Nicholas Pappas, Diana Finds the Sketchbook, 2018. 

Retablos31, presented in collaboration with Lawndale Art Center, opens at MECA this week for an exploration of traditional Mexican devotional artwork.

“The literal translation for retablo is ‘behind the altar,’” explains Theresa Escobedo, curator of the exhibit. “Traditionally, these works of art are small oil paintings created on inexpensive materials such as wood, tin, or copper and are used as devotional tools to venerate Catholic saints, depict pivotal moments in lives of their creators or commissioners, and offer or express gratitude for blessings, answered prayers, or favorable outcomes in one’s life.”

MECA distributed 200 tins on a first-come, first-serve basis to local artists whose charge was to create retablos under a set of broad guidelines: "promesas cumplidas (promises kept); promesas pedidas (promises made); devotional to a loved one (devocional a un ser amado), saint (a un santo), higher power (a un poder superior); and healing (sanación)."

The exhibit comes as part of MECA’s month-long Día de los Muertos celebration. Lawndale Art Center, which for the last 30 years had held a traditional Day of the Dead celebration, decided earlier this year to “return this sacred holiday to its cultural roots,” explains Stephanie Mitchell, Lawndale’s executive director, in an email. The decision comes following the art center’s rebranding effort, and Mitchell stressed that she was looking forward to future collaborations with Houston artists. 

Retablos are rooted in Spanish history and recall deeply held spiritual practices that flourished in post-conquest Mexico and remain popular today. Lawndale had many of these in their collection and Alice Valdez, MECA’s executive director and founder, says that around 100 were gifted by Lawndale.

Darwin Arevalo, Virgin Morena, 2018.

“[Retablos] are painted by artists and non-artists to reflect the holy images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, the saints, a deceased ancestor, or a request for spiritual or physical intervention,” she says. “In some churches in Mexico which are 200 or 300 years old, you will find retablos that hung on the walls of the vestibule and the seating areas. It is as if you are taking a tour of Mexico's history through paintings of faith.”

Escobedo said that her favorite works in the collection are the ones that combine the practice and devotional nature of the retablo tradition with contemporary painting.

“[The retablos by] artists like Ibraim do Nascimento Santos, Darwin Arevalo, and Juan Alonzo, for example,” she says. “These in particular demonstrate an understanding of the cultural tradition of retablo making and highlight the direction we’d like to encourage artists in as they reinvigorate this folkloric spiritual practice through this community exhibition.”

The completed projects will be auctioned off, with bids starting at $50 each. The auction is a chance for Houstonians to own a unique piece.

“I have to say, it is inspiring—pleasantly so—to see such sweeping creativity demonstrated in some of the retablos that were turned in,” says Escobedo. “Houston is full of creative talent,  in its practicing artists and laypeople alike. This reinforces my hunch that there’s an artist in every person.”

The Retablos31 exhibit will open on Friday, October 19 and culminates with the silent auction on Friday, November 2. All proceeds will benefit MECA. More info at meca-houston.org.

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