Legends and dreams demonstrate the magnitude of generational storytelling in Angelica Raquel’s solo exhibition Leyendas and Mine at Hooks-Epstein Galleries in Houston. Storytelling, a tradition and almost spiritual ritual for Raquel, who grew up on la frontera, in Laredo, connects generations in unique ways that even extend beyond death. For San Antonio-based artist Raquel, oral storytelling is a family tradition that shaped her childhood and is now interwoven in her art. At family gatherings, such as carne asadas or camping, relatives would sit around after dark and tell stories, re-tell folklore, and share experiences that were scary or unexplainable. These stories were not written down, just shared at family gatherings.
Raquel carries on her family’s tradition of sharing stories, especially strange and unexplainable tales, but shifts from oral retelling to transcribing and illustrating her own lore. In her exhibition, Raquel blends some of the lore, or legends, told by her relatives with her own stories, experiences, and dreams. The collection of works incorporates animal motifs and Raquel’s bond with nature and her own past. The exhibition shows the connecting power of storytelling with emphasis on the importance of Raquel’s addition of her own narrative into her family’s tradition.
While Raquel’s family depended on oral storytelling, the artist has begun preserve her own stories, both in writing and illustration. Greeting the visitor as they enter the gallery is a gruesome-looking sculpture, In Love and Falseheartedness, which comes from Raquel’s own tale of a coyote that lost her mate, which was shot by a man while trying to steal chickens to feed their pack. The piece is made of soft material, almost like a realistic stuffed animal, but the coyote is missing a paw. She reaches out her severed limb, showing passersby the pain and sacrifice she has suffered. With her head tilted to one side, she gazes longingly at her audience, as if offering a warning. She supports herself by her other paws, the front one looking more like a hand than a paw, which clings to the ground with tense, outstretched fingers.
In a strange turn of events, the female coyote transforms into a human woman, seduces the man, and begins stealing chickens from him to feed her young. Noticing the dwindling number of chickens, the man sets a trap, which the coyote falls into and loses a paw. The coyote returns to the man one last time as a woman to say goodbye, this time missing a hand. As a farewell gesture, the man gifts her the severed coyote paw. Raquel’s art honors the practice of sharing strange and moralizing lore, but in it she begins her own tradition of writing new stories, not just retelling those that are decades-old.
In Love and Falseheartedness — both the story and sculpture — contains themes of love, loss, and sacrifice. This soft sculpture’s outstretched paw and tilted head pleads with viewers for sympathy and understanding, as if to provide a warning that love often hurts. The combination of the soft material (which alludes to a stuffed animal) and the bloody details creates a sense of familiarity, but also uneasiness. Raquel’s skill in balancing these two feelings generates a compelling narrative that portrays the strangeness and emotion of her story.
In addition to soft sculptures, Raquel’s imaginative paintings also include motifs of animals and nature. In Contented Where the Hound Lays, she paints a complex composition focused on a woman and a hound. Near the center of the painting a woman lays on the back of a huge and somewhat transparent hound. The disparity in scale and translucence adds to the dreamlike quality of the work and emphasizes the significance of the canine; the woman’s eyes are closed, her hand resting on the hound’s back, and she appears to be sleeping peacefully. A yellow house with white flowers growing in the entryway sits in the background, while another row of houses sits parallel to the horizon even further beyond.
Overhead, woodland animals dance through the sky towards a red moon. It’s a wonderfully strange and colorful image with a comforting sense of peace and belonging. For Raquel, the hound represents comfort and familiarity. Dogs were often part of the stories and legends Raquel heard growing up, and they remain important in her art, often as motifs of kin and protection. The sleeping woman can rest knowing she is protected by the hound, while butterflies — a symbol of ancestors visiting from beyond the grave — flutter towards the velvet sky. Perhaps the sleeping woman dreams of stories and legends that she will share with her family and friends.
Raquel feels that it is important for her own experiences to expand her family’s unwritten storytelling tradition. In A Recurring Dream: The Struggle, Raquel illustrates a recurring dream of her own. At the opening reception for the exhibition, she explained that in the dream she was trying to save her childhood pet snake, which was being pulled away by another snake. In the foreground, a large hound gently holds the snake in its mouth, while a small hound gazes upward, almost in admiration of the larger canine. Cacti add to the desert landscape, while another striped snake on a rock clasps the other end of the pet snake in its mouth. A large hound in profile looks at the viewer; this creature is Raquel’s current self, while the smaller hound is her younger self. Though based on a dream, this work, with its landscape and characters, clearly comes from the artist’s experience as a child growing up on the border, reflecting on her bond with animals and nature. Not only does Raquel retell stories to continue her family’s tradition into new generations, but she recognizes the importance of augmenting this ritual by adding herself to the narratives. Her dreams, experiences, and stories become a new chapter in the ever-expanding repertoire of stories.
Raquel’s paintings and soft sculptures provide vivid illustrations of the legends and dreams she grew up with and experienced in Laredo. The collection of works demonstrates the importance of storytelling as a powerful means to strengthen bonds, particularly in families. More significantly, Raquel inserts her own dreams and experiences, and by extension, herself, into these narratives, carrying on and expanding her family’s legacy. This show serves as a reminder that we are all storytellers; whether it’s a complex narrative, a legend, or just sharing an experience or dream, our stories connect us with each other, even after those we love pass away. Leyendas and Mine encourages audiences to embrace storytelling in all of its forms, and not to shy away from the strange and unexplainable.
Leyendas and Mine is on view through Saturday August 12, 2023 at Hooks-Epstein Galleries.