PAMM Chief Curator Gilbert Vicario On the Museum’s Momentous Group Show of Xicanx Art

Observer's Nadja Sayej caught up with the curator to talk about the exhibition and some of the key artists in the show.

A man wearing a light blue shirt and a dark blue suit smiles
Gilbert Vicario, PAMM’s chief curator, is showcasing a broader picture of Latin American artists and art history. Courtesy PAMM

On June 13, the Perez Art Museum Miami—a city whose population is 72 percent Latino—opened a groundbreaking survey of Latino artwork: “Xican-a.o.x. Body.” It’s the first exhibition to focus on conceptual, experimental and performance art by Xicanx artists, and more than 150 artworks by seventy artists are on view, inviting PAMM visitors to celebrate the American Latino and Indigenous Latino experience.

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According to the museum’s chief curator, Gilbert Vicario, Xicanx artists with a Mexican American heritage have come “to speak to an embrace of indigenous roots and a rejection of colonial culture at large.” In addition to work by Mexican American artists, there are pieces and installations by Chicana/o, Xicanx, Indigenous, Latinx, Black and Brown artists, and much of what’s included in “Xican-a.o.x. Body,” which runs through February 16 of 2025, is political. Otherness informed the show, as did agency and imagination, decolonization and alternative forms of community.

This is the first exhibition that Vicario, who has extensive experience with Latin American and Latinx art and joined the museum in 2022, is curating at PAMM. Observer caught up with him to talk about the exhibition and some of the key artists in the show.

For the uninitiated, what is “Xicanx art”?

Xicanx art encompasses a variety of communities and identities, including people who identify as Mexican American, Chicana/o, Xicanx, Indigenous, Latinx, Black and Brown, while embracing the entire spectrum of gender inclusivity.

Within the context of your expertise in Latin American art, why are you committed to representing a broader picture of Latin American artists and art history?

Latin American art is well represented in the field of art history, but Latinx, or Latino, art is not. There is a huge opportunity right now to correct that. This can be seen in the number of works by Latinx artists being acquired by major institutions like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Whitney, the National Gallery in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston and the Getty Center in Los Angeles, to name a few.

What does it mean that “Xican-a.o.x. Body” is being shown in Miami?

The work of Xicanx artists is woefully underrepresented in contemporary exhibition practice and exhibitions focused on this material rarely get shown outside of southern California. It is an incredible opportunity to bring Xicanx artist representation to a community that is steeped in the rich traditions of Latin American art. People with a Latin American background will be able to make unforeseen connections in the work in “Xican-a.o.x. Body” and to build stronger networks of associations that strengthen our shared experiences as Latino in this country.

An abstracted sculptural depiction of a tank that looks vaguely organic
Luis Jiménez, Tank-Spirit of Chicago, 1968; Polychrome fiberglass 19 x 34 x 30 inches. McClain Gallery, Houston

I love the piece by Luis Jimenez in the press images. Can we talk more about the significance of his sculptures?

Luis Jimenez is considered to be one of the most important Xicanx artists, and his practice has included important public art commissions including Southwest Pieta in Longfellow Park in Albuquerque, declared a national treasure by President Bill Clinton in 1999; the Cleveland Fallen Firefighters Memorial in OH; and Blue Mustang at Denver International Airport. However, his early work is not so well known and shows him as an artist deeply connected to the politics and culture of the 1960s, and how that aligned with his understanding of the Pop Art movement that developed in New York at the time. Tank-Spirit of Chicago, from 1968, commemorates the year that Chicago faced mass rioting sparked in part by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the subsequent political protests during the Democratic National Convention. Other works that Jimenez produced during this time addressed the U.S.’s involvement in Vietnam.

What did Yolanda Lopez change about contemporary art?

Artist Yolanda Lopez created a space for the representation of women within Xicanx culture using powerful symbols rooted in the colonial and patriarchal origins of the Virgin of Guadalupe iconography. In Tableaux Vivant, she dressed in her running gear holding paint brushes, in front of an altar-like installation of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Because of the sacred nature of this religious icon in the Latino catholic community, this work was considered groundbreaking and challenged preconceived stereotypes about Xicanx women at the time.

A collage with a woman wearing flowers as a bikini in front of stage curtains and surrounded by more flowers and greenery
Alma López, Our Lady, 1999 ; Giclée on canvas 35 x 29 x 1 3/4 inches, framed. Courtesy Alma López / Thanks to models Raquel Salinas and Raquel Rodriguez

What do you love about Alma Lopez’s work?

Using similar iconography to that of Yolanda Lopez, Alma Lopez, a queer Xicanx artist, ignited a firestorm of controversy when her piece Our Lady was shown in 2001 in an exhibit called Cyber Arte: Tradition Meets Technology at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The New Mexico Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan referred to Lopez’s Virgin as a “tart or street woman.” Some of the responses to the work were homophobic, stating that the image of La Virgen did not belong to a queer feminist like Lopez. Because of these early controversies, the piece has solidified an important place in the history of Xicanx art and creates an important dialogue with other artists and works in my exhibition.

Let’s talk about Ester Hernandez’s Sun Mad piece—why is it significant?

Ester Hernandez created one of the most iconic images in Xicanx art by appropriating the artwork found on the box of Sun-Maid raisins. Sun Mad III manipulates the 1915 image of a young maiden holding a basket of freshly picked grapes. In Hernandez’s version, the young maiden is replaced by a death symbol. Her use of the Calavera connects the artist to the great printmaking tradition of the Mexican illustrator José Guadalupe Posada and his use of the skeleton figure to make social and political critiques. For Hernandez, Posada’s Catrina, or female skeleton, becomes the perfect stand-in for the Sun-Maid maiden. The mortality of the skeleton underscores and illustrates the adverse environmental effects that Brown farm working communities have endured because of the many pesticides used in the agricultural economy of California and Florida.

A artistic rendering of a Sun-Maid raisins box with a skeleton instead of a woman
Ester Hernandez, Sun Mad III, 1981; Screenprint 31 5/8 x 26 5/8 x 1 1/2 inches, framed. Courtesy the artist

Why is this exhibition so important now in 2024?

“Xican-a.o.x. Body” adds an important layer of cultural history to our understanding of American art. It also adds to the ongoing conversation about the presence of Latinx culture in the United States and contributes to the greater conversation about identity politics.

PAMM Chief Curator Gilbert Vicario On the Museum’s Momentous Group Show of Xicanx Art