Whatchacallit? What do words matter?

An issue that anyone dealing with ethnic arts runs into sooner or later is the issue of language. What words do we use to label artists and their art? Should we be in the business of labeling people at all? It’s a difficult issue and one that we face a lot at Xico.At Xico we work with a lot of artists that identify as Hispanic, we also work with artists that identify as Latino, Chicano, Mexican, Indigenous, Native American, Indio, and Indian. We also have artists that don’t want to be identified by their ethnicity. They simply want to be artists.

So what should an organization do when it comes time to describe the artists (or others) that they work with? Some artists are proud of their heritage, and they want to be identified by it. The term Chicano for example connects an artist with the Chicano Movement and they are proud to be Chicano artists producing Chicano art. These artists want to show that their “ethnic” art is as good as (or better than) “fine art.”

Other artists are resistant to being identified just by their ethnicity. They want their art to stand on its own, as “good art” no matter who created it. This group of artists may also “adopt” different identities at different times. However they see their own heritage, they recognize that their art is inspired by many sources and don’t want it to be boxed into “Latino art” or “Mexican art.”

Of course, artists are free to identify themselves any way that they want, but it doesn’t help organizations to describe the artists and art that they work with. Our policy at Xico is simply to do as little labeling as possible. We ask artists to self-identify and we do our best to use terms that each individual is comfortable with. It’s not a perfect solution, but it seems to work for us. Please let us know in the comments if you have any thoughts on this issue.

UPDATE: It looks like this is an issue that a lot of people struggle with, here’s a neat post and discussion on the Tiki Tiki Blog about this subject from a Latina/Hispanic perspective.

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