial expressions. In the latter category, the psychological richness of these subjects render costumes ancillary to identity. This provokes a decidedly feminist message, that the physical emblems of culture inform but do not strictly define the individual. Chacón emphasizes this point, as she describes the series and its depiction of Mexika Danzante as, “An empowering political and spiritual tool against cultural oppression, [yet] its practice, in many Chicano/a communities, has perpetuated some aspects of patriarchal society by objecting and negating women to leadership roles.” In this way, the visualization of dance moves becomes an allegory for the act of traversing and opposing the patriarchal system itself, by “combat[ing] the many ways in which these oppressive systems are actors in practice of this dance form.” The inherent movement and impeccable attention to detail contained within her photographic series highlights the nuances of such attentions. It becomes clear then, that the challenge of identifying as an immigrant is coupled further by the complicated gendered roles assigned to women.
Natalia Deeb-Sossa works as associate professor of Chicana Studies at University of California, Davis. As a feminist scholar, she has written a book and numerous articles exploring the connection between women and the dissemination of culture. Her photographs serve as an extension of her academic focus, narrowing in on women as cultural producers and storytellers, who through their actions weave a collective social fabric from one generation to the next. Deeb-Sossa’s photographs resemble Chacón’s paintings in the detailed attention to diverse female subjects, each distinct in dress, age and expression.
Through the thoughtful attention to their subjects, the artworks contained within Creators of Culture allow viewers to not only appreciate their inherent beauty but also to share in an important civil and intellectual dialogue. This need for multicultural awareness is pressing and essential, as Olmedo-González affirms: “Latinos are a vital part of Utah’s history. We have one of the fastest-growing Latino populations in the country, 22% of Salt Lake City alone is Latino, and not to forget the fact that Utah was part of Mexico when the pioneers arrived in 1847. Understanding the history and art of Latinos in Utah (and in the U.S.) through these exhibitions isn’t only about awareness it is about acknowledging and honoring all of our histories.”
Creators of Culture: Activism and Spirituality, art by Ruby Chacón and Natalia Deeb-Sossa is at Mestizo Institute of Culture and Art, 641 W. North Temple #700, Salt Lake City, through March 14.
Scotti Hill is a lawyer, art critic, and curator based in Salt Lake City. She has contributed to various publications and serves as an adjunct professor of art history at Westminster College. She has a Master’s Degree in art history from the University of Utah.