Fellows in Focus: Luis Vargas-Santiago F’20 Explores Visual Diaspora of Mexican Revolutionary Icon
Published: November 28, 2022
Luis Vargas-Santiago, 2020 Getty/ACLS Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Art, explores global art histories through the lenses of immigration and the cultural dispersion of images beyond national audiences. His research and forthcoming book examine how the image of Mexican Revolution agrarian leader Emiliano Zapata was gradually transformed into one of the most paradigmatic icons of the Americas.
ACLS recently followed up with Vargas-Santiago, a Researcher at the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, to discuss his research and the importance of analyzing art history across borders.
What made you interested in pursuing your project “The Afterlives of Zapata: A Revolutionary Icon in Mexico and the United States”?
I was born and raised in Mexico, in Chiapas, the Mexican state furthest south of the border… that’s where I met the first modern iteration of revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata in the form of a 1990s Maya guerrilla movement known as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation. My initial research on this topic focused on murals that appeared in Zapatista communities of the indigenous territories self-declared autonomous.
Later, when I moved to the United States in 2009 to pursue my PhD in art history at the Center for Latin American Visual Studies (CLAVIS) at The University of Texas at Austin, I found myself with a cluster of Mexican images on American soil. These images were different from those of my country and in many cases spoke of a bicultural identity like the Chicanx culture. It was then when I decided to seriously learn about Mexican-American culture and eventually ended up carrying out a project that, centered on the images of Zapata, would tell the story of the migrant images that for centuries have united two neighboring countries (the US and Mexico), blurring geographic borders.
The migrants of a country travel with luggage full of culture, imaginaries, and traditions. This is what I call “visual diaspora.” By thinking about the history of global art from these lenses, we find ourselves with the possibility of writing new narratives.
Left: Luis Vargas and Cecilia Reyes at the opening of “Emiliano. Zapata después de Zapata” at Mexico City’s Museum of the Fine Arts Palace, November 2019. Behind them hangs El mandilón [The Househusband] by Daniel Salazar, 1995.
What led you to apply to the Getty/ACLS Postdoctoral Fellowship in Art History?
I was looking for time to work on my manuscript and to be able to advance archival work that was key to my research on the images of Zapata in Mexico and the United States. When you finish a dissertation, there are always some loose ends or pending issues that deserve more attention. My intention when applying for the Getty/ACLS Postdoctoral Fellowship in Art History was to have the material resources and free time to focus on those loose ends. On the other hand, I was very excited to be among a small group of Latin American scholars to obtain this prestigious award.
What has your research uncovered about the relationships between global art history, immigration, and nationalism?
I think the most telling truth my book reveals is that images don’t need passports to cross political borders. The migrants of a country travel with luggage full of culture, imaginaries, and traditions. This is what I call “visual diaspora.” By thinking about the history of global art from these lenses, we find ourselves with the possibility of writing new narratives where nations overflow their borders and where art and traditions play the role of agents of cultural diplomacy.
Many decades ago, Chicanxs began to speak of Greater Mexico, that country that transcends the geographical limits of the nation south of the border and begins at the Rio Grande, crosses the southwest and reaches territories as distant as New York City… I believe that today’s world requires art historical narratives beyond nationalisms. Considering the trajectories of works of art helps us to draw these new world cartographies of art histories in the plural and puts us face to face with the possibility of imagining “histories” in a minor key where racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities are heard and reviewed with new agency.
What is the relevance of depictions of Zapata to current political and social issues?
My project on Zapata has forced recognition of the still prevailing machismo and gender-based violence in Mexican and Mexican-American cultures. This was very clear with the polemic unleashed by a queer depiction of the campesino hero in the context of the exhibition Emiliano. Zapata después Zapata [Zapata after Zapata] that I curated for Mexico City’s Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes in 2019-2020. With this exhibit, I gave my research a different, wider outlet. My purpose was to demonstrate the vitality of Zapata’s icon and his importance for past and present social movements, including those related to gender politics. Unexpectedly, the inclusion of queer Zapata provoked rejection from conservative sectors seeking to censure the exhibit. In the end, this experience highlighted how relevant Zapata still is and the many social struggles and politics his legacy can relate to.
I was able to meet a group of fantastic young scholars who are rethinking art history from new directions. The cluster of Getty/ACLS fellows I had the opportunity to meet gave me certainty about the importance of our work.
How has the Getty/ACLS Postdoctoral Fellowship in the History of Art impacted you and your work?
The Getty/ACLS Postdoctoral Fellowship benefited me in many ways. First, I was able to finish my book manuscript, which is already in the editing process with a university press in Mexico. Second, I was able to meet a group of fantastic young scholars who are rethinking art history from new directions. The cluster of Getty/ACLS fellows I had the opportunity to meet gave me certainty about the importance of our work and the need to keep thinking about/from images in the 21st century. Third, the prestige of this award helped make my work more widely known.
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