Why Culturally Informed Search Strategies?

Mexican American Art Since 1848 is a digital portal that will progressively aggregate Mexican American art and related documentation from dozens of digital collections in libraries, archives, and museums located throughout the United States (See Homepage for basics). With each iteration, Mexican American Art Since 1848 will enable users to search through collections of Mexican American art housed at partner institutions. This will make it easier for users to search through digitized collections of art that remain hard to find. We hope this will encourage more research and teaching on the breadth and scope of artistic work by generations of Mexican-heritage artists. We also hope that these interactions will benefit partner institutions with attention, acclaim, and funding opportunities. But first, users have to be able to search the collections effectively. This is why our team is working to develop “culturally-informed search strategies.” 

What are “search strategies”?

For our purposes, search strategies encompass all the ways that users of digital collections go about finding particular types of artwork. One of the reasons that Mexican American visual art has been so difficult to find is that mainstream conventions of classifying artwork rely on understandings of art that lack useful categories to direct users to art created, exhibited, and collected by Mexican Americans. We share this story when explaining the significance of the portal and the larger initiative and the logic for the creation of new, culturally-informed metadata.

When is a piñata not a piñata?

When it enters a museum collection and Eurocentric standards in cataloging and classification identify it as a “vessel.” 

Granted, “piñata” has entered the English-language lexicon and many people know that it is an object filled with treats (unusually candy!) and deliberately broken to acquire the treats during a game in which participants are blindfolded and swing a bat or stick at the hanging piñata. Yet, I wonder how the Metropolitan Museum of Art would respond if I swung a stick at their “vessels”… Oh, it gets worse: many museum systems use the Greek word, amfora, for jar, vase or vessel, which further complicates the visibility of the piñata. Cultural experts, like many of you reading this post, simply would not search for the object using that word in any language.

Justin Favela, Gypsy Rose Piñata. 2017. Found objects, cardboard, styrofoam, paper and glue. 5'x19.5' Photo: Courtesy Petersen Automotive Museum

Piñata is a technique

Justin Favela, the Las Vegas-based artist, creates fabulous sculptures and two-dimensional works inspired by the piñata. He uses both the techniques and materials of the piñata: the tissue paper, the glue, and cardboard. He incorporates the folding and cutting of tissue paper to create the multi-layered external form of a piñata into his art. As such, we attach the descriptor “piñata” to his technique and his art (and in the above case, “lowrider” as well!). 

César Martínez, Detail, Raices antiguas/visiones nuevas (Bato con sunglasses), 1979. Mechanical reproduction on paper mounted on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum. Gift of Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, 1995.50.36

This is not a portrait

Other culturally-informed vocabularies include rasquache, domesticana, ofrenda—but not just words in Chicano Spanish or caló. Cultural experts describe the art of César A. Martínez as “portrait” even though his paintings are not representations of a specific sitter. His works are cultural portraits, lost to the conventions of art history and museum classification. Mexican American Art Since 1848 ensures that his work is discoverable because of culturally-informed descriptors, specifically, the vocabulary we add to the metadata used by the holding institution, in this case, the Smithsonian American Art Museum.