A single photograph of one person hanging on the wall of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington represents much more than it might first appear.

For San Antonio artist Mari Hernandez, who has regularly visited the Smithsonian Institution’s portrait-themed gallery since she was a child, the image represents a dream come true. Hernandez’s 2020 photographic portrait Silia joins 42 other works of art from around the nation in the triannual Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition exhibition.

Behind that portrait is a journey from studying English literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, to working for years in arts nonprofits, with intervening membership in Mas Rudas, a collective of Chicana artists, to winning a Joan Mitchell Foundation Emerging Artist Grant in 2017 and landing exhibitions at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Artpace, the Galveston Art Center, and other art institutions.

Reflecting on how far she’s come, the 39-year-old Hernandez said, “I’ve been doing this work for a long time, and I have this vision of where I want my work to go.”

Uplifting a community

Hernandez first took photography seriously as a student at San Antonio College, quickly developing an amateur interest in documenting San Antonio’s culture. While photographing Día de los Muertos celebrations, she was noticed by San Anto Cultural Arts co-founder Manuel Castillo, who invited her to lead a youth workshop for the nonprofit.

Years of volunteering with the organization led to running its youth photography summer camp and eventually working full-time managing the nonprofit’s El Placazo newspaper and after-school programs.

Over 15 years, she learned how the community-focused organization worked from the inside.

“It opened up all of these things to me,” she said. “Being introduced to community-based art, being introduced to the art of murals and the connection between my Mexican American identity and community to art and why that’s important, how art can uplift a community and give people a voice. … It felt like I found a home, I found that this is what I want to do.”

She would go on to learn more about contemporary art styles and practices when her husband J.J. Lopez, who now manages the KRTU 91.7 FM radio station of Trinity University, worked a front desk job at Artpace. In particular, the gaudily staged photographic work of Cindy Sherman made a big impression on her. “I just ate up whatever I could get. She was really my main influence in terms of self-portraiture,” Hernandez said.

Sherman’s influence is evident in Hernandez’s use of elaborate costuming and prosthetics, which turn self-portraiture into an art of portraying the self as others.

Chad Dawkins learned of Hernandez’s work with Mas Rudas while working as a gallery technician at Artpace. When he became gallery director for the Southwest School of Art in 2017, Dawkins chose Hernandez for a solo exhibition, what would become the 2018 What Remains show featuring the artist in black-and-white prosthetic portraits based on the pseudoscience of physiognomy.

Hernandez and Dawkins worked together on a statement for the show, with section subtitles “pictures about pictures,” “pictures about history,” and “pictures about representation,” succinctly capturing the layered aims of her work.

Physiognomy errantly studied how a person’s facial features determined their intellectual and behavioral characteristics, which the statement says informed the “stereotypes, xenophobia, and racial profiling” in the troubled history of colonialism and contemporary racial tensions.

Hernandez decided the art of portraiture, from its earliest origins through its aristocratic era and all the way through various technologies to today, was the right medium to tackle these complex issues through a highly personal lens.

Breathing life into the past

Though her images of ethnographic subjects and figures dressed in colonial-era costumery clearly reference history, Hernandez intends them to breathe life into the past.

Dawkins and Hernandez chose a linear display of portraits printed on a gossamer material known as silk flax. When even the slightest air conditioning breeze flowed through the galleries, the seemingly historical portraits moved. Dawkins said the effect was eerie, fitting with Hernandez’s choice of the semi-transparent material to render her portraits as “ghostly apparitions,” emphasizing that history “remains” present, as her exhibition title suggests.

When curator Dennis Nance brought the images to the Galveston Art Center in 2020 for a solo show titled Figments of Truth, he and Hernandez chose to present them in rows, so viewers could see multiple images through each other, mimicking a multiple-exposure effect the artist employs for some images.

“There’s lots of layers that can be revealed when engaging with them as a viewer,” Nance said.

The layers of history present in Hernandez’s shift from self-portraiture to portraits of others are subtle, but most assuredly present.

In the National Portrait Gallery alongside portraits of American presidents and Founding Fathers, Silia represents a young woman whose personal history and heritage connect with the much deeper history of the U.S., thousands of years of Indigenous habitation followed by centuries of colonial occupation and settlement.

Hernandez first met the portrait’s subject Silia Lopez while working on a commission for the City of San Antonio Department of Arts and Culture, making a piece that would eventually go on display in City Hall.

Prompted to consider land and geography for her commission, Hernandez said she made an “immediate connection to the first people of our region … highlighting our history, highlighting this community whose history is often pushed to the margins.”

For the colorful artwork, Hernandez made individual portraits of Tāp Pı̄lam tribal members and members of the American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions (AIT-SCM) Indigenous organization. An image of Lopez similar to Silia is collaged together with other members of the Tāp Pı̄lam Coahuiltecan Nation and the landscapes, dress, and symbols of their heritage.

Mari Hernandez’s portrait of Silia Lopez is on display in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington alongside 42 other portraits selected for the triannual Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Lopez is a member of the Tāp Pı̄lam Coahuiltecan Nation and is photographed in clothing that represents her cultural heritage.
Mari Hernandez’s portrait of Silia Lopez is on display in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington alongside 42 other portraits selected for the triannual Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition. Lopez is a member of the Tāp Pı̄lam Coahuiltecan Nation and is photographed in clothing that represents her cultural heritage. Credit: Bria Woods / San Antonio Report

Indigenous communities are too often historicized, Hernandez said. “The Coahuiltecan people are a part of a huge community of urban Indians.” A collaged portrait would bring that past into the present, and into City Hall, what Hernandez called “the people’s place.” Silia Lopez, in particular, would represent Tāp Pı̄lam youth, and clad in vaquera gear would “[pay] homage to her roots, the first cowgirls.”

Though Hernandez took great care in making that image and the one that would eventually be displayed in the nation’s capital, no photographer knows at the time whether a portrait will ultimately convey the truth and depth of their subject.

But when Hernandez saw the results, she knew the time had arrived to apply for the prestigious triannual portrait competition she had long sought to enter.

“How could they not love it?” Hernandez said of the image. “It’s such a beautiful image of her. She’s a beautiful young woman. So I was feeling pretty confident when I entered it.” Her confidence was justified when she was selected for the exhibition from among 2,700 applicants.

The nation in all its diversity

The National Portrait Gallery closed for renovation from 2000 to 2006 and reopened with a new outlook aiming “to foster new understandings of portraiture, and how that art form helps image the nation in all its diversity, and its richness,” said Taína Caragol, curator of painting, sculpture and Latinx art and history and co-curator of the Outwin Boochever competition.

The competition, endowed by a former docent of the museum, offers a “snapshot of the many different ways in which artists are engaging with the genre, and particularly how much artists are subverting the genre to put forward those who have not been represented, subverting the original tradition of portraiture which has served the elite.”

Curator of photographs and exhibition co-curator Leslie Ureña said the Silia portrait, taken in profile, subverts a view more common to mug shots and ethnographic imaging than grand portraiture. Hernandez and Lopez chose the profile view, “taking that power dynamic and shifting it so that they’re representing themselves,” Ureña said, rather than being represented by an authoritative point of view.

“There’s a lot of value in the fact that this young woman from South Texas with this intergenerational connection to the first people” is in the national museum, Hernandez said.

“When we think about places like the Smithsonian, and specifically the Portrait Gallery … you see these figures, and you realize these are important people, this is our history, this is a timeline of how we came to be,” she said.

When the history of portrait expands to represent Lopez and others of underrepresented heritage, it achieves relevance as a continuing art form, Hernandez said.

“There’s a lot of value in portraiture,” she said. “My family has a huge photographic archive. That had a big impact on me in terms of learning about who I am and where I come from and my own identity, and creating this connection to the past.”

Now that Hernandez has achieved one dream, she will focus on pursuing others. While continuing to work as program manager for leadership institutes and convenings for the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, she is preparing for upcoming exhibitions in Houston and Tennessee and continues contract work for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art.

Hernandez said she’s grateful for the opportunities she’s had, both as an artist and working for arts nonprofits. “All of the work connects. It all boils down to these major things that I’m interested in and working towards in my life.”

Senior Reporter Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with...