In a multiracial country, and especially in the multiracial Bay Area, we commit the act of race-spotting many times a day. We may not admit it, or even be conscious of it, but out on the streets, our understanding of ethnic affiliation is constantly tested by the hue of a person's skin, their facial features, their dress, hairstyles, language, gait and stance. But we can only work with the stories we've been told; when in doubt, we default a person to identities we've already been told exist. We give ourselves no latitude for the unknown.
A large section of The African Presence in Mexico: From Yanga to the Present (at the Oakland Museum through August 23) is a deliberate exercise in race-spotting. After laying out the five-century history of Afro-Mexicans, the exhibition presents us with three galleries of photo-portraiture. In this we are challenged to look at images of people we might otherwise uneasily dismiss as "Mexicans," a category we breezily equate with "Mestizo," or mixed Spanish and Native American ancestry. Is that an African eye, mouth, or cheekbone? What is the origin of that headdress, that skirt, that stance?
Thoroughly ensconced in fascination -- and an undefined guilt -- we move into images of culture: carnaval celebrations, dancing, music, masks and costumes. And then we go a step further, into increasingly sophisticated self-querying art: blockprints, lithographs, sculpture and painting. What here is Mexican? What is African? And is there a difference?
Originating at Chicago's National Museum of Mexican Art, The African Presence in Mexico was inspired by the decreasingly cordial relations between Mexican American and African American communities in the US in the past two decades. Played off one another through demagoguery, through anti-labor policies that impact undocumented immigrants, and through welfare reform policies that impact historically oppressed groups, the two communities slide into more distinct identities, discouraged from remembering or investigating common histories.
To counter this alienation, the exhibition reveals a parallel universe south of the border in which black oppression wasn't so much justified as it was erased, and for well over a century. Featuring significant populations of European settler/conquerors, indigenous "Indians" battling migrant waves and devastating disease, and African slaves, Mexico had similar opportunities to build a racial hierarchy like that of the States. But early laws forbidding the collection of racial data, an absurdly fractured racial caste system, and a revolution centered around (among other things) the uplift of the Mestizo group, led to the disappearance of Afro-Mexicans as a mainstream concept, and the subsuming of oft-substantial African cultural contributions into the mainstream of Mexican culture. It was only with the Quincentennial 1992 that Africans were recognized as the "third root" of Mexican culture.
By turns a historical exhibition, an art show, and a political treatise, The African Presence in Mexico displays no embarrassment at its own inconsistency. It makes sense: this is a history and a culture most viewers do not know at all. All this material must be presented so that we understand. And to its credit, the exhibition only shows its hem in the last section, connecting African Americans with Mexico. While the histories of the underground railroad to Mexico, the Seminole/escaped slave colonies in Mexico, and Harlem Renaissance sojourns to the south are fascinating and meaningful, the exhibition fails to make of these disparate moments a strong history of African American/Mexican cooperation.
But the central point comes through loud and clear: the African component in average Mexican families, mores, arts, and language is incalculable, and much greater than recognized. The lens it turns back on US society -- a distorted twin -- is startling. We are not finished with our racial history. And no viewer will be finished with the images of this challenging exhibition until long after they've left the museum, and the day, behind them.