This article was originally published in Getty magazine
Getty head gardener Arturo Cuevas considers himself an artist when it comes to caring for the Getty Center’s vibrant landscape. But he isn’t often consulted about the art inside the buildings. So, when Getty Research Institute (GRI) curator Idurre Alonso asked him to share his opinions on works of art for an upcoming exhibition, he eagerly agreed. It was the first time his department had been included in a show.
“Being invited to collaborate on this, it makes me feel good,” Cuevas says.
Alonso not only welcomed his perspective, she also felt that without it, the presentation wouldn’t be complete.
Called Reinventing the Américas: Construct. Erase. Repeat., the upcoming exhibition offers representations of the Americas found in books and prints from the 15th to 19th centuries. As Alonso had envisioned it, the show would question the mythologies, utopian visions, and stereotypical ideologies Europeans spread after “discovering” the continents. But there was a problem: the works only represented the European point of view, so how would contrasting perspectives be offered?
She decided to invite people who can trace their lineage to the precolonial Americas to share what they thought of the depictions of Indigenous people. Their comments became insightful labels that are currently displayed alongside the works. Alonso also invited Indigenous Brazilian artist Denilson Baniwa to create pieces especially for the exhibition.
Contributors to the labels include Cuevas and fellow grounds staff Salvador Álvarez, Federico Mora, and Efraín Pérez; artist “Liliflor” Lilia “Liliflor” Ramirez; singer and author Jessa Calderon, who is part of the Chumash and Tongva Nations of Southern California; and Jorge Gutiérrez, founder of the nonprofit Familia: Trans Queer Liberation Movement.
For Alonso, the project was about inclusion—providing a more nuanced view of the art and showing members of the communities represented in the exhibition that they, and their opinions, matter. She’s not alone in this thinking: institutions such as the Middlebury College Museum of Art, the Delaware Art Museum, and the Baltimore Museum of Art have invited community members and museum staff without backgrounds in art history to help write wall labels.
“For this exhibition I thought, let’s get rid of this voice of the curator that decides everything and gives you the tone of everything,” says Alonso. “Let’s insert many different voices, so you can see these objects from different perspectives.”
Books and books of misinformation
Seven years ago, Alonso began mulling over the idea of an exhibition that would examine how Europeans created an exaggerated, stereotypical, fantastical image of “America” and the Indigenous people who lived there. This portrayal, which she had encountered again and again as she examined the colonial and 19th-century materials in the GRI’s Special Collections, was rife with disturbing concepts.
While Europeans sometimes gushed about the land as a “paradise,” they also described Indigenous people as cannibals, represented them as savages, and portrayed native wildlife as “monsters.” Alonso decided to focus an exhibition on books and other materials printed in multiples, as well as letters written by figures like Christopher Columbus, because these were meant to travel (and influence) the world. These items also became the basis for further depictions, sometimes by Europeans who had never set foot on American soil.
Denilson’s new pieces include video art, a mural, and a “cabinet of curiosities” that further critique European perspectives. He also created artistic interventions on various objects from the GRI collections; for example, adding his own imagery on top of digital versions of several drawings. The exhibition includes examples from pop culture as well, with a Spotify playlist with songs like Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita” that perpetuate some of the ideas represented in the show.
“That’s why the exhibition is called Reinventing the Américas—because everything is like a reinvention of the reinvention,” Alonso says.
New perspectives, new truths
After selecting her panel of label contributors, Alonso showed them the objects in the exhibition. The panelists each selected a few favorite works to discuss. She encouraged her interviewees to look at the objects with a critical eye and to consider the following questions: How has the artist chosen to depict the subjects’ clothing, faces, tools, and body movements? What does that say about the artist’s perspective and biases?
Mostly, she was curious: how did the drawings make her writers feel?
Cuevas had never engaged with art that way before and calls the exercise “eye-opening.” He began to see that the images were more than just drawings; within each composition lived a message he could form his own opinions about.
“With Alonso, the works were something deeper, more detailed,” Cuevas says. “This figure represents this, this one over here means this. When I see all of that captured in a drawing, I see that, wow, these depictions are not what we are.” Each person brought a unique viewpoint to the works, Alonso says. Calderon pointed out themes related to nature, while Gutiérrez looked at objects through a political lens.
Sometimes their reactions surprised her, as when Calderon took an unexpected approach to pictures Alonso thought she would find offensive.
“All the time, she was looking at the positive side of the images,” Alonso remembers. “She said things like, ‘You can see in this image the connection between Indigenous people and nature,’ or ‘These women assimilated to another culture but still kept their Indigeneity as part of it.’ It was really interesting to see how they looked at these images.”
Reinventing the Américas invites visitors to challenge their own assumptions and reconsider what they’ve been told about the people who populated the Americas before Europeans arrived. Cuevas sees that these stereotypes persist to this day, and he hopes the labels will help visitors realize that anyone, regardless of educational level or cultural background, can respond insightfully to works of art, and that their opinions deserve to be heard.
For him, the exhibition was a chance to respond to the books and drawings that portrayed Americans so dishonestly. He points out that when Europeans reached American shores, Indigenous society was even more advanced and civilized than their colonizers ever bothered to discover.
“Our culture is as varied as the one here, as varied as European culture, because we are a mix of so many cultures,” Cuevas says. “We are cosmopolitan. We are not just a single part. We have different ideas, and we adapt to everyone’s ideas.”
Alonso encourages visitors to question the images they’re looking at and build their own viewpoints. After all, the Americas have never stopped being “reinvented.”
“We keep reinventing the Americas, and that’s going to be an ongoing process,” she says. “I would like people to understand that, and to think about what their own reinvention of the Americas would be.”
What would her reinvented America look like? “It’s a more inclusive America, where the voices and perspectives of historically underrepresented groups are heard and become part of this very complex history.”