Resistance art from past to future: An interview with SOMArts curators Rio Yañez and Carolina Quintanilla

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The SOMArts Cultural Center, a nonprofit art enclave located in the heart of San Francisco, opened its 19th annual Día de los Muertos exhibition Oct. 12. This year’s exhibition, centered on the theme of “Honoring Our Ancestors by Fighting for the Future,” included artwork by renowned Bay Area creators and up-and-coming sensations alike. The exhibition’s pieces individually and collectively incorporated the history of Chicanx culture and tradition into ideas of contemporary politics, social justice and activism.

In conversation with The Daily Californian, SOMArts curators Rio Yañez and Carolina Quintanilla discussed their methodology in bringing this year’s exhibition to life, as well as the ultimate impact they hope the show will have on its audiences.

“The overall vision of the show is something that could almost only happen in the Bay Area,” said Yañez. “At this point, there are so many Día de los Muertos exhibits throughout the Bay Area, and a lot of them are much more traditionally rooted in the Mexican practice of Day of the Dead. They look like traditional altars, and that’s really given us a lot of leeway to have a very contemporary vision, to have very abstract pieces and interpretations of what an altar is.”

In addition to reinterpreting the significance of the traditional Mexican “altar” through contemporary art, “Honoring Our Ancestors” commemorates the legacy of Mission-based Chicano arts icon — and Rio Yañez’s father — René Yañez, who passed away May 29 at the age of 75. René is credited with being among the first to curate Frida Kahlo’s artwork in the Bay Area and with transforming San Francisco Día de los Muertos celebrations into community activism. He curated the annual SOMArts exhibition for 18 years, eventually bringing in his son  as co-curator.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is how mixed and diverse the show is in terms of artists who, either through my dad or myself, we’ve been working with for decades — but also very young artists,” said Yañez, discussing the process of re-establishing relationships with artists he or his father had previously been working with while also building new artistic relationships. “There’s also an element of just taking a chance on someone you haven’t worked with before, or whose art you’re not familiar with, but they’ve proposed something really incredible.”

When discussing some of the exhibition’s more politically potent pieces, Yañez noted that previous years’ exhibits had more distinct narrative arcs in their portrayals of social justice.

“To be honest, I feel in this current administration, there’s just so many directions we’re being pulled in. … I don’t feel like there’s one central focus,” Yañez said. There’s so much going on in the world that artists are responding to.”

That multidimensional nature of the current political atmosphere didn’t cause the exhibit’s curators to avoid politics — rather, they embraced an intersectional approach that recognized multiple issues of social justice. Yañez and Quintanilla both emphasized certain works, such as Patricia Montgomery’s “Remembering the Missing Children,” which focuses on family separation, and cj grossman’s “MeToo/HerToo,” which is dedicated to survivors of sexual violence, as prime examples of the exhibition’s emphasis on activism.

When asked about her experience curating the exhibit for the first time, as well as her and Rio Yañez’s efforts to carry on René Yañez’s artistic legacy through the exhibition, Quintanilla expressed a firm belief in acknowledging what René would have done in the curatorial process, as well as prioritizing his belief in creative community.

“(The process) becomes like a knowledge sharing, like a community resource exchange, like professional development. … That is something I’m interested in continuing every year — making that space for artists to do all of that here,” Quintanilla said.  

Yañez and Quintanilla both discussed their hopes for the show’s impact on visiting audiences: “Ultimately, for the people that come see the show, I really want them to take away how accessible it is to really honor the dead and to create altars,” said Yañez. “The idea of the altar, and creating a personal space for someone who has passed away — there is no cultural ownership to that. There is a hope that someone will go through the exhibit and it will click with them that this is something they can do in their own personal lives.”  

“This is one of those shows that solidifies that the personal is political,” said Quintanilla, noting her desire for audiences to learn about communities other than their own. Quintanilla also hopes that audiences are able to find “pockets of joy in this exhibition that honors death” and solace in art that is both uplifting and empowering.

But of course, one can find much more than just “pockets of joy” in SOMArts’ Día de los Muertos exhibition. Thanks to Yañez and Quintanilla, visitors will leave the exhibit with fresh perspectives on the Mexican cultural celebration of Día de los Muertos, an appreciation for the contribution of René Yañez to the Bay Area art world, and above all, a wholly satisfying artistic experience.

Anagha Komaragiri covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @aaanaghaaa.