'Contemporary Ex-Votos' explores the iconographic art form

‘Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium’ explores the understudied 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 curiosities sold as souvenirs.

These small paintings are a type of retablo or small devotional work depicting miracles on tin.

A group of artists and curators have designed a New Mexico State University exhibition to persuade critics that these personalized objects deserve to be categorized as fine art.

Opening on Sept. 30, “Contemporary Ex-Votos: Devotion Beyond Medium” sheds light on this understudied iconographic art form.

“I’m always looking at the discriminatory history of the inclusion of more elite members of society in Mexican history,” said curator Emmanuel Ortega, an assistant professor of art of the Spanish Americas at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

During the colonial period, Indigenous people were excluded from making religious art, Ortega said. Only high-caste, society people received commissions from the church or wealthy patrons.

“So that left their imprint on Mexican art history almost invisible,” he explained. “Ex-votos were paintings created by a (local) artist. They were a way to say thank you for a miracle performed by a specific saint.”

Ordinary people appropriated the tin used in roofing as their canvas. They displayed the results in their own homes.

These “Ex-votos go against all the established rules of art-making,” Ortega said.

The NMSU Art Museum houses the largest collection of Mexican retablos in the U.S. The exhibition explores the importance these artworks hold in the history of the Americas.

Ortega commissioned 15 emerging Latinx artists to research the collection and conjure their own visions of devotional art. The show pairs these with the historic works in the collection.

“I told them, ‘All you have to think about is devotion, as well as resilience,’ ” Ortega said.

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

Xochi Solis, a NMSU artist in residency, enlarged images of the original retablos on her computer, printed them and then reassembled them using abstracted elements of color, forms and materials in vinyl, paper and cutouts.

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

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

“I was really inspired by the ex-votos I’d seen,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Austin, Texas. “I was coming at the images as a person not indoctrinated by Catholicism. I was drawn to the gestures, to the colors.

“It wasn’t until I was able to put my hands on them (with gloves, of course) when I could see how the paint bubbles and their relationship to each other.”

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

“I began to think of them as a narrative of shared collective trauma and our shared experiences of the pandemic,” Solis said. “They connect and engage our shared grief and bring us in community with each other.”

Albuquerque’s Sandy Rodriguez chose imagery dealing with state violence, specifically people jailed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Guadalupe Maravilla commissioned the Vilchis family in Mexico, known for their ex-votos, to paint an image of himself sleeping in a car with his dog. He titled the oil on tin “I am sending love to my eight-year-old self retablo.”

During the 1980s, Maravilla migrated to the U.S. from El Salvador as a child when his country was consumed by a bloody civil war.

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

Maravilla is known for his looming 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 conversations about critical responses to ex-votos ranged from new ways to consider translation to a reconsideration of outdated art-historical language categorizing them as folk art.

By the 19th century, new printmaking techniques evolved, making religious imagery available to all.

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

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