Tracing change in the Latin American experience


Even when there’s a choice, leaving home is an intensely difficult action. It’s harder, scarier, when one is forced to leave.

The hope is that one can move forward, to keep living without forgetting roots, and maybe learning what home can be.

Art can reveal this struggle.

That is the aim of the Latin American Triennial, a series of exhibits and shows celebrating Hispanic heritage, now showing at the Lehman College Art Gallery through Jan. 25. Several colleges and institutions throughout the Bronx are hosting the Triennial, including Lehman. And such an expansive cavalcade of celebration and art could only be led by artists.

Internationally renowned Cuban artist Alexis Mendoza, and Luis Stephenberg, an equally respected Puerto Rican artist — who both now live in the Bronx — have founded festivals and workshops around the borough, including the Triennial. The two curated the work by a variety of Latinx artists around this year’s theme: “Progressive Transitions.”

Bartholomew Bland, the executive director at Lehman’s gallery, presents the show with energy and appreciation.

“I’d seen some of Luis’ work in other venues,” Bland said. “I’d told him I wanted the gallery to be a part of the Triennial. I thought it would be really good for the student body.”

Visitors can enter the gallery on a day in late fall and be greeted by the spiraling yet melodic presentation of Dominican artist Iliana Emilia Garcia’s “Roots and Rises,” a piece reflecting on the sprawling reach of one’s roots, history, learning and future.

Nature — specifically the perpetually threatened climate of the Caribbean islands and Latin American countries in general — is a major thematic element that ties several pieces together, and Bland kept that in mind when organizing the show with Stephenberg.

“We were able to work together to bring in a wide variety of material by a wide variety of artists, all dealing with transition.” Bland said. “That’s a great thing.”

The gallery used to be the college’s library, and the main showroom for the art is an echo chamber where every analysis and appreciation reverberated despite every attempt at a whisper. Bland’s presentation of the show garnered a warm reception.

“There’s been a high degree of interest and we had a great opening,” Bland said. “It seemed like a natural fit for us here at Lehman.”

The show features an eclectic array of sculpture, mixed media, video and painting — all dealing with the theme of struggling to adjust and move forward in a time where so many are forced by conflict or climate to leave home.

A piece by Dhara Rivera, “Homage to the Pterocarpus,” concerns blood trees, a flora located on several Caribbean islands. It is a tree that lives both in and out of water. Their presence through generations has created numerous mythologies around the tree, and as such, their cultural presence is as real as their roots.

The tree is now endangered due to extensive climate change.

These kinds of realities — ones that force people to leave their own homes and watch their cultural markers deteriorate — is an idea the gallery hopes to reveal, and to serve as a reminder.

“I hope that our visitors will recognize certain identities,” Bland said. “Hopefully, they can recognize some of themselves in it as well.”

There is a call for genuine empathy through the presentation of the horrors experienced by these artists personally, as well as those they know.

“A lot of artistic perspectives, that of Mexico or Argentina or the Dominican Republic, so much is shown here,” Bland said. “Each have their own ideas, but also universal ideas. Certainly transformation and change is usually painful and hard.”

An academic institution presenting the work of artists from regions like Latin America, artists from places that are demonized and rejected by the present political climate of the United States is not an irony lost on Bland. It is something he hopes to focus on within the gallery itself.

“The No. 1 hope is for students of all ages to learn from a broad swath of different nationalities and cultures,” Bland said. “Students and visitors can be encouraged by the artistic spirit to realize these themes.”

The gallery hosted a densely populated opening, featuring the curators, artists, media, students and faculty. Presentation and exposure to the work created by these artists is another goal of the gallery, something that can provide those artists further opportunities.

“The ‘art world’ will recognize these under-recognized artists,” Bland said. “There is an enormously broad and varied and diverse range of work, and perhaps we will later see them in additional platforms. I think that would be a great thing.”