Contemporary Ex-Votos at NMSU University Art Museum sheds light on the understudied iconographic and ideological aspects of retablos depicting miracles on tin and found materials.
LAS CRUCES, NM—In the 1970s, the New Mexico State University art department retrofitted D.W. Williams Hall, which was originally home to the school’s basketball teams, to house its art classes and university gallery. It was here that the largest collection of Mexican retablos (devotional paintings) in the United States was stored—below the old bleachers.
“The basketball court became the [University Art Gallery] with bleachers surrounding it. They were underneath the bleachers on chicken wire,” says director and head curator of New Mexico State University Art Museum Marisa Sage, who adds that relocating the retablos was one of her biggest charges when she came aboard in 2014.
Last month, a number of retablos went on display to the public in the NMSU University Art Museum’s new Devasthali Hall in Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium. The exhibition pairs 19th- and 20th-century retablos from the university’s permanent collection with contemporary works by thirteen Latinx artists. Guest curator Emmanuel Ortega presents the exhibition as a historical exploration of the iconology and ideological facets of ex-votos as viewed past and present.
Sage explains that there are two types of retablos: santos, which depict saints, and ex-votos, which are usually small paintings on tin that act as Catholic votive offerings placed in a sanctuary or shrine in a gesture of thanks for divine intervention and a received miracle. The devotional tradition, which extends to 15th-century Italy, made its way via colonialism to Central America before reaching its peak in mid-19th-century Mexico.
NMSU started amassing retablos during the early 1960s through the early 1970s via donations from multiple Las Cruces families. By the year 2000, the collection had expanded to just shy of 2,000 retablos; in 2019, a gift from Gloria Giffords grew the number to approximately 2,100.
Contemporary Ex-Votos curator Ortega, originally from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, is a long-time enthusiast of the retablo tradition. He had long been aware of the university’s retablos, and a trip to see the works exceeded his wildest dreams—an invitation to curate a show utilizing the museum’s collection.
“The idea of the exhibition is to challenge ideas of what ex-votos are. They’ve generally been deemed as popular or naïve,” says Ortega, a Marilynn Thoma scholar and assistant professor in Art of the Spanish Americas at the University of Illinois Chicago. “We examined them in context from the pre-Columbian to colonial and elected to highlight the tensions that exist in the genre.”
“Are they paintings or folk art? Are they Indigenous, sacred, or contemporary art in their day? We decided we would emphasize these tensions and then release them,” adds Ortega. “Additionally, many historical examples are not representative of either traditional native medicine or western medicine exclusively. They illustrate that sometimes even medics need a push from the divine.”
The exhibition at Devasthali Hall is comprised of three sections: historic ex-votos, contemporary work fashioned in the Mexican tradition of ex-votos, and contemporary pieces informed by the ideological foundations of ex-votos. The narrative begins with a display of more than 100 of the university’s 19th- and 20th-century pieces.
A second gallery features pieces by renowned artist and healing practitioner Guadalupe Maravilla, who collaborated with contemporary retablo maker Daniel Vilchis. The works are styled as traditional ex-voto paintings but with the addition of a forceful “framing” of the artists’ own fabrication. The bordering frames express a release of tensions experienced by the individual who has been rescued through supernatural intercession, echoing Ortega’s exhibition concept.
Adjoining the Bunny Conlon Modern and Contemporary Art Gallery is a selection of works by twelve additional commissioned artists, including Justin Favela, Eric J. García, Francisco Guevara, Dan45 Hernandez, Juan Molina Hernández, John Jota Leaños, Yvette Mayorga, Daisy Quezada Ureña, Krystal Ramirez, Sandy Rodriguez, Xochi Solis, and José Villalobos.
“The artists were given three cues, or prompts, upon which to build their pieces,” Ortega explains. “They were to focus on devotion, resilience, and medium.”
The artists studied works from the historical collection and then embarked on their own personal explorations of devotion and meaning in media such as two-dimensional works, sculpture, installation, and animation. Topics include perspectives on identity and history, modern socio-political subjects, and individual personal experiences in contemporary America.
“I wanted the artists to think about Latinx identity as process, not about the Latinidad political climate,” the curator emphasizes. “And I wanted them to think about what art does rather than what art is.” The gallery is a vibrant blend of works of reverence, gravity, reflection, and play.
Hundreds of works on cardboard and paper—paying homage to people, pets, places, and experiences that the makers hold dear—cap off the Ex-Votos presentation in the Mullennix Bridge Gallery.
“We reached out to schools, organizations, and even residential community settings,” says Sage of NMSU. “It was a natural extension of the exhibition.”
“I’m always looking for ways to use the museum’s collection more broadly and build its profile in the community and beyond,” she adds. “The project came together remarkably quickly for a major exhibition, and Dr. Ortega had every aspect of it considered, through and through. It was incredible working with him.”
Contemporary Ex Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium continues through December 22, 2022, at the NMSU University Art Museum, 1308 East University Avenue in Las Cruces, with ongoing programming, including artists’ talks, a film screening, youth programming, and a panel discussion on curating in the borderlands.
Steve Jansen contributed to this story.