10 Latinx Artists to Watch at El Museo del Barrio’s Triennial
Joey Terrill, Black Jack 8, 2008. Courtesy of the artist.
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.
Candida Alvarez, Estoy Bien, from the series “Air Painting,” 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Monique Meloche Gallery.
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.”
Justin Favela, installation view of Estampas de Popul Vuh, After Carlos Mérida, 2021, in “ESTAMOS BIEN – LA TRIENAL 20/21” at El Museo del Barrio, New York, 2021. Photo by Martin Seck. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio.
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. 1955, New York. Lives and works in Chicago.
Candida Alvarez is one of the only artists in the exhibition who has previously shown work at El Museo del Barrio, and her work Estoy Bien (2017) inspired the title of the show (which is also a delightful nod to Latinx hitmaker Bad Bunny’s seminal track “Estamos Bien”). Alvarez’s practice spans five decades, though lately she has taken to exploring spatial elements in painting. The results are color-forward, fluid abstractions that she aptly refers to as “Air Paintings.” Alvarez was also previously an educator with El Museo del Barrio and now lives and works in Chicago. Estoy Bien is a statement of resilience and a nod to the innate strength of her Puerto Rican community.
B. 1987, New York. Lives and works in New York.
As a self-described “Dominican New Yorker,” Lucia Hierro often draws inspiration from the corner bodega, a quintessential New York staple that both feeds the neighborhood and symbolizes the colonialist framework underpinning consumer culture in working-class neighborhoods. Hierro is deeply interested in how 21st-century capitalism perpetuates a cycle of colonialist hierarchy in the Americas, and her sculptural works often include typical bodega objects—like plastic grocery bags, Domino sugar, and, for “Estamos Bien,” bags of plantain and Taki chips. Hierro exalts such objects within a gallery space in order to discuss both her own personal narrative and our collective views on class and socioeconomic status.
A Yale MFA grad, Hierro will open her first solo museum show, “Marginal Costs,” at The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum this June. She is currently featured in a solo show at David Klein Gallery and has also shown her work with Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles and Miami’s Primary Projects, among other notable galleries and institutions. Her work is playful, often humorous, and a love letter to her neighbors, family, and friends.
B. 1991, Silvis, Illinois. Lives and works in Chicago.
Yvette Mayorga, The Procession (After 17th Century Vanitas) In loving memory of MM, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Merengue, those sugary gobs of whipped frosting that decorate cakes displayed in the storefront windows of Latin bakeries, occupies an important place in the Latinx vernacular: In addition to being the confection du jour at your typical celebration, it’s also the loose name for a dance where you sway your hips quickly to the beat. Chicago-based artist Yvette Mayorga pays tribute to the iconic sweet to discuss less-than-savory behavior at the border.
Mayorga applies thick layers of paint using cake-piping bags to create exaggerated, Rococo-inspired scenes that address everything from immigration to policing and labor inequities. By incorporating found objects like toys, beauty products, and acrylic nails reminiscent of her 1990s childhood, Mayorga taps into a complicated aesthetic of excess that’s deeply ingrained in the female-identifying Latinx experience. In “Estamos Bien,” Mayorga displays The Procession (After 17th-Century Vanitas) In loving memory of MM (2020), a saccharine pink painting that reflects on isolation and overconsumption during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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.
B. 1990, Los Angeles. Lives and works in Los Angeles.
Eddie R. Aparicio, City Bus Memorial (Fig. and Ave. 60, Los Angeles, California), 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Like a cow might be stripped of its hide, Eddie R. Aparicio’s City Bus Memorial (Fig and Ave. 60, Los Angeles, California) (2016) invokes a similar process in its design: The artist paints trees in his native Los Angeles with layers of rubber so thick he can peel them off. This process allows the rubber to absorb the natural and manmade textures on the tree, with car exhaust, graffiti, and carvings layered into its bark. In peeling it off, Aparicio creates a perfect imprint of how human intervention has shaped the tree’s skin over time.
Working with ficus trees from neighborhoods like Pico Union and Westlake, Aparicio draws a connection between the ficus’s emergence as a symbol of the L.A. aesthetic and the influx of migrants from Mexico and Central America, a phenomenon that took off mid-century and remains ongoing. With numerous exhibitions and projects forthcoming—including a commission with the Los Angeles Historic State Park—Aparicio’s inclusion in La Trienal speaks to his growing renown.
B. 1989, Havana, Cuba. Lives and works in New York and Havana.
When the pandemic forced a global quarantine, Cuban-American performance artist Carlos Martiel released a series of striking images online: They featured the artist naked and bound by an American flag with his body contorted in a violent position. These photographs—chilling in their reference to such an ugly American past—were the latest evolution in a body of work that often sees Martiel using his own body to question racism and systemic oppression.
While Martiel’s performances tend to hinge on public interaction, the work featured in “Estamos Bien” breaks from that convention in light of the pandemic. Filmed in January 2021, Monumento I (2021) features the artist standing naked on a pedestal and covered in blood, which the artist purports was “drawn from migrant, Latinx, African American, feminized, Native American, Muslim, Jewish, Queer, and Transexual bodies.”
B. 1986, Las Vegas. Lives and works in Las Vegas.
Justin Favela’s works are among those that were created especially for La Trienal. The curators prompted the Las Vegas–based artist to “engage with El Museo’s permanent collection,” Temkin noted. Favela chose to reimagine Francisco Oller’s late 19th-century still-life painting Plátano amarillos (1892–93). Bananas are perhaps one of the most loaded symbols within the context of Latinx art—their ubiquity in the Americas often forces the issue of how they’re cultivated, harvested, and distributed. Favela chose to recreate the historical work through his characteristic piñata technique, in which he utilizes piñata confetti to create large-scale installations and two-dimensional works in bubbly, saturated hues. Platanos, after Francisco Oller (2020–21) is a Pop-forward take on the classic painting, but no less highlights the banana’s stature as an activist symbol.
B. 1983, Dominican Republic. Lives and works in New York.
Lizania Cruz, installation view of Obituaries of the American Dream, 2020–21, in “ESTAMOS BIEN – LA TRIENAL 20/21” at El Museo del Barrio, New York, 2021. Photo by Martin Seck. Courtesy of El Museo del Barrio.
As quarantine was beginning to wear on the psyches of millions of Americans trapped inside, Lizania Cruz, a Brooklyn-based graphic designer who creates participatory, research-based artworks, was reflecting on the meaning of the American dream. She—along with countless others, as she found—had been brought up believing in its might, and is now disillusioned by its promise. She created Obituaries of the American Dream (2020), for which she sourced stories from others about when and how the American dream died for them.
Cruz published these chronicles online on a commissioned website, and El Museo later translated the work into newsprint for distribution throughout the exhibition. She’s particularly interested in how immigration shapes ideas around identity and belonging. Another notable work by the artist is We the News (2017), a traveling newsstand distributing stories of first-generation Black Americans and Black immigrants.
B. 1978, London. Lives and works in Los Angeles.
Carolina Caycedo, installation view of Genealogy of Struggle, 2017–21–ongoing, in “ESTAMOS BIEN – LA TRIENAL 20/21” at El Museo del Barrio, New York, 2021. Hand-painted by Lena Hawkins. Photo by Martin Seck. Courtesy of the artist and El Museo del Barrio.
London-born Colombian artist Carolina Caycedo creates artworks that act as archives of violence against the environment. Most of her series span years of work, built out of research, acts of environmental intervention, and observations of territorial resistance. The photographs, drawings, and installations that result from her work act as a record, but are rarely encompassing of the total end result. A mid-career artist, Caycedo is one of the more established makers included in the exhibition roster, displaying a powerful work that’s been in process since 2017. In Genealogy of Struggle (2021), Caycedo creates a family tree that displays the names of environmental activists who have been murdered in recent years, along with the place and time of their death. The work aims to address a devastating reality for activists, most of whom had been working in Latin America, by inscribing a fraction of their stories in the roots, bark, and branches of the tree. With a solo show on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Caycedo’s work is continuing to gain traction in the global art market.
B. 1978, Chicago. Lives and works in Newark, New Jersey.
Dominique Duroseau’s stunning self-portrait Mammy Was Here: she equally acceptable (2019) encapsulates each of the themes she frequently addresses within her work. The image features the artist nude with her body slightly slumped over, her hair spilling out over her, and a cloth gingham bandanna obscuring her face. In this careful portrayal, Duroseau reflects on sexuality, Blackness, and oppression, focusing on the contradictions that are often assigned to Black women.
Duroseau, who was raised in Haiti and now lives and works in Newark, New Jersey, creates narratives that reflect on racial hierarchies, and often develops her work through extensive research and archival materials. She was also recently featured in group exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and the New Museum.
Clarification: A previous version of this article stated there are more than 25 artists featured in the “Estamos Bien” exhibition; there are 42 artists and collectives featured in the show. The text has been updated.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Lizania Cruz first published her project Obituaries of the American Dream on Instagram; Cruz published the project on a commissioned website. The text has been update to reflect this correction.