Museums and Multiculturalism

Article excerpt

Karen Mary Davalos. Exhibiting Mestizaje. Mexican (American) Museums in the Diaspora.

Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 200. 264 pp., 17 b/w ills. $34-95.

"What now?" was the question facing speakers on a panel examining multiculturalism and feminism in the post-identity politics world at last year's College Art Association Annual Conference.1 Among those arguing for the continued vitality and transformation of Third World U.S. feminism and multiculturalism was Karen Mary Davalos, assistant professor of Chicano/a studies at Loyola Marymount University, whose recently published book makes a case for the transformative effects of these discourses on the arts. A case study of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (MFACM) in Chicago, the largest and one of the most important Mexican cultural centers in the US., this multidisciplinary and multitheoretical book proposes a radical new approach to the study of Chicano/a art. Not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom (be it that of Chicano nationalism, art history, museum studies, or postmodern theory), Exhibiting Mestizaje makes important contributions not only to Chicano/a and gender studies, art history, and museology but also to the study of Latin American art.

Davalos's work is in dialogue with recent theorizing on the museum and the enterprise of nationalism by Carol Duncan, Alan Wallach, Donald Preziosi, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, and others. What happens when Mexican Americans exhibit and interpret themselves within their own museums? Do so-called "alternative" minority museums and exhibition sites recreate the essentialism, Eurocentrism, and heterosexism of "mainstream" museums? What happens to nationalist representational practices in the context of mestizaje and diaspora? Davalos poses and responds to these and other interconnected questions in her richly nuanced case study of Chicago's Mexican American Fine Arts Center Museum.

As her title indicates, the concept of mestizaje, racial mixing or miscegenation, inspires her theoretical model. Considered a central feature of "Mexican-ness," Davalos radically disrupts essentialist notions of multiracial people as degraded hybrids. Furthermore, because mestizo/a experience always has roots in at least two places, Davalos deploys mestizaje to deny nationalist boundaries. Her thinking is inspired by conceptions of the "New Mestiza," as theorized by radical/lesbian Chicana feminist Gloria Anzaldua, and elaborated by Cherrie Moraga, Carla Trujillo, Gaspar de Alba, and others. In conjunction with challenging sexism, homophobia, and Eurocentrism, radical/lesbian Chicana feminists have been on the front lines of critiques of Chicano nationalism, its suppression of women and homosexuality, and intolerance of diverse political, cultural, or racial identities. By critiquing the single-subject position proposed by Chicano nationalism, Davalos fosters recognition of the variety and complexity of Chicano/a art, its multiple identities and meanings, proposing that ambiguity and multiplicity are also "authentic." She causes the reader to rethink totalizing views of Mexican art and culture as timeless, folkloric, primitive, homogeneous, uniform, or static.

Davalos also considers how what she calls a "romantic and celebratory" model of Chicano art history has distorted perceptions of Chicano/a art and exhibitions (88). She questions the centrality accorded Chicano/a moralism, considered the canonical Chicano/a art form because of its public nature and Marxist pedigree, and its limited images of Mexican-origin peoples. She further demonstrates the limitations of nationalist Chicano/a art history in a reexamination of the history of the Galeria de la Raza in San Francisco. By investigating the conditions surrounding the institution's creation, she discovers that despite the involvement of a number of women, the Galeria's history has been recast as the story of great Chicano men, creating an "andRocentric mythology" traceable to "an andRocentric Chicano art history" (88). …