Wealth of a Nation

An exhibition of portraits from Latin America highlights the region’s many contributions to U.S. cultural life

History tells the stories of people, and so do portraits. Through the windows of these works of art, we can observe its grand sweep—the heroic deeds of significant protagonists, the movers and shakers of the past, and also the strivings of men and women about whose lives we know little. "Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits," an ambitious exhibition on view from October 21 until January 8, 2006, at the Smithsonian's International Gallery, offers fascinating glimpses of these past lives. It allows museumgoers to look at people in Latin American history eye to eye, in many cases for the first time. (Much of the exhibition can be seen at www.retratos.org.)

Consider, for instance, the stately portrait of Bernardo de Gálvez when he was viceroy of Mexico. While Gálvez's name does not appear in many textbooks, his contribution to American history was fundamental. His portrait, or retrato, a word derived from a Latin root word meaning a re-creation, commands our attention. When the Thirteen Colonies revolted against Britain's rule, Gálvez was the governor of then-Spanish Louisiana. Naval and land forces under his leadership beat the British at Mobile Bay, in 1780, and wrested control of West Florida from them. Gálvez's offensive distracted the British, drawing their ships and troops into the Gulf of Mexico—and away from their Colonies. Without Gálvez in the south, Gen. George Washington would surely have encountered a much fiercer and far deadlier fight at the decisive Battle of Yorktown.

Some of the portraits in "Retratos" were created by celebrated artists such as Fernando Botero, Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo; others are by artists either unknown to us or anonymous. For the past three years, curators at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery worked closely with their colleagues at the San Antonio Museum of Art and El Museo del Barrio, in New York City. Together, and with the generous support of the Ford Motor Company Fund and the Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives, they drew from the rich stores of 76 public and private art collections located in 15 countries, and assembled an exhibition that has already visited three museums, in New York City, San Diego and Miami. From February 4 until April 30, 2006, it will be at the San Antonio Museum of Art.

"Retratos" presents a rich and vivid sense of Latin America's history and culture as it showcases the region's abundant portraiture, from before the arrival of Europeans through the modern era and up to the year 2000. The earliest portraits featured are the wondrously evocative earthenware vessels made by the pre-Columbian Moche peoples between a.d. 100 and a.d. 600. The Moche lived in what is now Peru and rendered likenesses so faithfully that scholars have been able to recognize individuals at various stages of their lives. Also on display is the oldest-known signed portrait in South America, an oil painting completed in 1599 that represents three descendants of African slaves, each dressed in Spanish finery—ruffles, luxurious silks and gold jewelry. An 1830 portrait of Simón Bolívar speaks to the early 19th-century search for independence; then toward the end of the exhibition, a pair of contemporary portraits depict workers in sugar-cane fields. The subjects, a young boy and girl, are drawn with a process that begins with granulated sugar on black paper.

Too often we forget how intimately connected the history of Latin America is to that of the United States. This unique exhibition of so many marvelous representations of Latin Americans will do much to forge a fuller sense of our shared history. And it reminds us of how Latinos continue to contribute to the cultural wealth of our nation.

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