The global South embodies a rich panorama of cultures and identities, and its stories are often vibrant, rebellious, and steeped in a troubled colonialist history. They’re also largely missing from the art historical canon, as artists from Europe and North America have been consecrated while those hailing from and disseminating culture from South America and the Caribbean have been left behind. Once regionalized and marginalized into exclusion, work by Latinx artists is slowly making its way into the country’s most venerated institutions, and El Museo del Barrio’s triennial exhibition “Estamos Bien: La Trienal 20/21”—a large-scale survey of work by over 42 artists and collectives working across the United States and the Caribbean—is bent on carving out Latinx art’s place in the light.
Building upon El Museo del Barrio’s long tradition of collecting and supporting Latin and Caribbean diasporic art, “Estamos Bien” is an evolution of the museum’s previous biennial, “The (S) Files,” which showcased the work of Latino, Caribbean, and Latin American artists that ran from 1999 to 2013. “This is a new reconception of what ‘The (S) Files’ have been, and there’s been a fever of attention for this show because there simply aren’t a lot of opportunities for up-and-coming artists,” said Elia Alba, one of the curators of the show alongside Museo del Barrio curators Susanna V. Temkin and Rodrigo Moura.
Latinx, the oft-debated term denoting persons of Latin descent who live in the United States and seek a more inclusive and less gendered alternative to Latino and Latina, has been decried by some intellectuals as another tool of erasure. Some argue that identifying Latin American communities under a blanket term “others” these perspectives and divides—rather than unites—the community in collective liberation from white supremacy. Others believe that the term Latinx departs from binary understandings of U.S. Latin identity into one that’s more inclusive.
Resolving the debate, Alba noted, requires a total reframing of the term. “We have to stop looking at Latinx as an identity. You can call it a placeholder, or a destination,” she said. “I think at this moment it’s the best way to think about this incredibly diverse group of people and understand that it’s not an identity. This simply starts the conversation.”
To organize the show, the curatorial team visited over 500 artist studios across the United States and Puerto Rico, taking the pulse of a community whose artmaking has become fervently more political in today’s climate. In fact, the show was originally planned to open just before the 2020 U.S. presidential election, though it was postponed due to COVID-19. Many of the works within “Estamos Bien” were created very recently, with some making their debut at the exhibition. “One of the rules we did have was that the works had to have been created in the 21st century,” said Temkin, adding that many works were made in the past two years.
The specificity enmeshed within Latinx ethnicities does give way to some universal themes—memory and place; family histories and generational trauma; and gender, sexuality, identity, and aesthetics are all laced throughout the show. Spanning generations, genders, and genres, the following roundup features some of the most compelling Latinx artists working today.
B. 1975, New York. Lives and works in Miami.
Yanira Collado’s Miami-based practice tends to spring from her memories growing up there. Through a recent award from Oolite Arts, the artist will realize a sound work based on others’ encounters with mythical creatures from her Dominican youth—specifically the ciguapa and the baca, the Dominican version of a shape-shifting being that’s used in many Latinx households to scare children into complicity.
Collado’s work—which revolves around a visual language that reveals how information is recorded, stored, and retrieved—often attempts to question how memory can be distorted by taking two-dimensional works into the three-dimensional realm. Utilizing materials like soap, paper, wood, and drywall, Collado layers and juxtaposes these materials in objects that trace histories around labor, natural disasters, and sacred geometries. In “Estamos Bien,” Collado displays several works, including cuaba soap sculptures that reference craft as important traditions embedded within Afrolatin histories.