By Vasia Rigou
“Going through images of my family there was this print picture of my parents. They are in front of Grant Park by the fountain. It was 1963 and they had just arrived from Mexico. I love this image. It’s something about the way they were standing—immersed in this new city. They were young—my mom was probably nineteen, my dad twenty-one—and they were smiling.”
Maria Gaspar pays special attention to histories both social and personal. Historical narratives, she believes, can come back to life when infused with a sense of creative fluidity. “The ultimate form of freedom is the ability to reimagine,” she says. In her latest exhibition, “Brown Brilliance Darkness Matter,” she does exactly that. While digging through the collections and archives of the National Museum of Mexican Art (NMMA) in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, Gaspar saw works by Carlos Cortez, Ester Hernandez, Favianna Rodriguez and Arturo Romo, as well as Pre-Cuauhtémoc objects. For her exhibition, she created a site-specific installation in which textiles, collage and ceramics intertwine with her family memorabilia of generations past, including the 1963 black and white photograph of her parents by the Buckingham Fountain. “There are so many layers in this photograph; so much history,” she says.
Gaspar’s installation, an intervention into both the space and the objects of America’s preeminent museum of Mexican art, proposes a new way of looking at historical narratives and cultural heritage, the two domains that art museums are charged to preserve and present. The installation consists of small sculptures displayed on turquoise pedestals that bring to mind Acapulco furniture. The space is divided by vertical textile panels hanging from the ceiling. These banners are compositions that Gaspar created by hand-weaving enlarged photographic images from the museum’s permanent collection with images from Gaspar’s family histories. “I created an installation that was spatially engaging,” she says. “I liked the idea that people can move around these structures—these kinds of walls that are sort of translucent. The textile is so light, it kind of reacts by moving when you walk around it.”
Finding themselves in and between the histories of the museum, the artist and their own, viewers occupy the gallery space with an awareness of its physical, symbolic and socio-cultural dimensions. The show addresses issues of proximity, subjectivity and freedom, but also collective memory and self-reflection. Reconfiguring historical materials with personal mementos creates living dialogues and trans-generational exchanges that redefine the ways we understand ourselves and the contemporary world around us in a social, cultural and political context. As the artist puts it, “that’s a pretty radical way of speaking about the future. Or the now.”
With her roots deep in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood and the NMMA being among her earlier influences, Gaspar’s conceptual work and community art projects reflect socio-cultural themes that put issues of identity, gender and representation into perspective. Her practice includes founding major community-based art projects such as “City As Site” and the “96 Acres,” a series of community-engaged, site-responsive works that examine the impact of the presence of the Cook County Jail on nearby communities of color. She also has an extensive mural practice. Recognized and honored by several awards for her outstanding civic, social and artistic contributions, her transdisciplinary practices suggest a vision of transformation that ranges beyond the personal to a social, cultural and political level.
More than a ground-breaking artist, Gaspar is also an interdisciplinary educator at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she reinvents traditional teaching and learning processes by bringing her radical ideas into the classroom. “One of the first things I ask myself is how do we create a situation where we can all teach one another,” she says. In a laboratory for collaboration, freedom and exploration she creates a community of mutual respect and exchange.
One of the most important components in her work and life philosophy is receptiveness to new ideas, which springs from her open-mindedness and natural curiosity. “I didn’t know what I was looking for!” she says while laughing, when asked about her lengthy exploration of the museum’s permanent collection. “I only knew that I was drawn to images that had some kind of beauty into them. And that I want to make art that creates an experience. This is what I want to do.” she explains. “There’s a value in improvisation—I view it as an organic process. It’s really about paying attention at what’s happening in the present time.”
And it’s in the present that she sees the struggles of people of color, of immigrants, of the oppressed. But she also sees their inner strength as a source of inspiration. She sees brown brilliance. And that’s the truth of the matter.
Maria Gaspar’s “Brown Brilliance Darkness Matter” shows through July 31 at the National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 West 19th.