At the New Mexico State University (NMSU) Art Museum in Las Cruces, curator Emmanuel Ortega wants to do more than just exhibit the museum’s vast collection of Mexican ex-votos (traditionally Catholic devotional paintings) — the largest in the country at around 4,000. Ortega also wants to shift the narrative around Mexican art outside the canon. Instead of having visitors understand the works simply as “folk art,” Ortega hopes museum-goers will reflect on the larger themes these paintings explore.
The museum is one of 1,240 organizations that received a total of $91 million in grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) last week as part of the agency’s second round of 2022 funding. The recipients range from community arts centers to cities commissioning public artwork.
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In the upcoming NMSU Art Museum exhibition Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium, a selection of historical ex-votos, also called retablos, will be shown alongside works by 12 contemporary artists. Retablos were most popular in Mexico around the mid-19th to 20th centuries. After recovering from a misfortune, a person would commission a gratitude painting from a local artisan to show their devotion to the saint to which they prayed, displaying it at a reliquary or home chapel.
Ortega commissioned four artists — Justin Favela, Guadalupe Maravilla, Yvette Mayorga, and Xochi Solis — to create new works focused on themes explored in the original ex-votos, including class, race, gender, and methodologies of resistance.
“I wanted the artists to teach the audience, and tell the audience, to look at ex-votos in a different way,” Ortega told Hyperallergic. “Every artists is thinking of ideas of devotion, resistance, and medium in a completely different way.” Mayorga, for example, will create a “sanctuary” filled with retablos. The work will reflect on a severe illness she suffered as a child and incorporate found objects from a pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó church in Northern New Mexico.
Due to the NMSU Art Museum’s tiny budget, grants such as the NEA’s — which awarded the institution $40,000 — are what make exhibitions like Contemporary Ex-Votos possible.
In Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Glass Center received a $20,000 grant from the NEA for its Idea Furnace artist residency program, a novel initiative in which glass artists introduce other types of creators to the medium. In a current collaboration, Nigerian cosmologist Mikael Owunna and multimedia artist Marques Redd will produce life-size glass busts of Black figures. Each of the sculptures, collectively titled Infinite Essence, will appear to contain glowing stars, an effect that will be made possible when the exhibit’s ultraviolet lighting hits the glass shapes. The exhibition “strives to rebut media imagery that reduces the Black body to death,” a Pittsburgh Glass Center spokesperson told Hyperallergic in an email.
Across the state in Philadelphia, the Taller Puertorriqueño, which seeks to preserve Puerto Rican and Latinx culture in the city, also received NEA funding. Next year, the organization will present an exhibition of works by Mexican-born artist Nitza Tufiño, just one of the projects made possible by a $20,000 grant from the agency. Tufiño, who now lives in New York, has been making art that explore Afro-Carribean and Latinx identity for decades, including public works across the city.
On the other side of the country, the Edith Kanakaole Foundation in Hilo, Hawai‘i received $25,000 in NEA funding to launch a collaboration between experienced hula musicians and dancers and other members of the hula tradition.
A complete list of projects funded by the National Endowment for the Arts can be found on the agency’s website.