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National Portrait Gallery exhibition focuses on Latino portraiture with works by two Miami artists

María Martínez-Cañas’s photographs in the National Portrait Gallery (NPG)’s exhibition, “Portraiture Now: Staging the Self,” overlay her face on top of her father’s, subtly grounding her identity in his.

In an adjacent gallery at the Smithsonian museum, Michael Vasquez’s paintings are anything but subtle. Nonetheless, his boldly painted portraits of the gang members he knew growing up in St. Petersburg offer another vantage point on family.

These two Miami artists are among a half-dozen in an NPG exhibition focused on Latino artists. If their works are markedly different from each other, that’s part of the show’s intent. Taína Caragol, curator of Latino art and history and the lead organizer of the exhibition, notes, “Latino art is different across the country. There is no way you can present Latino art as one thing.” Challenging the commonly held notion of portraiture is another of her goals: “Portraiture is not as literal as it seems,” she says. “It’s a place where we fashion an image of ourselves, a place we come to find ourselves.”

The six artists in this Smithsonian exhibition draw on diverse geographies and relate individualized stories to find that sense of self and place.

Martínez-Cañas was born in Cuba and lived in Puerto Rico before settling in Miami, where she teaches at the New World School of the Arts. In a series titled Duplicity as Identity, she has overlaid images of herself on ones of her father at the same age, progressively ranging from 90 percent him and 10 percent her to the reverse ratio. At each end of the series, the similarities in facial structure and appearance between her and her father are startling and raise questions of continuity and individuality within the family.

“It was great that my father could see I was dealing with this issue of self identity and that I needed to be working through it,” Martínez-Cañas says. “He’s always been the president of my fan club.”

By contrast, it’s the absence of a father figure that informs Vasquez’s paintings. Vasquez, who studied at NWSA and now lives in Miami, paints large-scale, almost confrontational images of gang members. He portrays them from his perspective of a boy growing up with a single mother. His paintings reflect both the allure of the gang as a surrogate family and the conflicting emotions of alienation.

The artist acknowledges that his subject matter might play into stereotypes, but he advises viewers to dig deeper and look at “the issues from that time that I’m trying to confront.” He adds that the gang, for him, provided an extended family and embodied masculinity as he transitioned from boy to manhood.

The four other Latino artists included in “Staging the Self” also explore race, migration, family and identity.

David Antonio Cruz’s forceful canvases map out stories he says have been omitted from the narrative of Puerto Rican immigration. His paintings feature images of himself and his friends, falling or free floating, mimicking the impact of migration on one’s sense of belonging. The china, costumes, rags and gold leaf that he affixes to his canvases both stage and obscure what Cruz calls “the queer body.” Lavish flows of chocolate enamel paint are a symbolic reminder that “brownness” is often invisible in the American racial binary.

That same ambivalence about skin color imbues Rachelle Mozman’s photographs, which cast her mother and herself as characters exploring their shared family history. She describes her work as “the intersection of documentary, narration and performance,” but it is also reminiscent of telenovelas. In one image, Mozman, who divides her time between New York and Panama, explores class and race as her mother plays three roles, two sisters — one light-skinned, one darker — and a maid.

Karen Miranda Rivadeneira, a New Yorker from an Ecuadorian family now living in San Francisco, also stages photographs of moments in her family’s past, moments that may not have been recorded at the time. She recreates them from memory, inserting her adult self into childhood memories.

Handwritten captions and dates turn the photographs into a diary and show how traditions are passed on from one generation to the next.

Los Angeles-based Carlee Fernandez is showing two series of photographs. In Bear Studies, she explores the relationship between humans and nature by photographing herself wearing portions of a taxidermied bearskin; in The Strand that Holds Us Together, she explores gender issues by inserting herself into images of famous men she admires.

Such a diversity of mediums and styles in the exhibition may, at first glance, obscure a unifying theme. Two of Fernandez’s photographs, however, one of her father, one of herself, both dressed and posed alike, inevitably recall the father/daughter relationship that Martínez-Cañas also explores, and clearly delineate the singularity of family in these expressions of Latino self-identity.

The focus of “Staging the Self” focus on Latino portraiture is part of an ongoing effort by the national museum complex to include Latino history and audiences in its programming. “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” debuted at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and earlier this year was presented at Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum.

A future exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery will focus on Dolores Huerta, the labor leader and civil-rights activist who co-founded with César Chavez what would become the United Farm Workers.