NEPANTLA is the concept behind a collection of temporary art installations that focused on recapturing the history, culture, and heritage of the LatinX communities within East Austin. This project was the brainchild of the AIA Austin Latinos in Architecture committee in collaboration with the Austin Foundation for Architecture.
In 2020, the AIA Austin Latinos in Architecture committee (LiA) prepared to partner with the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center for the annual Las Piñatas ATX event as part of the MACC’s Día de los Muertos Festival. Started by past LiA Chair and Austin Foundation for Architecture Board Director, David Goujon, AIA, over a thousand piñatas were purchased from local small businesses, and over a dozen local artists and designers were commissioned to share art, culture, and architecture with the Latinx Austin communities. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the LiA committee was asked to modify the event’s program to best serve the community from a distance. Hence, the NEPANTLA art exhibit was created.
Nepantla is a Náhuatl term that represents the concept of in-between, or is a reference to “the space of the middle.” The art exhibit began as a concept behind a collection of temporary art installations that focused on recapturing the history, culture, and heritage of the LatinX communities within East Austin. The exhibit consisted of five art installations, each by a different artist or designer who used their preferred medium to follow the exhibit’s overall theme. LiA and AIA Austin members and staff who championed the exhibit included Braulio Hurtado Jr., Alfredo Tiznado, AIA, Ismael Olivares, AIA, Francisco Rosales, Bridget Gayle Ground, Ingrid Spencer, Annissa Calvillo, and Gabriella Bermea, AIA.
The 2020-21 edition of Las Piñatas ATX ran from October 2020-September 2021 and was supported in part by the Cultural Arts Division of the City of Austin Economic Development Department and TBG Partners. Goals for the Nepantla exhibit included engaging the east Austin community with unique installations reflective of the community members’ cultural heritage, providing additional context about the works and artists through an accessible microsite devoted to the program, engaging an increasingly large and diverse audience, and leaving attendees with a greater appreciation and understanding of LatinX heritage.
All content on the microsite, signage, and event listing on the Foundation’s webpage was fully bilingual in English and Spanish.
The five unique installations ranged from a large-scale banner to paintings, photography, and textile-based works. The variety in formats allowed the artists to convey deeper and more diverse perspectives related to their heritage and that of the changing East Austin community.
Approaches and installations from the exhibit are described below.
Dia de Muertos Papel Picado
Photos by Emerson O. Carrera and Braulio Hurtado Jr.
This series kicked off with the display of a custom, large-scale papel picado banner designed by members of the Latinos in Architecture committee. This display was directly inspired by the traditional papel picado seen throughout Mexico. The 20’x14’ banner was made of a lightweight smart fabric and was hand-cut and sewn together over the course of two weeks. The banner was installed during the 2020 and 2021 Day of the Dead celebration at the Emma S. Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center (ESB-MACC). This installation served as both anchor and entry to the rest of the installations, all located primarily in East Austin
Photos by Stephanie Gussman
“One remarkable impact the exhibit had on me – by creating La Escalera – was the relationship which blossomed with founders of the non-profit La Pena, Cynthia & Lidia Perez. They turned into mentors and partnered me with significant artists of the LatinX community in efforts to continue pushing their mission forward. La Peña’s mission is to support artistic development, to provide exposure to emerging local visual artists, musicians, poets and other performing artists, and to offer Austin residents the full spectrum of traditional and contemporary Latino art.” -Stephanie Gussman
Throughout the years, the LatinX community has embraced East Austin and has claimed their cultural space by weaving art and small businesses into the fabric of the community. Inclusion of this exhibit in LiA’s Nepantla’s Exhibition was an opportunity to remind the community of its history and its struggle. The ladder signified the steps it took to rise out of the bordered Red Zone, created with the intent to keep the people segregated.
Safe Here, With You
Photos by Maryssa Rose Chavez
In communities of color, especially for displaced, migrant, and marginalized people, we search for spaces in which we can find community and safety. This installation explored the different spaces in which people in East Austin have found safety, such as salons and barber shops, with a focus on the people who have provided these spaces for people to heal in. The images photographed were printed on large pieces of cloth and displayed outside alongside a projected video piece.
“I am from a small town in northern New Mexico called Espanola. My tias Sandra and Nel owned a small salon called Hidden Beauty’s Hair Salon where they served the community out of my grandparents’ home on a dirt road. This space was a gathering space, a place for resonada (safe conversations, safety, community, care). This was so special to see.” – Maryssa Chaves
East Side Loteria
Photo by Clarisa House
This installation was meant to be recognizable, especially to the local Mexican/Hispanic community. The images were taken from the classic Mexican game “La Loteria.” Slight alterations, reflecting some of East Austin’s historic landmarks, gentrification, and local art, were made to the images.
This image was inspired from the card La Luna. The traditional half-moon was shown shining behind one of Austin’s iconic moonlight towers. East Austin is home to three of the last 13 remaining moonlight towers in the world.
EL STREET ART
The El Corazon card was directly inspired by local artist, Federico Archileta (known as El Federico), and his murals on the East Austin bar, Whistler’s. For decades, murals and street art have been a way for locals to express themselves, making East Austin what it is – expressive, vibrant, and original.
In the installation, El Catrin was shown holding a set of architectural plans, indicative of the ongoing gentrification in East Austin which has forced lower and middle-class residents out of the neighborhood (and in most cases out of Austin altogether).
Photod by Barry Gomez
When impactful imagery and 3D elements combine, they can create a moment of reflection and introspectiveness to tell a story. In Echoes of Reflection, the same idea was applied using a double-sided custom wood panel with imagery on both ends. One side of the installation featured Images of blue-collar workers and community members of East Austin, illustrating their pride and the strength of the surrounding environment. The installation’s other side focused on the more affluent West Austin and featured the architectural compositions of corporate buildings. The wood panel was folded in the middle (like a pyramid), forming six double-sided plexiglass panels, each holding an image. Two images were displayed atop the panels, both representing the Nepantla concept of giving life to a new kind of image – one of working at a new firm/corporate office while still physically living on the East Side. This installation focused on the idea of celebrating one’s cultural ties while navigating in a space that, for many, may be far from home.
“This experience had helped me rekindle my love for my culture and reminds me that others are still finding their love for theirs, and my piece has been helping them along the way.” – Barry Gomes
For more information on this exhibit, please visit http://www.nepantla-atx.com/
Gabriella Bermea is a design architect with VLK Architects and the chair of the Latinos in Architecture Committee in Austin. She also serves as a member of the TxA Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee.