WESTWOOD, CALIF. — If it's Mexican art, it must depict strong, noble peasants at work in the fields. Or, perhaps Australian art - surely, that will mean Aboriginal handiwork. Native American art means clay pots and elegant rugs. Right? These are just a few of the hoary stereotypes that artists from emerging countries find themselves stubbornly fighting, even today, in an era of lightning-swift communication between distant countries and cultures.
Artists have always struggled to be seen as individuals rather than stereotypes. But now this desire is receiving increased institutional support. As a result of cultural and economic shifts in the art world, exploding globalism, and the high costs of more traditional shows, a growing number of exhibitions both in the US and abroad are devoted to replacing clichéd preconceptions with the vital, modern work of contemporary artists from a wide variety of cultures.
"Artists in every country have always tried to tell their own story," says Russell Ferguson, curator at the UCLA Hammer Museum, host to "Made in Mexico," an exhibition showcasing the work of contemporary Mexican art. "The question has always been: 'What do people in the more dominant countries want to receive from that country?' "
The changing economics of museums have opened the door of opportunity, say some observers. "It's getting more popular to do traveling shows that are more indigenous in nature," says Arthur Brooks, associate professor of public administration at Syracuse University's Maxwell School. The arts and culture specialist says that as security costs, as well as loan and travel costs, have made blockbuster shows prohibitively expensive, museums have been searching out the smaller, more unusual shows to attract audiences.
"One way to do that is to look at developing countries. If you have a population that's interested in coming to the museums, you can get a high-quality traveling exhibition for a fraction of the cost of a Monet," says Professor Brooks.
The title of the Hammer show is intentionally ironic. It aims to make the viewer reconsider preconceptions. Works such as the wry photographs of Daniela Rossell, depicting a decadent upper class at play in its luxurious mansions, or the sculptures of Damian Ortega, created from industrial materials, reveal a vital, modern art world south of the US border that shatters traditional stereotypes about "native art."
Artists have always struggled to balance cultural identity with personal vision, says Gilbert Vicario, curator of "Made in Mexico." Now, that impulse has only become more difficult as free trade and instant global communications have eroded the concept of an insular, national identity.
The show also explores the effect of Mexican artists on other cultures.
"I decided to play with the notion of art and nationalism and nationality," says Mr. Vicario, pointing to his inclusion of nonMexicans such as Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, whose career has been devoted to exploring the images of Frida Kahlo. His work, as well as that of others, explores what happens when artists from all sorts of backgrounds and nationalities make art that is inspired by Mexico, but is fundamentally universal.
"The real message behind the exhibition is that everything in the art world is much more complicated than anyone wants to think, but there are lots of people who don't want to take the time to sort it out," says Vicario. "These ideas [from each country] are up for grabs," he adds, "and the works become more powerful because they transcend geographic and cultural borders."
Even smaller museums with permanent collections devoted to niches such as Latin, native American, or African-American art find themselves fighting similar cultural battles.
Gregorio Luke, now director of the Museum of Latin American Art (MoLAA) in Long Beach, Calif., used to work as a promoter of a Mexican dance troupe. "Everybody expected us to do folklorica. It was very hard to do Bach. We didn't want to just go out and do another hat dance," he says. "This is true for everyone, not just the Mexican artists. People are responding to the Hollywood stereotype, which means that if you're from Argentina, you have to tango; or from Spain you have to do flamenco; or Australians have to pull out a crocodile and Africans have to do some sort of banana dance."
Americans, despite their proximity to Mexico, are constantly being "reintroduced to more modern ideas of Mexican art," says Vicario. This desire to push through that limited notion was yet another motivation for assembling the show, which originated in Boston. Even in that sophisticated city, Vicario faced familiar biases. "All I kept hearing from my director in Boston, a supposedly very liberal person, was 'The show's not colorful enough; give me more colors,' and also, 'No video.' " It shakes your foundation, he says, "to consider a broad range of works such as these, when what you're comfortable with is the idea of the 'noble savage' or 'our little neighbor to the south.' "
In fairness, however, he adds, stereotyping can happen in any country. "I also encountered just as much resistance in Mexico City. People said to me, 'You have to get rid of that title.' They didn't grasp the ironic intent."
But Mr. Luke says people are receptive to a more complex vision.
"There is a growing interest in a more sophisticated Mexican culture," he says. "We've brought in sophisticated art and dance, we don't even have any folk art, and people are coming in droves."
If the clusters of attendees for the Hammer show are any indication, the art is opening more than a few eyes. "I always thought of Mexico being backward in the art department," says Stephanie Young, sitting with her friends. She says she came from El Segundo, a town southwest of L.A., to see the show. "But I'm really impressed by how forward-thinking they all seem to be," she says, waving a hand toward a half-scale plaster cast of a woolly mammoth, covered in plastic Hostess cupcakes, "both in their techniques and their concerns," she adds, and her friends nod in agreement.
"I learned all about the Cinco de Mayo from that sign," says Willy, an elderly African-American, touring the works with his Spanish teacher. He takes a language class for seniors at a local high school. The group has come to the show in hopes of learning some Spanish as well as something about Mexican culture. The teacher appears frustrated at the contemporary, conceptual nature of the works, having hoped for more traditional pieces.
But Willy is happy. He says he sees the metaphor for the artists' struggle in more than a few of the works and points to a series of photos of a man being fenced in with glass partitions, separated from cultural artifacts in a natural history museum.
"See the guy there?" he points to the man who is crouching inside the glass barrier, "he's behind the glass and his culture is over there, all locked up by the museum."
He smiles at his own understanding of the art, looks around for his class which has moved on. "Excuse me," he says, politely, "but I don't want to miss any of the art."
• Current exhibitions of indigenous art around the US and internationally that move beyond folk images include: "Our Place: Indigenous Australia Now" at the Benaki Contemporary Art Museum in Athens, part of the cultural Olympiad through August; "African American Masters" at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington through Sept. 5; and "Art of the Americas: Latin America and the United States, 1800 to Now!" at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in Calif. through Nov. 21.