The night before the official opening of Chicana Fotos—a new art exhibit featuring the early work of photographer/filmmaker Nancy De Los Santos at Wayne State University’s Walter P. Reuther Library—a group of University of Michigan undergrads who co-designed the exhibition were putting finishing touches on the installation, doing some last-minute problem-solving, and eating pizza.
“At one point, we were all sitting around, and I said, ‘I feel like we’ve all shrunk, and we’re now living in our model,’” said U-M student Emilie Farrugia.
U-M Stamps School of Art & Design students who enrolled in an Exhibition Design class taught by Hannah Smotrich and Katie Rubin have been hashing out ideas regarding which photos to showcase, and how to arrange them within the Reuther Library’s unique gallery space, so as to tell De Los Santos’ story in a cohesive way.That’s because for the last few months, a dozen
This involved small groups of students building detailed cardboard models, which De Los Santos—a U-M alumna herself—came to see in person, offering thoughtful feedback. She talked about the stories behind individual photos, from which the students then re-calibrated their ideas, building toward a common vision.
“At one point, we’d separated her photos into three categories: the feminist eye, picturing the 1970s, and life in Chicago,” said Farrugia. “But after meeting with her, and hearing her talk more about the photos, we started seeing how they all matched together, and how the unifying theme was this sense of community.”
“Getting to know (De Los Santos) really drove our design,” said U-M student Andrew Han. “Thinking about who she was—this really spunky, energetic woman—gave us ideas about what kind of feel we wanted the exhibition to have.”
De Los Santos, who grew up in Chicago as the daughter of Mexican-American parents, previously worked as producer for the nationally syndicated show, At the Movies with Siskel & Ebert; she co-wrote and co-produced The Bronze Screen: 100 Years of the Latin Image in Hollywood Cinema; and she was an associate producer on the feature film Selena, starring Jennifer Lopez.
But before her filmmaking career began, she’d worked as a co-editor of, and photographer for, a Chicano student newspaper (Contra le pared) at Northeastern Illinois University. This work lit a fire in terms of De Los Santos’ activism, and with camera in hand, she snapped photos at Chicano Movement marches and rallies, farmworker mobilizations in Chicago and Texas, and the first-ever International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico in 1977. Yet she also captured intimate moments of everyday Latina/o life during a time of social transformation.
De Los Santos confessed that the rare photos featured in Chicana Fotos were just a sampling of the hundreds that she’s carted around through multiple moves to different parts of the country over several decades. Seeing the new exhibit in its final form has been an emotional bit of time travel for the artist.
“The word that came to me when I walked in was ‘overwhelming,’” said De Los Santos. “These experiences happened in a very developmental time in my life.”
The initial link between De Los Santos—who concluded her undergraduate studies at University of Texas at Austin, then earned a communications master’s degree from the University of Michigan—and the Stamps School was an outgrowth of the artist’s conversations with U-M American Culture and Women’s Studies professor Maria Cotera.
Cotera’s online archive of oral histories and materials, Chicana por mi Raza, focuses on Chicana feminism in the years 1965-85. When Cotera reached out to De Los Santos, hoping to include her voice and archives in the project, Cotera got way more than she ever expected.
“When she said that she would come over and bring a few things that we could scan, we did not expect her to arrive with three giant boxes filled with photographs, negatives, slides—a massive archive, and she came to our doorstep with it,” Cotera explained during a gallery talk. “ … And she said, ‘No, there’s more in the car.’ We kept going back to the car, and it was like, ‘How much stuff did she bring?’ Linda (Garcia Merchant) and I, that trip in L.A., we pulled all-nighters like college students, two nights in a row, scanning some of the really historic materials that (De Los Santos) had. … But we also realized Nancy was actually a pretty important photographer in the movement years.”
Cotera said there are two things that make De Los Santos’ photos particularly distinctive: they offer a woman’s view of what’s largely considered to a be a “male” Chicano movement, and they explore the Latina/o communities and social justice efforts beyond America’s Southwest.
But regardless of why the work deserves particular attention, the act of asking an artist to entrust a group of students with an exhibition inevitably requires a leap of faith.
“The first time I met with the students, I saw their sincerity, and a love for what they’re doing,” said De Los Santos. “I could just see it in their eyes, and in the care they put into developing their models. I’ll admit, there was maybe one Latina in this group, … and I wondered for a second if they would get it. But they did. They understood. They did not have to be Hispanic to look at my photo of a girl sitting at the window and see the dreams in her eyes. … Every photo they chose—they chose all the right photos for all the right reasons.”
Previously when this class was offered, students put together a smaller scale show on their own campus as a final project. This most recent iteration was more ambitious—to such a degree that the execution carried over into the next semester, with seven students signing on for an independent study in order to see the installation through. Plus, because the Reuther Library at WSU has the most extensive labor archives in North America, archivists have worked with U-M’s team to match contextual articles and materials with De Los Santos’ photos, and Cotera provided much of the exhibition’s text.
Thus, to call the show a group effort would be no exaggeration. But collaborations, especially among creatives, can be challenging. What made this one work?
“Nancy is such a generous spirit,” said Katie Rubin, one of the Stamps course’s teachers. “She made the students feel comfortable, … and she put a lot of faith in them, in Hannah and me, and in Maria. A lot of artists wouldn’t have done that. And our students felt a great responsibility because she was so giving of herself and her work. … For most students, this was the first time they’ve really been able to see something go from their head out into the real world. That’s a rare experience in academia.”
It’s been a thrill for De Los Santos, too.
"It’s so amazing to me that these images I’ve been carting around in boxes all these years are now being shared."
“I just love it,” she said of Chicana Fotos. “‘Satisfied’ is not the word. More like over-the-moon proud. I cried just walking in the first time. It’s so amazing to me that these images I’ve been carting around in boxes all these years are now being shared.”
All photographs are courtesy of the University of Michigan Stamps School of Art & Design.
"Chicana Fotos" is on display at the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University through April 14th.