Native and Latin American Art Splashes into UCSB

(Image courtesy of UCSB's AD&A museum)

Jeremy Levine
Deputy Editor

Coming as a surprise to many University of California, Santa Barbara students, an art museum exists on campus that regularly hosts internationally renowned exhibits, available to all visitors for free. Located to the left across Storke Plaza when facing away from the University Center, UCSB’s Art, Design, & Architecture Museum held a reception on Wednesday, Sept. 27 to showcase its exhibits for the fall.

Crackers, cookies, chocolates, and fruit greeted the reception’s visitors, a mix of students, parents, and community members. Adding to the upbeat atmosphere, Latin American music inspired by the journeys of one of the featured artists played in front of the museum entrance, courtesy of KCSB.

Upon entering the museum, the soothing sound of a Native American flute wafted from the main exhibit, it’s unmistakable warble setting a more contemplative mood. Colorful acrylic paintings by Santa Barbara Chumash artist Mitchell Robles hung on the opening room, depicting Chumash symbols, abstract animals, and inexplicably evocative petroglyphs.

Challenging stereotypical Western conceptions of art, the “Sacred Art in the Age of Contact: Chumash and Latin American Traditions in Santa Barbara” exhibit compares European and Native American ideas of what art means. More organic Native American woven baskets, tools, and painted symbols contrast with the baroque, traditionally European missionary style of painting and sculpture.

The Bottom Line interviewed American Indian Flutist Emiliano Campobello, the source of the music from inside the museum during the reception. Although not of Chumash heritage, he is a fifth generation Californian of Mexican-Indian descent deeply involved in the Chumash community. He gave a general explanation of how Native Americans viewed art.

“[Art] was part of life,” Emiliano said. “It’s not like art was a separate category, it was integrated into all facets of life.” The practicality of the Chumash artifacts is particularly apparent when juxtaposed to the religious representations of the Spanish colonial and Mexican missionary artwork.

Next to “Sacred Art in the Age of Contact,” “The Schoolhouse and the Bus (La Escuela Y El Autobús)” highlights work by two prominent “social practice” artists, Suzanne Lacy and Pablo Helguera. Social practice, as described by exhibit curator Elyse Gonzales, “is an art form … that is focused on audience participation, and it is about that participation that the public has with the artist; [the public’s involvement] is that work of art.”

A timeline of the United State’s war on drugs, an element of Lacy’s “El Autobús,” plasters the wall closest to the exhibit entrance. Gonzales explained that the timeline provided context for Lacy’s exhibit, a collage of personal objects from residents of the the infamously dangerous Colombian neighborhood Barrio Antioquia.

Completed in 1999, Lacy’s work was originally located on a bus so that it could be mobile and accessible to the community. The AD&A Museum used metal sheeting and dim, Christmas-light-like lighting to recreate the original presentation to powerful effect. Although seemingly an assortment of random objects, the items are actually a collage of personally significant items community members in the barrio (Spanish for neighborhood) donated to the project. They present a community uniting in the face of extreme circumstances — Gonzales claimed the barrio had experienced over 200 deaths in 1998 at the hands of crime and gang violence.

In the center of the room with Lacy’s exhibit, a yellow canvas-covered wooden structure houses a television looping a video which explains artist Helguera’s piece, “The Schoolhouse.” Helguera journeyed through 29 stops, starting in Anchorage, Alaska and ending at Latin America’s southernmost tip, transporting a makeshift schoolhouse with him. He held workshops throughout the Americas called The School of PanAmerican Unrest, trying to discover through talking to communities if there was a spirit of PanAmerican unity. Gonzales said the yellow-canvas structure was a more stable recreation designed by the museum’s staff.

While the schoolhouse recreation was not particularly striking, photos paired with short, blog-like entries provide a fascinating depiction of Helguera’s journey from Anchorage to the southernmost tip of South America, surrounding the yellow tent to spill into the exhibit’s second room. The writing paired with the photos jumps between descriptions of the journey to personal life stories to excerpts from speeches given along Helguera’s stops, often zooming out to contextualize the stories he tells in a historical narrative. The exhibit is very accessible, with seemingly ordinary photos accompanying Helguera’s extraordinary experiences. He writes simply but clearly, choosing to show life as it is rather than a polished snapshot.

While snacks aren’t usually available nor is a Native American flutist playing, these accessories attracted a large crowd to the gallery that was often noisy enough to distract from the exhibits. UCSB students can visit during regular museum hours to appreciate world-class art when fewer enthusiasts (or parents) are present to disrupt appreciating the exhibits. As Gonzales said, the museum hopes “that [students] learn something new and that this opens their eyes and minds to something entirely different.”

UCSB’s Art, Architecture, & Design Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, 12-5 p.m. and until 8 p.m. on Thursdays. Special events for the exhibit can be found on their website