“Underworld Serpent” by Friday Larios (2015)

Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

The American University Museum’s program, The Alper Initiative for Washington Art, is having identity issues. “The Looking Glass: Artist Immigrants of Washington” consists of 10 D.C. artists from seven Latin American countries. Most, on some level, are confronting the various cultural aspects of migration, colonization, and imperialism.

Some, admittedly, are heavy-handed, providing more proscriptive reads than open interpretations. A drawing and a collage by Lenny Campello blast the Castro dictatorship. Carolina Mayorga’s video performance as waitress—with tray taped to arm, and tape-covered mouth—gives us the seen-but-not-heard cliché of the migrant service worker. Ric Garcia’s Warhol-esque portraits of Goya (food brand, not artist) and Malta—a popular Latin American beverage—celebrate Latin cuisine, even though one is a company headquartered in New Jersey and the other is embraced as much by Africans as by Latin Americans. Irene Clouthier’s large-scale paper airplanes serve as an apropos allegory about the global realities of migration, considering the number of Latin Americans one or two generations removed from earlier family migrations from Europe, Africa, and Asia.

The same dynamic holds true for the work of Muriel Hasbun who, through the video piece “Scheherazade,” traces her family from European and Eurasian roots through El Salvador to present day. It’s a personal journey that is as much about the generational relationships between parents and children. In a more poetic turn, her sound booth installation “Arte Voz” invites gallery-goers to transmit their heartbeats to the Cultural Center of Spain in San Salvador; they’ll return broadcast heartbeats from El Salvador.

Frida Larios puts an interesting twist on immigration by revisiting the Mayans. Pulling from their hieroglyphic script, she has developed a series of pictoglyphs—converted into relief sculpture and vinyl installations—that riff on creation stories and Mayan myth: part re-telling, part re-invention.

Then there are the artists that blend in. Jose Bermudez’ works are artifacts of the 1960s, demonstrating the broad reach of abstraction after World War II. His sculpture could converse well with Alexander Calder; his painting, with Robert Motherwell. In dialogue with more contemporary materials and abstract processes is Joan Belmar’s installation of wall painting and plastic cups.

What ties it together is Juan Downey’s video, and possible de facto inspiration for the exhibition’s title (if not the exhibition). His video about Diego Velazquez’ painting “Las Meniñas,” breaks down the ways of seeing and reading the painting as told from the perspectives of an artist, various art historians, a mirror salesmen, and others. It underscores the dynamic of how we see, how we are seen, and how we perceive others being seen.

Put more simply, it’s about empathy. As the exhibition demonstrates, it’s with empathy we can transgress most borders and boundaries—either real or imagined.

At American University Museum to Aug. 14.  Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Avenue, NW. Free. american.edu.