Can a Name Decolonize?

October 25, 2019

In the United States, the term “Spanish Colonial Art” was first used around 1929. That same year, the Spanish Colonial Arts Society was officially founded in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with the objective to reevaluate and preserve the Hispanic—and Catholic—legacies present in and around the area where Franciscan missions were located.[1] Since then, this was the name adopted throughout the country to refer to the artistic production made on the American continent under Spanish domination, by then already present in various local museum collections.[2]

In Latin America, the label of “colonial art” had been in use since 1920 in museums as well as in academic literature,[3] but it undoubtedly became more common after the publication of Manuel Toussaint’s famous Arte Colonial, written at the beginning of the 1950s.[4] In the 1960s, characters such as Francisco de la Maza and Francisco Stastny used it in their likewise foundational contributions referring to the art of Mexico and Peru.[5] It was used in Spain, though not as the principal banner, at Museo de América that was founded in 1941.[6]

Despite the term’s long life and acceptance, in 2017 when the Blanton Museum of Art opened its two permanent galleries dedicated to the art of this period—only possible, thanks to the collaboration with the Thoma Art Foundation—we decided to use the term “Art of the Spanish Americas,” marking one of the first ocassions in which such a concept emerged from the specialized literature and into direct contact with the general public.[7] In doing so, we undoubtedly took advantage of the fact that the Blanton, as a university museum, has the ability to question problems from the past and present, offering innovative alternatives. However, my principal intent in removing the “colonial” category from the title was, and continues to be, a way to promote a more neutral aesthetic experience, one that presents our visitors with art freed from the stigma of being derivative and unoriginal.[8] My interest in using a distinct concept was equally determined by my conviction that, for the public in the United States, the term “colonial” brings connotations of the history of the thirteen colonies considered the origin of this country. “Colonial,” in English, also alludes to the experience of India during the 19th century. Both contexts are wholly different from the colonizing process imposed by the Spanish crown in the Americas where, in the midst of violence, there was room for a complex mix, not only in racial terms but also visually and culturally. The label “Art of the Spanish Americas” also seemed appropriate to me for its specificity, as it refers to a geographically determined area (the places on the American continent that were governed by Spain, from the southern United States to Patagonia) during a concrete time period (1492–1823). Lastly, I like that the term is easily translated into Spanish as “Arte Hispanoamericano,” a category that, despite being favored by the Franco regime, is a term used by one of the oldest museums dedicated to this subject: the Isaac Fernández Blanco in Buenos Aires.[9]

I am aware that the category “Art of the Spanish Americas” is far from perfect, and I can think of at least four reasons for it: 1) it creates difficulties for the transition to the modern and contemporary periods that conceive all of Latin America as a geographic block; 2) it does not include Brazil nor the Caribbean, thus leaving out relevant Portuguese, French, and Dutch influences in the area; 3) it maintains the implicit notion of U.S. colonialism by accepting the final “s,” thus assuming the ubiquitous notion that “America” is a country, and not an entire continent; 4) it is not a fully transparent term for much of the general public. However, as it causes confusion, it also intrigues people. This has allowed us to initiate conversations on the implications of colonialism and its effects, fulfilling our objective to promote the questioning of knowledge, both with students and with our most diverse audiences.

I must conclude by saying I do not believe that speaking of the “Art of the Spanish Americas” actually achieves the goal of decolonizing the colonial past in the wide sense in which post-colonial studies seek to give voice to non-European subjects. My aim in using this concept is not towards decolonizing the art to which it refers, but rather towards decolonizing the gaze that observes it. I think that this can be achieved through visual literacy that permits us to examine it on its own terms, not necessarily taking the trauma of the Conquista as its starting point,[10] but rather recognizing the thousands of ways in which it shows the symbolic reconfiguration of an entire society.[11]


[1], consulted June 21, 2019. At that moment, another privileged term in the specialized literature was “Hispanic,” as shown in the creation of the Hispanic American Historical Review in February 1918. See Helen Delpar, The Enormous Vogue of Things Mexican: Cultural Relations Between the United States and Mexico, 1920-1935. Tuscaloosa: University Alabama Press, 1992.

[2] The Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Denver Art Museums were the first institutions to collect and show Latin American colonial art in the United States.

[3] The Museo Colonial de Buenos Aires, an antecedent of the Museo de Arte Hispanoamericano Isaac Fernández Blanco, is just one example. For more on the use of the term colonial by authors such as Manuel Romero de Terreros, see Elisa Vargaslugo, “Manuel Toussaint y la pintura colonial.” Anales del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 2012 6 (25), pp. 47-58. 

[4] Manuel Toussaint, Arte colonial en México. 4a ed. México: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas, 1983.

[5] Francisco de la Maza, El alabastro en el arte colonial de México. México, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1966; Francisco Stastny, Breve historia del arte en el Perú: la pintura precolombina, colonial y republicana. Lima: Editorial Universo, 1967

[6] Débora Betrisey Nadali, “Historia, antropología e imperio español en el Museo de América (1940-1965)”, Antípoda. Revista de Antropología y Arqueología, núm. 22, mayo-agosto, 2015, pp. 91- 111.

[7] The first time that this concept was actually used in a museum setting was the exhibition “Decorative Arts of Spain and Spanish America” that opened at the Toledo Museum of Art in 1931 with the Freyer collection. Aubrey Hobart, “Treasures and Splendors: Exhibiting Colonial Latin American Art in U.S. Museums, 1920-2020,” Ph. D. Dissertation in Visual Studies, University of California Santa Cruz, June 2018, 90-91 and 270.

[8] Among other art historians, Jonathan Brown has been very critical of the use of “colonial,” arguing that it connotes a second-class status, amplying the domination and subordination to the conquistadores. See Cristóbal of de Villalpando: Mexican Painter the Baroque. Exhibition Catalogue. Mexico: Fomento Cultural Banamex, 2017. For years Marcus Burke has preferred the term “Viceregal art,” which is also favored by many in the Mexican academy. See his Spain and New Spain: Mexican colonial arts in their European context escrito con Linda Bantel. Corpus Christi: Art Museum of South Texas, 1979. To avoid the classification, other authors opt to only refer to art from this age by its date of production. See, among others: El arte después de la conquista, siglos XVII y XVIII; obras provenientes de templos de Buenos Aires, Exhibition catalogue.  Héctor Schenone, editor. Buenos Aires: Centro de Artes Visuales-Instituto Torcuato Di Tella, 1964; The arts in Latin America, 1492-1820. Exhibition Catalogue. Joseph J. Rishel and Suzanne Stratton-Pruitt, editors. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006; Painting in Latin America, 1550-1820: from conquest to independence. Luisa Elena Alcalá and Jonathan Brown, editors. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

[10] Ananda Cohen-Aponte, “Decolonizing the Global Renaissance: A View from the Andes,” in The Globalization of Renaissance Art: A Critical Review, edited by Daniel Savoy. Leiden: Brill, 2017, pp. 67-94.

[11] María Alba Pastor, Crisis y recomposición social: Nueva España en el tránsito del siglo XVI al XVII. México: Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1999.