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Faces Of A People, A Remarkable Exhibit… Fruits Of Tracing Own Roots

Faces Of A People


July 17, 2005
Copyright © 2005 MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

What's in a face?

A nation's history.

In 18th century Latin America, the daughters of wealthy families who didn't marry entered convents, some by choice, others forced to live a cloistered life.

Their families gave generous dowries to the church and when the women took their final vows, they dressed up in their religious order's most fanciful garb. ''Crowned'' with a headpiece, they posed for a portrait.

These monjas coronadas -- crowned nuns -- became a portrait genre first in Mexico, then in Colombia and Ecuador. Painted by anonymous artists, they're among the historical works in the traveling exhibit Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits.

Opening Saturday at Miami Beach's Bass Museum of Art, Retratos is one of the most ambitious shows of Latin American art to have toured the nation in years -- and the first of its scope, according to curators, devoted exclusively to portraiture.

Most of the paintings, on loan from some 70 museums and private collectors in Latin America and Europe, had never been shown in the United States. A few were lent by U.S. museums.

From faces carved by the Moche people of Peru and the Mayan of Guatemala between 100 and 700 A.D., to the digitized DNA portrait by an artist born in Spain, raised in South America and now living in Chicago, the 115-piece exhibit spans 15 countries and a range of styles and time periods.

''Portraits are rich in messages and Latin America has a strong tradition of portraiture,'' says co-curator Miguel A. Bretos, senior scholar at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery.

A nun's crown, for instance, represented victory over sin.

Likewise, paintings of dead children, which are part of the exhibit, are from Mexico's late colonial period and depict the tradition of preserving their memory through elaborately staged portraits.

In El Niño José Manuel de Cervantes y Velasco, by an unidentified artist of the Mexican school, the deceased boy is dressed in pearl-accented wings and boots and depicted as the archangel Saint Michael. The painting includes an inscription explaining who he was, when he died, and how old he was. It was a custom in Latin American art to include explanatory text in paintings.

''Although in the painting it says he is only 8 months and 21 days old, he looks older,'' notes Diane W. Camber, executive director of the Bass. ``It's morbid, but it's charming at the same time.''

Not all is dark or religious tradition.

Among the most beautiful are portraits of women on horseback by José Campeche y Jordán, considered Puerto Rico's finest colonial painter. His equestrian portraits are notable for the detail in the elegantly dressed women and their equally fine horses in bowed, braided manes.

Some paintings make fashion statements.

Beauty marks in the form of thick black dots were placed on the portraits of Mexican society women, as in the portrait Ana María de la Campa y Cos y Ceballos by Andrés de Islas, also notable for her gorgeous baroque dress.

And there's at least one funky portrait: Fray Francisco Rodríguez, Padre de Cocula by Mexican painter Abundio Rincón (1823-1885), shows the village priest in the typical dark habit and corded sash -- and he's wearing amusingly trendy sunglasses.

Other highlights include:

• The 1865 Self-Portrait of Guadalupe Carpio with Her Family is exceptional because at a time when women's art was viewed as second-rate, Guadalupe Carpio's portrait transcended society's restrictions and became an important period piece.

• Venezuela is represented by the work of Armando Reverón (1889-1954), considered ''Latin America's first impressionist painter,'' says Marion Oettinger, senior curator at the San Antonio Museum of Art. ``His things are rare and expensive.''

But the curators were not able to travel to Venezuela to secure other works because protesters were blocking the streets from the Caracas airport to the city on their scheduled arrival.

• Historic Cuba is only represented by one piece, the 1800 portrait Don Tomás Mateo Cervantes by foremost colonial painter Vicente Escobar y Flórez, on loan from the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach.

''We couldn't bring anything from Cuba because of the political situation,'' Bretos says.

• Two portraits -- one by an anonymous Brazilian artist, the other by a Cuban living in Boston -- reflect African culture in those two countries and provide different perspectives.

The elegant Mulher de Bahía, painted in the mid-19th century, is a rare example of South American portraiture. The woman's gold jewelry and formal dress indicate she was either a slave in a wealthy household or the free daughter of slaves, curators say.

In contrast, María Magdalena Campos-Pons builds her rustic portrait Pathfinder from two Polaroid photographs of a woman clad in the iconography of Elegguá, the deity who clears the road in the Yoruba religion. The 46-year-old from the Cuban city of Matanzas is the descendant of slaves brought to the island from Nigeria to work on a sugar plantation. Campos-Pons explores identity using the red and black associated with Elegguá, a hooked branch over the woman's shoulders, and beads.

• No Latin American art exhibit would be complete without the popular modernist masters and Retratos includes works by Mexico's Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Rufino Tamayo, and Colombia's Fernando Botero.

Funded with more than $1 million from the Ford Motor Co., Retratos was in the making for almost four years by a team of four curators -- Bretos, Oettinger, Fatima Bercht from New York's Museo del Barrio, and Carolyn Kinder Carr, deputy director and chief curator of the National Portrait Gallery.

Securing the pieces required the skills of a diplomat as the curators had to deal with national laws that restrict the movement of art pieces. One piece from Argentina had to be returned before it could come to Miami because there is a six-month limit on how long works considered national patrimony can remain out of the country.

The Museo Nacional del Prado in Spain also took back one of the most significant works in the exhibit, Los mulatos de Esmeraldas by Andrés Sánchez Galpe because it needed the work for another show.

Believed to be the oldest known signed portrait in South America, the 1599 painting shows three men of mixed race -- descendants of African slaves shipwrecked on the Esmeraldas shore of today's Ecuador. The Africans paired with natives to form a zambo elite who ran the settlements. The men are depicted wearing fine Spanish garb and African gold nose and ear piercings. The work can be seen in the exhibition's catalog.

Before coming to Miami Beach, Retratos went to New York and San Diego. From here, it goes to the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C., from October to January, and to the San Antonio Museum of Art for its last run through April.

''We're very lucky to have been able to secure it,'' Camber says. ``It's an incredible exhibition, from so many sources, and with very high quality works of art.''

The Bass exhibit will include films, lectures, a concert, and educational programs.

And Miami will add its own faces to the show.

A ''portraits in motion'' van will travel to parks all summer long to capture the faces of Miami. Equipped with cameras, people can have their portraits made in the van. The works will then be exhibited at the regional library across from the Bass Museum.

'It'll be an exhibition of Miamians' portraits,'' says Camber. ``It'll be unique.''


What: Retratos: 2,000 Years of Latin American Portraits

Where: Bass Museum of Art, 2121 Park Ave., Miami Beach

When: Saturday to Oct. 2.

Cost: $8 general, $6 seniors and students, free to Bass members

Info: 305-673-7062 or

A Remarkable Exhibit Comes To Bass Museum


July 26, 2005
Copyright © 2005 MIAMI HERALD. All rights reserved.

The little boy stands in the middle of a room in a cadet's uniform and holds a book and a ball. His name is José Raymundo Juan Nepomuseno de Figueroa y Araoz . The legend tells us that he was depicted with his book and his ball because that is what he wanted.

Soon after his portrait was finished, tragedy struck. José Raymundo and his father, a colonial official, embarked for Spain. The elder Figueroa died of yellow fever in Panama; his boy finished the journey alone and died of neglect in the old country.

José Raymundo's bittersweet icon of a serene childhood and Simón Bolívar's grand state portrait, both by José Gil de Castro, are featured in Retratos: Two Thousand Years of Latin American Portraits, an exhibition running from July 23 to Oct. 2 at Miami Beach's Bass Museum of Art.

The show features 115 items from 76 lenders in 15 countries. They range from exquisite pre-Hispanic ceramics to a work based on the visual resolution of DNA strands -- the ultimate portrait of the biological self.

José Gil de Castro (1785-1841), known as El Mulato Gil, was born and trained as a painter in Peru. His first big break came in Chile, where he did portraits of Santiago's elite. He went back home when Peru became the main theater of the independence wars in 1821. Simón Bolívar was one of many patriot leaders who sat for him.

Castro belongs in a group of contemporary painters who happened to be mulattoes, like Venezuela's Juan Lovera, Cuba's Vicente Escobar and Nicolás de la Escalera, and Puerto Rico's José Campeche. The exhibit features work by Escobar and two magnificent portraits by Campeche.

A collaboration between the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, the San Antonio Museum of Art and New York's Museo del Barrio, Retratos has been four years in the making. It was funded by the Ford Motor Company Fund. As a Miamian, I am proud and delighted that this remarkable exhibit is visiting my hometown.

Working with my co-curators -- Marion Oettinger, project director and newly appointed director of the San Antonio Museum of Art; Carolyn Carr of the National Portrait Gallery; and Fatima Bercht of El Museo del Barrio -- has been uplifting. Marion's insights and Carolyn's remarkable eye kept us focused both on the little people and the big picture. Without Fatima's field knowledge and gift for logistics Retratos would not have happened.

As in so many other things, Mexico's ancient Olmecs were the first. Their huge stone heads are rather difficult to move around, so we begin with the far more manageable Moche of Peru, who produced ceramic portraits of remarkable clarity and lifelikeness some 15 centuries ago. At the other end of the exhibit's time scale, a self-portrait by Cuban American María Magdalena Campos Pons honors Elegguá, one of the holy orishas of Santeria.

Retratos is a unique opportunity to enjoy a wide range of great art. We've got big names, too: Botero, Kahlo, Rivera, Tamayo, Berni, Orozco, Segal, Campeche, Siqueiros, Portinari and Guayasamín are all there. Also featured are the less well known, the barely known and the downright anonymous.

Guadalupe Carpio is among the lesser known but her self-portrait with her family is a delight. In 19th century Mexico, for women to paint was regarded as a harmless feminine craft, like making bobbin lace or macramé. Most female painters -- Carpio included -- consequently became copyists. Her family portrait, however, is remarkably sophisticated, revealing mature skills and sensibilities.

In many years of teaching, I have never seen the contours of Latin America's past emerge more vividly. Retratos lets us look at the protagonists of 2,000 years of history in the eye. In the language of art, it reminds us of great events and transformations but also how important it is for a child to hang on to his favorite toys, or for an obscure Mexican woman artist to take up her brushes and show them that painting is much more than macramé.

Miguel A. Bretos is a senior scholar at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Exhibit Shows Fruits Of Tracing Own Roots


August 10, 2005
Copyright © 2005 THE REPUBLICAN. All rights reserved.

SPRINGFIELD - It all started with the tales of a man who developed towns in Puerto Rico and changed the lives of humble villagers.

His name was Manuel Fontanez Sanchez. To Rolando Fontanez, he was simply his abuelo, his father's father.

"To me he was just a simple man. It was hard for me to believe my grandfather had done so much for the people in these villages," Rolando Fontanez said.

Rolando Fontanez has always been a collector - of coins, of baseball cards and of family documents.

He moved to the United States from Puerto Rico in 1984 and, unfortunately, the home he left on the island burned to the ground a year later, on the day of his wedding. With it, he lost years worth of photographs and documents that detailed his family's history.

However, a visit several years ago to the genealogy center at Connecticut Valley Historical Museum here helped him begin a search for his family's past with the help of family historians John P. O'Connor and Michelle Barker.

Now, Fontanez's findings going back seven generations are on display at the museum through September. This weekend, he will speak at a program to help other Puerto Ricans begin research into their own family histories.

"Unfortunately we do not have a lot of Latino records here. I showed him my family genealogy and gave him some ideas about where to look," O'Connor said.

Fontanez's search led him back to his native Puerto Rico where he spent almost three months immersed in the history of his family.

"My grandfather, Manuel, was always proud of our last name, of our history. He wanted us to treasure it and always respect it," Fontanez said.

Manuel Fontanez had been a leader in the village of Canejas where he brought the first roads, electricity and - most importantly - the first school. Fontanez obtained letters from the government in the 1950s detailing many of the plans his grandfather presented to them.

Next, Fontanez asked a relative for his grandfather's military papers from the U.S. Army and contacted the Department of Health in Puerto Rico to get records of birth, marriages and death.

He visited the Felisa Rincón de Gautier Museum, where he found a photograph of his grandfather gathered with many villagers in town, including the mayor. Then he visited the General Historic Archives of Puerto Rico where, along with a friend, Fontanez pored over thousands of photos in search of references to his grandfather, but found nothing.  

He decided to continue asking his family and, from one of his aunts, he tracked down a photograph of his grandfather as a young man in the military.

Fontanez also got permission from the diocese to look up records of baptisms and marriages. The records were mostly at the Cathedral of the Sweet Name of Jesus in Caguas but, because the materials could not be photocopied because the books dated to the 1700s, he had to search and write in a notebook each detail of any Fontanez listed.

"I was able to trace back three or four generations," he said.

Another of his prized possessions is a document given to him by a second cousin detailing the hard times the family went through when the Spanish were in possession of the island. "That cousin knew my great-grandfather, Victoriano, who was an agriculturist who cultivated coffee and tobacco," he said.

Fontanez's late father, Gilberto Fontanez Martinez, also has a rich history in Puerto Rico, where he was a well-known musician and an engineer-turned-doctor. He is still known as "the doctor of the poor," because he would treat people free and would play dominos with them.

O'Connor and Barker are very impressed with Fontanez's success in researching his family history.

"He was able to give us so much information on an ethnic group that we don't represent as much as we'd like to," said Barker, who created the exhibit.

Fontanez's wife, Jeannette, and his son, Rolando Jr., are proud of Fontanez and the work he has done. The display is in English and there is also a Spanish version done by his wife.

"We had never been separated before he went to Puerto Rico, but I knew this was something that was very important to him. I was so impressed with everything that he brought back with him," she said.

Fontanez wants to create a complete family history going back to Spain. "Someday if my son has children, I want my grandchildren to know their heritage, because they won't know where they are going until they know where they came from."

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