Home Leisure & Sports Chicano Graphics Exhibition open at Frist Art Museum

Chicano Graphics Exhibition open at Frist Art Museum

by Cass Teague
Favianna Rodriguez. Migration Is Beautiful, 2018. Digital image. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Julia D. Strong Endowment, 2020.38.3. © 2020, Favianna Rodriguez

¡Printing the Revolution! The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now is now on display in the Upper-Level Galleries of the Frist Art Museum through September 29, 2024. ¡Printing the Revolution! examines how graphic arts have been utilized to build community, engage the public around social concerns, and wrestle with shifting notions of the term Chicano, which Mexican Americans defiantly adopted in the 1960s and 1970s as a sign of a new political and cultural identity. 

During this period, Chicano activist-artists forged a remarkable movement of politically engaged printmaking rooted in cultural expression and social justice movements that remains vital today. This exhibition, for the first time, pairs historical civil rights–era prints alongside works from the 1980s to the present.  

The exhibition includes 119 works ranging from traditional screen prints to digital graphics and augmented-reality works, to site-specific installations by more than 74 artists of Mexican descent and their cross-cultural collaborators. Through the decades, inexpensive and easily distributed posters, often marked by vibrant colors, bold lettering, and striking images, have communicated the prevailing social causes of their day—labor strikes, immigrant rights, movements, opposition to the Vietnam War, and community building—and, most significantly, have challenged the invisibility of Chicanos in US society. By highlighting previously marginalized voices, including women and LGBTQIA+ individuals, the exhibition offers an expanded view of American art and the history of graphic arts.

During the 1960s and 1970s, people of Mexican descent living in the United States began to proudly refer to themselves as “Chicano”—once a derogatory term for people of Mexican heritage—to celebrate their unique cultural identity. On view in this exhibition are prints and posters created by artists active during the early years of the Chicano civil rights movement, or “El Movimiento,” that embrace this identity while expressing support for people and communities similarly marginalized within American society. These artists paved the way for later generations of printmakers, also featured in this exhibition, to delve into domestic and global politics while advocating for feminism, immigrant and LGBTQIA+ rights, and other social justice concerns.

Oree Originol. Justice for Our Lives, 2014–2020. 100 digital images. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum purchase through the Patricia Tobacco Forrester Endowment, 2020.51A-MM. © 2014, Oree Originol

¡Printing the Revolution! is drawn from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s extensive collection of Chicano graphics, the largest museum collection of its kind on the East Coast. Starting in 1995, the Smithsonian American Art Museum received major print donations from Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, Gilberto Cárdenas and Dolores García, Drs. Ricardo and Harriett Romo, and the estate of Margaret Terrazas Santos, all of whom saw their collecting as a form of activism. These treasured gifts, and the museum’s own leadership, spotlight the important place of Chicano graphic arts within the history of US printmaking.

A New Chicano World: To rename yourself Chicano was a bold assertion of an identity grounded in hybrid notions of Mexicanness, indigeneity, and participation in the larger currents of national culture and history. Rejecting the “melting pot” idea that immigrant and nonwhite individuals should assimilate, Chicano artists used the print medium to project their ideal of a distinct bicultural identity.

In this section, we see works by Chicanx and LGBTQIA+ artists who have pushed back against the patriarchal and heteronormative implications of the masculine term Chicano, preferring instead the gender-neutral and nonbinary alternative Chicanx. Because it reflects the shifting, compound nature of identity in contemporary America, the term Chicanx is used, when appropriate, throughout the remainder of this exhibition.

Urgent Images: In the 1960s, Chicanx artists actively supported the United Farm Workers (UFW), a labor union founded by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta to combat the difficult working conditions of California farmworkers. Chávez knew that art could amplify the reach of the farmworkers’ movement and involved artists from the very start. Activist artists also connected their work to the plight of farmworkers and other urgent social causes, including the civil rights movement, the anti–Vietnam War effort, environmentalism, immigrant rights, and the struggle against police brutality. Drawing inspiration from radical graphics traditions in Mexico, Cuba, and elsewhere and adopting strategies from pop and conceptual art, artists used bold lettering, declarative text, and eye-popping color to engage the public. To reach a wide audience, artists disseminated their prints via mail order and at demonstrations and posted them throughout fields, urban barrios (neighborhoods), and college campuses.

Malaquias Montoya. Yo Soy Chicano, 1972, reprinted in collaboration with Dignidad Rebelde 2013. Screenprint on paper; 20 1/2 x 16 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Gilberto Cárdenas and Dolores García, 2019.51.1. © 1972, Malaquias Montoya

Changemakers: Many Chicanx artists and their collaborators use portraiture to provide insight into figures who have paved the way in the struggle for human rights. Recognizing that their lives and deeds aren’t often included in schoolbooks or curricula, artists highlight individuals who have inspired progress, often without fanfare or renown. These portraits are derived from historical photographs, and the artists often quote their subjects or recount their achievements, calling attention to the necessity of activism for effecting social change.

Digital Innovations and Public Interventions: In today’s digital age, artists often seek to overcome the limited reach of graphics on paper. Disseminated across the internet, digital images expose wide audiences to messages of solidarity, the fight against injustice, and the need for social change. Some digital graphics are available for people to download and print, while others primarily exist online, providing more opportunities for interaction and engagement.

Reimagining National and Global Histories: Many Chicanx artists visualize new or revisionist narratives that critically reflect on pivotal moments in US and world history. Their subjects address the root causes and current status of struggles of people across the globe, whether the genocides of Indigenous populations or such events as the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and the end of Apartheid in South Africa. As part of an international movement of activists who challenge injustice wherever it occurs, these artists convey empathy for the powerless and marginalized, often proposing alternative outcomes to support their ongoing struggle.


Frist Arts Fest is Sunday, July 21, 2024; 1:00–5:30 p.m. Free for members and guests ages 18 and younger; $15 for adults; only $3 for EBT cardholders (with ID, per adult for up to 4 adults).

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