Retablos, also called ex-votos, are votive paintings made to thank a religious figure for the future or past help during a difficult time. They’re usually painted on small sheets of tin with a depiction and written description of the event, the person’s name and an image of Christ, the Virgin or the particular saint to whom the retablo is dedicated. Retablos are hung in churches or chapels; as they accumulate on the walls, they become both a display of folk art and a public record of collective troubles of the area in which they are found.
“Miracles on the Border” is an exhibition in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center that focuses on Mexican retablos made by migrants crossing from Mexico into the United States, from the United States back home, or even those who are dealing with hardships within the States. The collection spans the 20th century and represents a century’s worth of problems, ranging from giving thanks for the paperwork needed to buy a pickup truck to recovering from disease. One of the more harrowing paintings, commissioned by Concepción Zapata, reads, “I dedicate the present retablo to the Holiest Virgin of San Juan de los Lagos for having saved me from a Texan who tried to carry me off. I hid under a tree by the side of the road with my little brother.” Zapata made the retablo for San Luis Potosí. Their visual style is part of what makes them so potent: with two-dimensional figures, tripartite backgrounds and a primary color palette, they’re sometimes uncomfortably frank expressions of suffering as well as recovery. Saints hover above the scenery, surrounded by clouds and gold. Bodies are painted delicately and without defining features. They’re almost always on their knees in prayer.
To accompany this exhibit, the Loeb is screening a series of Mexican films in front of the Chapel. The first of these, shown on Sept. 17, was Maria Candelaria (dir. Emilio Fernández, 1943), the first Latin American film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a classic of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. It’s a melodrama that portrays Indigenous people in a rural scenography whose composition takes great influence from muralism, in an attempt by Fernández to create a style of cinema that would be recognizably Mexican. Other films in the series of screenings include Nosotros Los Nobles (dir. Gary Alazraki, 2013), shown on Sept. 24, and an upcoming final screening on Oct. 1 of a film that has yet to be announced. (To attend this next screening you must RSVP: https://tinyurl.com/y62d24nm.) Nosotros Los Nobles is a dark comedy of manners that deals with shifting social classes, serving as a counterpoint to the more classic storytelling of Maria Candelaria and as an example of Mexico’s contemporary popular cinema.
Next to the exhibit there is a small display of Mexican art from the Loeb’s permanent collection, the standouts among which are a few small works by muralist Diego Rivera. One of these paintings, “Roberto Rosales” (1930), draws a clear connection to retablos in its inclusion of a scroll of descriptive text underneath the portrait of a young boy. Rivera was married to Frida Kahlo, and together they were the first collectors of retablos as art. Kahlo’s own work also includes influence from retablos, either conceptually, in the way she illustrates various illnesses throughout her life, or structurally, with text and use of colors reminiscent of popular Mexican murals. Once, Kahlo bought a retablo that depicted the accident she suffered in 1925 so closely that she only had to modify it a little – most notably, adding her famous unibrow onto the face of the victim and changing the destination of the tram she was on.
“Miracles on the Border,” in conjunction with the screenings and accompanying selection of Mexican art, paints a multifaceted picture of Mexican culture in how it showcases both prominent painters and filmmakers alongside the more quotidian retablos. And as the years dating these retablos go up and up—1944, 1964, 1978, 1980—and the same depictions of being saved while crossing the Rio Grande reappear, a larger personal narrative is built, one that is impossible to convey in any other way else, since it is to these saints that people reveal their most intimate hopes, fears, secrets… It’s a rich expression of everyday life, a population painting itself.