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Blog Post

Rhizomes: A Mexican American Art Digital Initiative

By Gab Alderete-Cruz
March 1, 2022
Rhizomes: A Mexican American Art Digital Initiative

The Mexican American Art Since 1848 (MAAS1848) portal is an online, open-source collection of Mexican American visual art that was created by Karen Mary Davalos (University of Minnesota, Twin Cities) and Constance Cortez (University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley) along with a team of scholars, developers, librarians, and archivists. The MAAS1848 portal is one of four parts under a larger digital humanities initiative entitled Rhizomes, which aims to “resolve the misunderstandings and invisibility of visual art by Mexican American artists, a dispossessed community.” The other components of Rhizomes are: a book series that covers artists’ works, collectives, and history; K-16 curricula and lesson plans; and an institutional map that provides information on partner institutions that house Mexican American art. Together, these community-based projects seek to deconstruct and address harmful colonial practices that galleries, libraries, museums, and archives (GLAM) have previously replicated.

Western categorizations and classifications of knowledge systems within GLAMs have typically valorized Eurocentric male perspectives that rely on the guise of neutrality. It is argued that these institutions must remain “objective” when collecting and providing access to materials, however, that is not the case when the library field is part of an imbalanced power structure that favors a default of whiteness and tends to exclude diverse histories and narratives. What would it look like then, to subvert these harmful systems of oppression and envision ones that dismantle gatekeeping practices? By rethinking our notions of progress and social change, we can consider whose culture is represented and whether diversity merely serves as a buzzword for performative allyship or if it can effect genuine change for marginalized communities. In the digital age, GLAM institutions are increasingly turning toward digitizing their collections, not only to address sustainability concerns, but to address issues of equity and to make them more accessible to researchers and the public writ large. With online collections, technological innovations pave the way to streamline how users interact with digital interfaces and searchable databases. Yet, these technologies are also subject to human biases and unfortunately reflect systemic issues of privilege, or what bell hooks calls white supremacist-cis-hetero-patriarchal-capitalist paradigms.

The post-custodial method is one way to implement a socially conscientious design in collection development and information dissemination. Post-custodial methods work to provide equitable approaches to archiving and digital collections by allowing holding institutions continued preservation and access to their materials. The portal (MAAS1848) uses post-custodial and decolonial methodologies to emphasize reciprocity, engage community input, and preserve original ownership of materials, objects, and artifacts. In order to maintain a post-custodial framework, MAAS1848 has partnered with digital libraries including Calisphere, the Portal to Texas History, and the Digital Public Library of America, and two museums, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, allowing users and researchers access to a wide array of culturally significant materials. Once users conduct a search and find what they are looking for in the portal, they can view artwork and have the option to navigate to the artwork’s parent institution.

When users search through the portal by subject field or keyword, the results are populated according to the parent institution’s naming practices or subject heading categorizations, which usually follow the Library of Congress Subject Headings and Library of Congress Authorities. Oftentimes, these are lacking in cultural or language efficiency and have been noted to be racist, sexist, and homophobic. Consequently, authority records can then become a tool to control classification and subsequently control who is able to gain access to libraries and digital collections or exclude them altogether. In an effort to combat ill-fitting search terms, the MAAS1848 portal has implemented a tag feature that visitors can use to suggest more appropriate terms. For example, subject fields may not be populated with the term “queer” and users searching this word will not find adequate results. MAAS1848 then allows the user to tag a search result or artwork as queer and this will subsequently increase the visibility of queer communities.

Since it is concerning that the classification systems of GLAM institutions can still contribute to colonial logics of archival violence via classification systems, how do digital post-custodial efforts that work with GLAM institutions, such as MAAS1848, ensure decolonial methodologies? The portal has integrated these methodologies by centering community input and has even developed a Socio-Technical Protocol in which Rhizomes will be able to form collaborative and sustainable relationships with stakeholders and communities these collections represent, no matter if they are partnered with under-funded institutions or exist in completely different geographic locations. This work is, of course, imperfect. For example, I worry about the naming of the portal and its emphasis on the year 1848, as the valorization of this year typically accentuates nationalist narratives, rather than being mindful of Indigenous peoples who occupied the Texas and Mexican territories beforehand. This timeframe also elides the nuances of classism and racism, especially concerning the Black population who were enslaved at this time and still to this day face systemic oppression, particularly among Latino communities as well.

The work of MAAS1848 continues as we bring on more partner institutions. Its second iteration will include partnering with the National Museum of Mexican Art, the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and the Mexic-Arte Museum. These collaborations will require the ingestion of thousands of records, which brings more questions about digitizing and classifying materials and how to do so efficiently, while also keeping decolonial strategies in mind. Despite gaps that might have been overlooked within MAAS1848, it is actively striving to do the important work of getting away from Eurocentric colonial practices and aims to set an example of how to integrate and sustain multilingual, post-custodial collections for marginalized communities.

Gab Alderete-Cruz (she/ her/ hers) is a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. She holds a B.A. in women’s studies from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is currently pursuing her M.A. in women’s and gender studies and M.S. in information studies. Her research draws on Black feminist studies, postcolonial studies, and critical librarianship.

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