The rhizome, a subterranean plant stem that can grow horizontally or upwards, flows in a nonlinear, often surprising way.
This unpredictable botanical miracle inspired a joint project by the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. "Rhizomes of Mexican-American Art Since 1848" is an online, open-source portal that so far houses nearly 20,000 items of art and visual culture from libraries, archives and museums. It is part of a larger initiative found via rhizomes.umn.edu.
The project celebrates art made since the U.S.-Mexico War and the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which forced Mexico to cede most of the territory of what is now New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, Texas and western Colorado, making approximately 115,000 people U.S. citizens.
Six scholars, curators and archivists initiated Rhizomes in 2017, but the project quickly expanded to 25 people.
Early on, they asked themselves: "What do you use when you search for art?" said Karen Mary Davalos, professor of Chicano and Latino Studies at the U of M. "That's when we learned that it's a huge project around the country."
People rarely search by an artist's name, but rather by a topic, event or place, the team discovered.
To help navigate the cultural challenges involved in the search process, they enlisted Frank Romo of RomoGIS Enterprises, a Detroit-based analytics company, as lead software developer. Romo has a background in Chicano studies.
This was crucial because in the museum and library cataloging world, objects are often misidentified or grouped in ways that do not make sense to people searching for them.
That became clear when the group started talking to the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago and the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque. Each had developed their own methods of describing materials.
"There is one cataloging system where you would not be able to describe a piñata as a piñata," Davalos said. "The closest word they could come to describe it is vessel."
Some even call it "amphora," the Greek word for vessel or vase.
"Unlike a piñata, a Greek vase is not meant to be broken," she said dryly.
The open-source portal allows users to suggest tags, just as on social media, that improve the likelihood of discovering objects.
The initial iteration of the project, online now, captures what's available at the Digital Public Library of America, Portal to Texas History, the University of California digital libraries, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the International Center for Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
The second iteration, due sometime next year, will include more works from museums.
"Like all virtual digital projects, it has a life of its own," said Davalos. "Being a scholar, you write a book or article and are done with it. But this will continue to live and grow over time."