Some of the most iconic European masterpieces convey simple, universal feelings, but white artists do not have a monopoly on expressions of love, bravery, wanderlust, curiosity, or compassion. Artist Chico Sierra’s awareness of this fundamental truth permeates his exhibition, “Appropriation Nation,” in a beautiful and enticing way. Rather than attempting to assert the legitimacy of indigenous culture by claiming sovereignty over human experiences that transcend race and nationality, Sierra offers his viewers an intimate opportunity to observe Latinx subjects as they prominently contemplate the universe and their place within its bounty of intangible wonders.
Ranging from recognizable to surreal, each of Sierra’s watercolor pieces invokes a serenity that withstands contemporary appropriation. Even if viewers do not physically recognize themselves in the art, they almost certainly will find emotional resonance in the material. Many of the works boast a celestial motif, which, juxtaposed against the deeply personal circumstances of the subjects, lends a humility and self-awareness to the images. Every human being who has ever lived is an offspring of the same cosmic majesty.
There is a pronounced and disarming vulnerability to Sierra’s characters, although it would be folly to mistake this for passivity or weakness. For example, in “San Pedro en los Brazos de Jesus,” two young Chicano men share a romantic embrace beneath a swirling arch of galaxies. Whatever judgments society might render against their love, the couple serenely expose who they are to the sublimity of the cosmos. Through this act of courage and authenticity, the subjects exercise agency and resist stereotypes about what it means to be a Latino man.
Perhaps one of the most familiar images featured in the exhibition is “Madonna and Child,” which places an indigenous mother and infant in the roles of Mary and Jesus. The fragility of the child as he is clutched by his mother is a poignant metaphor for the primacy of the maternal bond across time and place. Thanks to Sierra’s liberal use of bold colors in adorning the subjects, they practically radiate with life and optimism.
One of the truly brilliant entries in the show, “She Took a Dip,” invites viewers to further reconcile themes of vulnerability and strength. The painting features a nude woman bathing in a body of water, the depths of which are a gorgeous purple and obsidian tapestry dotted with planets and stars. Perhaps as another ode to the supremacy of nature over all living things, her plunge into these waters could function as an act of enlightenment.
Veneration of women is a pan-cultural, prehistoric phenomenon, but the female subjects in Sierra’s art defy crude sexualization. Apparently indifferent to her own nudity, the woman taking a dip wears a stoic expression, proud and supremely confident in her raw humanity.
Many of the works in “Appropriation Nation” exude tranquility. The subjects frequently have their eyes closed — or at least positioned in a gaze toward the heavens. Yet this doesn’t have to suggest conventional religious faith, but rather an awareness by the individuals who populate Sierra’s artistic world that they belong to something magnificent and are merely single components of a diverse and enthralling universe. Such visages grant the characters great sensitivity while still empowering them as people.
Sierra’s refusal to treat his subjects as reductive, two-dimensional condemnations of cultural appropriation is what makes this exhibit so remarkable. The compassion and dignity inherent in each piece, combined with the artist’s vibrant palette, make “Appropriation Nation” a feast for the eyes and the soul.
“Appropriation Nation” continues at KCAC’s Snap Gallery, 201 Wyandotte St., through March 31. Hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday. For more information, 816-421-5222 or www.kansascityartistscoalition.org.