‘Contemporary Ex-Votos’ explores the iconographic art form

“Ex-voto: Lord of Mercy of the Encarnacion de Diaz,” Jose Hernandez R., 1949. (Courtesy of Jose Hernandez R.)

Cultural historians have often dismissed ex-votos as folk art or relegated them to curios sold as souvenirs.

These small paintings are a kind of retablo or small devotional works depicting miracles on pewter.

A group of artists and curators designed a New Mexico State University exhibit to convince critics that these personalized objects deserve categorization as fine art.

Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium opens September 30 and explores this little-explored iconographic art form.

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“I continue to delve into the discriminatory history of Mexican history’s inclusion of more elite members of society,” said curator Emmanuel Ortega, assistant professor of the arts of Spanish America at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

During the colonial era, Native Americans were barred from making religious art, Ortega said. Only members of the high caste and society received commissions from the church or wealthy patrons.

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“It left its mark on Mexican art history almost invisibly,” he explained. “Ex-votos were paintings created by a (local) artist. They were a way of giving thanks for a miracle performed by a certain saint.”

Ordinary people appropriated the sheet metal used for roofing as a canvas. They showed the results in their own four walls.

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These “ex-votos violate all established rules of art-making,” Ortega said.

The NMSU Art Museum houses the largest collection of Mexican retablos in the United States. The exhibition examines the importance these works of art have in American history.

Ortega commissioned 15 emerging Latinx artists to explore the collection and conjure up their own visions of devotional art. The show combines these with the historical works in the collection.

“I told them, ‘All you have to think about is dedication and resilience,'” Ortega said.

Chicago-based artist Yvette Mayorga created an installation of a “Pink Chapel” using her signature sculptural pottery-tube method paired with “frosted” found objects resembling French Rococo votive offerings. During a week-long NMSU residency, Mayorga completed a personal pilgrimage that began 20 years ago at the Santuario del Santo Niño de Atocha de Plateros in Zacatecas, Mexico and ended at the Santuario de Chimayó in New Mexico.

Xochi Solis, an NMSU artist-in-residence, enlarged images of the original retablos on her computer, printed them, and then reassembled them with abstracted elements of color, shapes, and materials in vinyl, paper, and cutouts.

Solis, who works primarily in collage and painting, knew about ex-votos from her art history class but had never really studied them until she came to Las Cruces.

Her 12-by-14-foot installation consists of a suite of about 25 collages of found images and ephemera.

“I was really inspired by the ex-votos that I saw,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Austin, Texas. “I viewed the images as a person not indoctrinated by Catholicism. I was drawn to the gestures, to the colors.

“It wasn’t until I could put my hands on it (with gloves of course) that I could see the color effervescent and how they relate to each other.”

Solis entitled her installation “A Tourist in a Dream”.

“I started to think of it as a narrative about a shared collective trauma and our shared experiences of the pandemic,” Solis said. “They connect and engage our shared grief and bring us into community.”

Albuquerque’s Sandy Rodriguez chose images that deal with state violence, particularly people detained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Guadalupe Maravilla commissioned the Vilchis family in Mexico, known for their ex-votos, to paint a picture of themselves sleeping in a car with their dog. He captioned the oil on pewter “I send love to my eight year old self retablo.”

In the 1980s, Maravilla immigrated to the United States as a child from El Salvador when his country was ravaged by a bloody civil war.

He learned to draw before he could speak. Much of his art relates to the trauma of displacement.

Maravilla is known for his towering sculptures and haunting sound art – exhibitions of which have been shown at the Museum of Modern Art and the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

Ortega organized an undergraduate seminar at UIC where talks on critical responses to ex-votos ranged from new ways of looking at translations to a reappraisal of outdated art historical language, which she categorized as folk art.

In the 19th century, new printing techniques developed that made religious images accessible to all.

“You didn’t have to go to a church,” Ortega said. “You could see it on a stamp or a calendar.”

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