Friday, August 12, 2011

The Mestizo Institute. Does art change the world?

Where is it?
MICA gallery webpage

Months ago (Spring 2011), I found myself driving back and forth looking for an address on the block at North Temple and 600 West in Salt Lake City. I thought what I was looking for (the Mestizo Institute of Culture and Art) was a museum of some kind. I finally found it, a small coffee shop, "Mestizo Coffeehouse." It was one of the shops on the first floor of the Citifront apartment complex. The Mestizo art gallery (also the meeting place of the Mestizo Institute) is a small exhibit room (I'm guessing 30x20 feet) with a couch and a couple of comfortable chairs set up in the center.

When I opened the double-doors to go into the exhibit room,  a group of adults in their late twenties or early thirties who sat discussing a book, gave me an odd look.

"I'm just here to look at the art work," I said, embarrassed. "Is it okay?"

They assured me it was. I eventually gathered that it was a publishing group (unconnected with the Mestizo Institute) talking editing changes with an author. I overheard a few things like, "But, Marcus is the evil character, that's why I wanted to make him unbearably sexy . . ."

The exhibit

It was an exhibit entitled, "My Life As" debuting works from a handful of local teen artists. Large canvas oil paintings and photography. Each artist introduced him or her self with a photo and a page-long, handwritten bio. In their bios, they mentioned their intent to present art that could have a positive effect on the way people see them, and the minority groups they belong to. I recall that one artist described herself as American Indian, and that the others mentioned they were Hispanic. One artist wrote a little about the challenge of being gay in a conservative society. One said being Mormon was hard sometimes, because it wasn't always popular. Another artist confessed he had resentment toward privileged people.

One artist had a series of abstract ink art with paint splatters and graffiti motifs. Another piece that stood out in my mind was a nude, an oil painting of an adolescent girl's back from the waist up--the lighting was melancholic-dramatic. Some of the pieces were for sale, prices indicated. It seemed to me that the art pieces themselves were not particularly related to cultural identity--with the exception of one piece, a self-portrait in which the American Indian artist was dancing in a traditional costume, the colors were filtered such that the piece was black and white with only a few of the costume details standing out in bright color. The message conveyed by the exhibit as a whole seemed to be, "We're individuals, here is our artwork--oh, and by the way, we're Mestizo, too."

Their purpose? 

The Mestizo Institute of Culture and Art (MICA) Mission Statement reads:

To strengthen and build community through arts, civic engagement, and dialogue. Provide space to those who engage community through their work, are from underrepresented communities, or use art as a tool for social change.
Students at a Mestizo gallery fund raising event
In what way would an exhibit like, "My Life As" be a tool for social change? I started thinking about how this art exhibit and other exhibits like it are viewed by the mainstream (In Utah, that usually means white, middle class, Mormons). The gallery's in a coffee shop in the lower level of an urban apartment complex--to what extent is that mainstream going to view the gallery at all? Is there an audience for this? And if there is--would the artwork showing partial teen nudity, graffiti-style images, and a traditional ethnic costume unintentionally perpetuate stereotypes? Why not just promote community art for art's sake? Doesn't the focus on minority culture promote an Us vs. Them attitude?

I started thinking about myself, and my own art. Among my own dreams about achieving artistic respect is the fear that I would become known not as a good artist, but as a good Mormon artist. "She's pretty good for a Mormon," my imaginary critics would say.

The reason I bring up this comparison is because I'm wondering, does the focus on rallying minorities to use their art to portray themselves take away from the artist's potential to be respected as an individual, rather than a representative of a group?

Mestizo gallery during a fund raising event
On the other hand, maybe these Mestizo artists see it differently. Perhaps to them, portraying themselves as members of their cultural group is the most honorable kind of individuality. Maybe this idea of art for art's sake (in this case, art without ethnicity) is another annoying means by which the mainstream ignorantly insists on "assimilation," which sometimes means, "conform to us, because we find differences awkward, and we don't want to deal with it."

And maybe the emphasis on graffiti-styled work is a way for students to say, hey, we like this style, and we're choosing to present it as gallery art, we're not vandals.

More about MICA

I would have taken photographs of the art exhibit pieces to post here on the blog, but I wanted to do so with permission. There was only one coffee house employee on duty. She said she didn't know if people could take photos or not. So I left a message with her boss, and emailed the Director of the Mestizo Art Institute to ask about it. They never responded, and after a few days, the exhibit changed, so I didn't get any images of the art work from that particular exhibit. Meanwhile, here's a little research I've done online about the institute itself.

The MICA website contains basic gallery information, but I found the associated Mestizo blog much more interesting. The art gallery displays both amateur and professional works, but the blog is for a social action group for teens called MAA. According to the "Who we are and what we do" introduction on the blog,
MAA Logo
The Mestizo Arts & Activism Collective [MAA] is a think tank where students, researchers, artists, and mentors work collaboratively to conduct research, make changes in our community, and engage in the arts. MAA is a university –community partnership that involves faculty from the University of Utah, University Neighborhood Partners, and the Mestizo Institute for Culture & Arts (MICA).
As I scanned the blog, I realized, Wow, here are hundreds of well-researched articles and essays on politics, social issues, and current events all written by teens. I even recognized the name of one of the article authors, Nelson Medina--he had also been one of the artists for the "My Life As" exhibit. One of the collective's sub-groups is called, "Media Representations of Youth of Color Team." I found their objective fascinating:
We are studying how the media portrays youth of color and how it affects us.  We are concerned with the ways that young people of color are represented as violent, criminal, drop outs, gangsters, and sluts.  These stereotypes do a violence to us, and creates insecurity and fear in our community. We are sometimes afraid of each other and ourselves.  The media tells us what we can and can't be and this affects us in our daily lives and who we become.  Our goal is to challenge the media and tell our own stories and bring to life the truth that the media refuses to acknowledge.
Apparently, MICA hosts MAA meetings every Monday and Wednesday 2:30-5:00 p.m. at the Mestizo Coffeehouse location, 631 W. North Temple suite 700, Salt Lake City. I plan to attend and report in the next few weeks.

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