Black Velvet: A Rasquache Aesthetic is the first known exhibition of black velvet paintings in Michigan. Co-curated by Elena Herrada, founder of Fronteras Norteñas and co-founder of Museo del Norte, Minerva T. Martinez, co-curator of the Images of the Mexican Revolution photography collection, and Diana Rivera, Chicanx/Latinx Subject Specialist and Head of the Michigan State University Libraries Cesar E. Chavez Collection, the exhibit considers black velvet paintings, so-called “bad art,” through the lens of rasquache, a Mexican Spanish slang word meaning shoddiness or tackiness and that implies a lower-class status or lack of sophistication. Reinterpreting rasquache more positively as an “underdog perspective,” the exhibit positions black velvet paintings as markers of a Chicana/o aesthetic shaped by social class and personal histories.
The paintings collected in the exhibition document the history of technical and stylistic development in black velvet painting, as well as common themes during black velvet’s peak popularity in the mid-20th century. Previously considered one of the “gentler arts” for young women in 18th century Europe and the American colonies, black velvet paintings experienced a resurgence beginning in the 1930s through the Polynesian nude paintings of Edgar Leeteg. As Leeteg’s work gained popularity in Southern California, Mexican painters began producing work on velvet to sell to tourists, and an “industry” developed as the popularity of their paintings spread through the U.S. South and Southwest.
The exhibition contains over 80 vintage paintings. Popular subject matter includes landscapes, children, and animals. Depictions of the Náhua legend of Popocatépetl and Iztaccíhuatl were popular in Mexican and Mexican American stores and restaurants, and the exhibition includes several examples. Mexican and American religious and popular icons were also common subjects. Jésus and La Virgen de Guadalupe are examples of the former on display, while Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Emiliano Zapata, and Cantinflas are examples of the latter.