Xicanx: Dreamers + Changemakers

Jill Baird, Curator of Education, MOA

Greta de Léon, Executive Director, ARENET

Do you think of lettuce fields, border crossings and murals when you think of American civil rights movements? We do. These were in fact integral elements of the Chicano/a civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, called El Movimiento. Too often these histories and experiences are overlooked or subsumed in histories of American civil rights. Xicanx: Dreamers and Changemakers|Soñadores y creadores del cambio aims to change that for museum visitors.

Artists were a major and critical part of El Movimiento over 50 years ago, and they continue to be strong activists fighting for equality and against racism and discrimination. Being Chicano or Xicanx* is an identity all of the artists in this exhibition choose. It is more than being just Mexican American; it is accepting the responsibility to fight for their community, their culture and their civil rights. The artists in this exhibition are dreamers and changemakers.

This is the first major Xicanx group exhibition in Canada. There are 33 artists represented in the exhibition, from Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, New York and Texas. The work of a further 30 artists is showcased through murals projected in the gallery space. All of the artworks shown were produced between 1970 and 2022, with some created during El Movimiento and newer ones addressing identity, equality, social justice and racism.

In recent years, much has been reported about the U.S.–Mexico borderlands; too little has been presented from Xicanx perspectives. This exhibition brings these voices into the conversation, highlighting Xicanx quotes, poems, fragments of speeches or dichos (sayings), and artists’ perspectives on their own work.

The exhibition features 40 works, and is organized around the themes of neighbourhoods, identity, borderlands, home and activism. At the entrance, museum visitors are met by Alejandro Diaz’ Make Tacos Not War, a neon sign that especially resonates today as Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Ukraine—to name only a few countries—are embroiled in wars. It is a call for peace—and for good food!

We commissioned a work from David Zamora Casas entitled Altar for the Spirit of Rasquachismo: Homenaje a Tomás Ybarra Frausto. It is a site-specific installation with a spoken-word video component celebrating “Rasquachismo,” a term coined by eminent Chicano scholar Tomás Ybarra Frausto to describe an “underdog” perspective.

Linda Vallejo’s Brown Belongings series uses humour and statistics to talk about being brown in the U.S., while Debora Kuetzpal Vasquez greets us with Citlali, a Xicanx feminist superhero.

In the gallery entrance, there is a large projection work that shows over 30 Xicanx murals in various U.S. cities. It is not comprehensive, but does present a snapshot of community art in action.

Xicanx is jointly curated by MOA and long-time institutional partner, The Americas Research Network (ARENET). Curating an exhibition between three countries—Canada, United States, and Mexico—during a pandemic has been a challenge. Building relationships necessary to undertake an exhibition of this scope is difficult when one can’t share a meal, visit studios or meet people in their own neighbourhoods. Though work on the exhibition started before March 2020 with studio visits in San Antonio and Los Angeles, all subsequent outreach to artists and lenders was done through emails, Zoom meetings and phone calls.

The exhibition is supported by a range of public programming, sponsored in part by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers, the U.S. Consulate and the Mexican Consulate in Vancouver. Our work together shows the power of cultural diplomacy by foregrounding issues such as racism, discrimination and all forms of exclusion. Public programming to come includes artists’ talks, film screenings, tours, workshops and cultural events.

*This exhibition uses the term Xicanx to refer to Chicano, Chicana and Chicanx. The term reflects those who fought for and claim this designation and incorporates the ‘X’ from the Spanish transcription of the Nahuatl sound ‘ch’. Nahuatl is one of the major Indigenous languages in Mexico. The ‘x’ on the end signals gender-neutral and non-binary inclusivity.
Xicanx: Dreamers + Changemakers | Soñadores y creadores del cambio is on view at MOA from May 12, 2022 to January 1, 2023. Following its time at MOA, the exhibition will be shown at SAY Sí in San Antonio, Texas from March to September, 2023.