Freeing Latin American Art from Eurocentric Curating

Mirtha Dermisache, "Libro N6," 1971. Image courtesy of MALBA.

A dense black explosion looms, static in the museum’s center. Nuclear Fungus (2007), by Argentinean artist León Ferrari, sculpturally simulates the smoke caused by a bomb, and bursts into the room. This is as much an act of intimidation as a curatorial statement for Verboamerica, a mega-exhibition that gives profile to Latin American art from the collection of Buenos Aires’s leading museum, the MALBA (el Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires). This expansive effort tries to detonate the Eurocentric narrative of Latin American art, the dull chronologies and scholarly exhibitions, and contemporary art’s conspicuous maleness. Ferrari’s frozen explosion serves as an apt image for this reorganization of the MALBA. Contemporary Latin American art is a concept that exists uncomfortably in permanent collection display, and the show’s attempted “detonation” is visibly artificial.

“We’re used to responding to what happens in Paris, Berlin, or New York,” said Eduardo Costantini, founder and president of the museum, in an interview for a Spanish newspaper. He was visibly proud of the MALBA (created from a private collection in 2002), whose holdings comprise roughly 600 works: “Verboamerica offers a local, proprietary reading of Latin American regional themes and problematics.” In preparation, curators Andrea Giunta and Agustín Pérez Rubio submerged themselves in a thorough investigation of the museum’s basement: mining books by Julio Cortázar, Clarice Lispector, Jorge Luis Borges, Pedro Lemebel, and Rodolfo Walsh, along with artworks from the private museum’s heritage. This includes works from artists including Jorge Macchi, Fernando Bryce, Gabriel Orozco, Xul Solar, Victor Grippo, Hélio Oiticica, David Alfaro Siqueiros, Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, Tarsila do Amaral, and Roberto Matta. The result is an exhibition divided into conceptual sections that put the accent on the region, challenging the prevailing Western canon.

Leon Ferrari, “Hongo Nuclear,” 2006. Image courtesy of MALBA.

The show’s subheadings presented a bold set of themes, with titles like “Lettered City, Violent City, Imagined City,” “Bodies, Affects, and Emancipation,” and “Indigenous America, Black America.” This approach, organizing works non-chronologically, according to aesthetic currents and conceptual nuclei, is not new in Latin America. Heterotopias: medio siglo sin lugar (Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, 2000), and its successor, Inverted utopias: avant garde in Latin America (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2004), both curated by Mari Carmen Ramírez and Héctor Olea, were similarly oriented, gravitating around conceptual “constellations.” The eight thematic clusters of Verboamerica are an update of Ramirez and Olea’s approach, and an attempt to confront the Eurocentric, chronological approach to dealing with Latin American art.

The obsession with inscribing Latin American culture in European terms has lingered since first contact with Spanish conquerors. It perhaps found its zenith around the 500th anniversary of the 1492 European “discovery” of America. At that time, a number of major Latin American exhibitions designed by curators followed the spiritual lead of the explorers and colonizers of the New World: feverishly enchanted by the primitive and the exotic. Those shows intended to establish a link between Latin American and European art, primarily to summarize the former in a markedly limited and paternalistic way (to cite a few The Art of the Fantastic: Latin American 1920-1987, curated by Holliday T. Day and Hollister Sturges, Indianapolis, 1988; Art in Latin America: The Modern Era, 1892-1980, curated by Dawn Ades, South Bank Centre and Hayward Gallery, London, 1989; Transcontinental; Nine Latin American Artists, curated by Guy Brett, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham, 1990; and most centrally, Latin American Artists of the Twentieth Century, curated by Waldo Rasmussen, in the MoMA, New York, 1993). As Mari Carmen Ramirez pointed out in her influential 1992 text Beyond ‘the Fantastic’: Framing Identity in U. S. Exhibitions of Latin American Art, “unlike Eastern or Native American indigenous cultures, Latin American culture, by reason of its colonial legacy, is inscribed in the Western tradition and has always functioned within its parameters.”

Tarsila do Amaral, “Abaporu,” 1928. Image courtesy of MALBA.

The wave of neo-colonial blockbusters – devised and exhibited by Americans or Europeans – spurred a critical rebuttal from a clutch of Latin American artists, curators, and critics. Among those dissenters were Gerardo Mosquera, Carolina Ponce de León, and Rachel Weiss, with their searing exhibition Ante America (Banco de la República/Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango, Bogotá, Colombia, 1992); Ivo Mesquita, with his defiant Cartographies (Winnipeg Art Gallery, Canada, 1993); and later, Weiss, Luis Camnitzer, and Jane Farver with the atomizing Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s (Queens Museum of Art, New York, 1999). These shows and their catalogues formed the guidebook for future generations, asserting that the substance of Latin American art is best represented in temporary exhibitions, not in musty permanent collections, institutional policies, the academy, or periodicals – summary approaches more customary in the U.S. and Europe. What these curatorial statements tried to defend through artworks and theory was a matter of identity, resistance, and territory – even if many of the artists involved were living and creating in European and North American countries. A distinct set of voices posed contemporary Latin American art as deserving of a more dynamic, homegrown means of display that embraced its subject as more than simply geographical.

Verboamerica reflects that struggle – the difficult question of locating Latin American art on a map – with one major difference: this time, the representation was composed from a permanent collection. Perhaps because of this, Verboamerica manifests a certain anachronism. In 2018, localized themes like labor movement, agrarian reforms, and rural exodus resonate less than they once did with a Latin American audience whose daily concerns are no longer so distant from those of a European or American. Wanting to include canonical works like Oscar Bony’s The Working Class Family (1968), Joaquin Torres-García’s Inverted America (1943), or the still-astounding works of Tarsila do Amaral (Abaporu, 1928) and Wifredo Lam (La Mañana Verde, 1943), arguably directed the curator’s hand; but the show lacked a set of thematic structures that felt urgently contemporary, or attached to the present. Despite this, there were a few timely moments: the treatments of post-feminism, ecology, and the monstrous development of the great metropolis were among its sharpest points.

We might say that the curators succeeded in shirking the chains of chronological organization – and therefore Western canonization – but stopped short of freeing themselves from more secular and more local problems. The organization by “constellations” was not as focused and clear as it could have been: the abstract and opaque themes of some sections, which were occasionally illustrated by fewer than a dozen pieces, produced a general feeling of superficiality. For instance, the segment titled “The Country and the Outskirts” featured excellent works by Francis Alÿs, Antonio Berni, and Emilio Pettoruti, but lacked a coherent thematic structure. Conceptual dialogues seemed forced and some were perhaps placed in the wrong grouping, as with Lotty Rosenfeld. In Rosenfeld’s case (and a few others’) it seemed as though the artwork was included only because of the artist’s notoriety. Adding to the general dizziness of the section was the fact that the works spanned 114 years, between Ángel Della Valle’s painting and Alÿs´s film. The constellation was successfully unmoored from a Eurocentric ethic of presentation, but lost in the execution of its own premise

On balance, Verboamerica, with its promise of fresh vocabulary, allows us to rearticulate the history of Latin American art (or at least Costantini’s version of it): declassifying the canon, asserting female voices (40% of the artists are women), and affirming the local. This is no minor victory given that, for decades, the voices of Latin American artists have been shut out of hegemonic centers. The show’s catalogue offers a rich glossary of terms, further evidence of a top-down commitment to revisiting the ground won in the cultural battle of the ‘90s. But the dynamic nature of contemporary Latin American art is not something easily glossed over. It’s in the mouths of its users, something as fluid as a living language. Such a vernacular deserves a future tense.

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