Whether they’re making personal or political statements, Latin American and U.S.-based Latino artists have found ways throughout history to feature written language in their artwork. Sometimes it’s in the form of three-dimensional poems, a new alphabet or witty messages that avoid censorship.
At the Blanton Museum of Art’s special exhibition “Words/Matter: Latin American Art and Language at the Blanton,” on display through May 26, visitors can explore the relationship between language and visual art. It’s also an opportunity to see the depth of the Blanton’s extensive Latin American collection, where most of the pieces are drawn from. “Words/Matter” features more than 150 pieces dating from the 1930s to the present, including some debut pieces.
The Blanton has been collecting Latin American art since 1963 and became the first museum in the U.S. to create a curatorial position devoted to this field in 1988. The collection now boasts more than 2,500 pieces ranging from drawings to sculptures.
Artwork that blends language and visual art is a “strength of the collection we hadn’t realized before,” says Florencia Bazzano, Blanton assistant curator of Latin American art and co-curator of the exhibition. “Organizing this exhibition allowed us to present our collection of Latin American art in a new way, organized around a significant theme: visual artists’ enduring interest in language and the written word.”
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The exhibit is divided into six sections: alphabets, between poetry and prose, concrete poetry, the shape of language, fighting words and between the lines. In alphabets, visitors can explore the concept of bilingualism through the 1971 artist book “Ñ,” which tells the story of the Spanish conquest of the New World by examining the letter that mostly exists in Spanish. Argentine Leandro Katz highlights the words that begin with Ñ and how they can be traced back to indigenous languages. His set of lithographs reproduces the letter Ñ in various colors.
During difficult political times throughout history, Bazzano says, the role of art is often questioned. Some of the exhibit’s most powerful art can be found in the fighting words section featuring artwork with political messaging in both bold and subtle ways from artists with backgrounds ranging from Chilean to Chicano.
One of the ways Latin American artists avoided censorship of their political art was to mail it outside of the country. Mail art connected artists to an international network, and “Words/Matter” features several examples of this alternative method of communication, including pieces that were mailed to the University of Texas and the work of prominent Argentine mail artist Edgardo Antonio Vigo.
Several newly donated works also make up part of the exhibit, including gifts by the late Jacqueline Barnitz, a UT professor emeritus and an internationally recognized scholar of Latin American art, plus Chicano prints donated by former UT professor and art collector Gilberto Cardenas.
Earlier this year, the Blanton announced the acquisition of 119 works of art from the Portuguese and Spanish Americas, building on the museum’s place as a leader in Latin American art.