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Tracking COVID-19 at UCLA2020 Racial Justice Movement

Many strive to peel away labels

By David Chang

Jun. 2, 2004 9:00 pm

When it comes to labels, artists are no different from actors or
musicians in that they all become a tad defensive. Their
reputations are at stake, and creative minds tend to feel caged
when their work is pigeonholed, especially according to their
ethnic identities.

Artists who are minorities usually have little trouble
identifying with their ethnicity and culture, but some take
exception when their work is categorized as strictly South American
art, Asian art or African art. On the flip side, many artists
don’t object to these attachments to their work and proudly
display their art in exhibitions with a specific cultural theme in

“Artists have always had that conflict or that
ambivalence,” said Professor Barbara Drucker, chair of the
art department. “They want to be seen as an artist. They
don’t really want, often times, to have those adjectives next
to their names, describing their work. On the other hand,
(ethnicity) is just a reality.”

Drucker, who is involved with a group of artists who are Jewish,
recounts the instance when she decided against lending some of her
art to the group’s Jewish-theme exhibition.

“(The artists were) going to make a show that basically
says “˜Jewish artists look at Jewish identity and Jewish art
and Jewish something.’ That’s too much. I happen to be
Jewish, but my work doesn’t say that it’s Jewish. My
themes aren’t necessarily Jewish,” Drucker said.
“I don’t want to be framed in that way because it
distorts what my work is about.”

Exhibitions with certain cultural themes are hardly an
underground trend, especially in Los Angeles’ multicultural
climate. Such shows are not nearly as prevalent as style-based or
form-based exhibitions, but their status as a popular exhibition
framework is undeniable. Gilbert Vicario, curator of UCLA Hammer
Museum’s latest exhibition “Made in Mexico,”
points to the focus on multiculturalism, beginning in the late
’80s and early ’90s, as an impetus to this type of

“There’s really been an explosion in the number of
artists that are engaged in the practice of making contemporary art
everywhere from Asia to South Africa to Senegal to almost every
country in Latin America. As a result of that, there’s been
ongoing discourse about how to approach it: do you negate it or do
you celebrate it?” said Vicario.

It’s a question that continues to linger in artists’
minds. Raoul De la Sota, a UCLA alumnus and professor emeritus in
Mexican art history at Los Angeles City College, believes
today’s artists, as opposed to those of the past, tend to
distance themselves from labels.

“About 20, 30 years ago, people were quite proud to be
categorized as particular kinds of artists, like for instance
Chicano artists,” said De la Sota, who is the first Chicano
artist to be awarded a Fulbright Fellowship. “Nowadays,
people are moving away from that. They would much rather be known
as the 10th-best artist in Los Angeles instead of the 10th-best
Chicano artist in Los Angeles.”

De la Sota admits he’s had a lot of trouble with labels in
his own career, because he doesn’t paint the same iconography
as other artists in his circle.

“Any cultural movement will have certain symbols and signs
that it constantly uses because those are its identifying
marks,” said De la Sota. “I’ve shied away from
those. My marks had to do with mythology, with a sense of the earth
and the connection of man to earth, which does not have much to do
with the urban realization of life as many Chicano artists have
created. I was at odds.”

According to De la Sota, some artists get caught in a vicious
cycle of producing work that they’re famous for, and they
can’t escape that because it’s in demand.

“It’s more fearsome when you’re famous,”
said De la Sota. “Maybe that’s why I have more freedom,
because I’ve never pushed myself to become one of the known
people. Though they talk to me about being a veteran of the Chicano
art scene, I’ve never put myself in that situation where the
market is going to rule what I do.”

De la Sota’s work, along with those of other Chicano
artists, is on display in fourth-year world arts and cultures
student Joy Anderson’s senior project “Balancing
Beliefs: Urban Healing Visions.” The exhibition is moving
from Avenue 50 Studio to Highways Performance Space for the WAC
Student Festival of Works, and will run June 10-12.

“It’s a big issue within the whole Chicano art
genre,” said Anderson. “Outside of Chicano art, are
(these artists) going to be accepted in the arts

Artists and curators share the same sentiments.

“If you’re multi-sided, that’s what
you’re going to show. If not, so be it, because many people
are very comfortable being locked into a particular category and
that’s fine,” said De la Sota.

“You can argue both sides of it. You kind of go around in
circles,” said Vicario. “There’s always going to
be that artist who’ll refuse to go into that sort of
exhibition framework and will resist the labels. In the end, there
just has to be space for both types of thinking.”

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