Latin American Art: beyond the fairs, galleries and stereotypes

Forget about only relying on glamorous art fairs and ‘white cube’ spaces, if you are attempting to find, contemplate, and understand the contemporary art produced in Latin American countries. You should rather ‘look at the streets’ whilst searching for new artistic talents or inspirations - ironically, this is the advice from one of Latin America’s most respected gallerists, Luisa Strina from São Paulo, while trying to find visionaries with a ‘fresh’ take on contemporary art. 

Everton Barreiro in conversation with Brazilian gallerist Luisa Strina at Frieze London 2018.

One should also cease to expect ‘homogenous' and ‘exotic’ works of art coming out of Latin American countries which would only cement unidimensional romanticised misperceptions of what the art produced in this highly vast, diverse and complex continent. In Brazil for instance, one may not always encounter Tarsila do Amaral’s allegorical tropical paradises featuring idyllic banana trees, cacti, ‘favelas’ or street ‘carnivals’ depicted in highly stylised saturated hues. Even Tarsila - one of Brazil’s greatest modern painters, understood, responded to and portrayed the dark and grim side of Brazil in the first half of the twentieth century, utilising soberer tones. You may also be confronted with stern-looking expressionist faces painted by many Jewish Central-Eastern European émigrés settling in Latin America in the first half of the twentieth century, or with the cutting-edge abstract art produced by many artists from the region, during the oppressive and tragic dictatorship years between the 1960s and late 1980s - artists who needed to subtly ‘code’ their message within the artwork in order not to be arrested and tortured.

This overview and these reflections on Latin American contemporary art will attempt to unpretentiously examine and tackle the problematics, misconceptions and stereotypes when trying to understand how the contemporary art from that region is perceived, particularly in Europe and in the United States. My reflections on Latin American contemporary art in this essay are greatly informed by research as well as the various conversations that I conducted with artists, curators, gallerists, museum directors and specialists. I myself, born and raised in Latin America though settled in Britain in the last fourteen years, have failed during recent attempts in trying to find a common collective Latin American identity and bond. This is because Latin American countries speak many languages, each having unique cultural and social histories, different economic models and political structures while featuring incredibly diverse natural landscapes, flora, fauna, climate and peoples.

1. Line Weight II, Marcius Galan, 2018. Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo. Image: Andrea Rosetti. Courtesy of Galeria Luisa Strina.

2. By a Thread, Anna Maria Maiolino, 1976/2012. Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo. Courtesy of Galeria Luisa Strina.

The author Iria Candela further reinforces this argument,

‘The Latin American continent is plurinational, pluriethnic, pluricultural and plurilinguistic entity which embraces almost 570 million inhabitants. Any attempt to understand its contemporary artistic manifestations must encompass such multidimensional diversity of experiences if it is not to succumb to the old exoticist and essentialist model based on the mistaken premise that Latin American unity and authenticity.’

Throughout the continent Latin American countries have experienced heterogenous and distinct economic performances in the last twenty-five years, after the military dictatorships collapsed by the early 90s. Brazil - the continent’s largest country and economy - witnessed a booming economic growth and reduction in poverty under the centre-left Worker’s Party leadership in the last decade. This extraordinary economic performance fuelled by commodities exports added to socially-driven policies, boosted the country’s confidence. The once famous slogan, Brasil o país do futuro ‘Brazil the country of the future’, appeared to finally become the ‘present’ reality then for many disadvantaged and middle-class Brazilians. However, Brazil’s dreams were torn apart from 2012, with the economy entering a dark period of severe economic recession and political crisis provoked by the sharp fall of international commodity prices, policy errors and endless corruption scandals involving the governing Worker’s Party, which culminated with a parliamentary coup d’état that saw the then president, Dilma Rousseff, impeached by the country’s federal Congress in 2016. Most recently, the controversial imprisonment of the former president and Worker’s Party’s most popular leader, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2018, following the highly polemical ‘Car Wash’ corruption scandals, added to the parliamentary coup d’état and unveiled how immature and fragile democracy still is in Brazil as well as in other Latin American countries.

Following the economic rise of its larger neighbour, Brazil, in the last decade, Argentina also experienced strong economic growth between 2002 and 2012 under the populist governments of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner, albeit falling into recession and political scandals in the later years of Cristina Kirchner’s government. Unfortunately though, Argentina’s centre-right president Mauricio Macri, who has been in power since 2015, and his neoliberal agenda have not yet managed to take the country’s economy out of chronic paralysis. Unlike the two giant South American countries, Mexico’s economy remained with steady growth this decade after its recovery from the 2009 recession. Despite the economic recessions and political instabilities in the continent’s power-houses this decade, added to the devastating crisis in Venezuela, other Latin American nations such as Paraguay, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia and Peru for instance, have all enjoyed significant economic growth of around and above 3% in recent years according to the International Monetary Fund. These figures and facts highlighting economic performances reinforce the fact that Latin American nations are highly uneven and distinct in their socio-economic systems. But strong and stable economic growth alone is not sufficient to combat profound social inequalities that still haunt Latin American countries, a grim reality that contextualises the works of art by many artists based in the region. Iria Candela highlights the issue of social inequality in the continent, 

‘According to data published in 2009 by the Comisión Económica para América Latina (CEPAL), one in three Latin Americans lives in poverty - that is, a total of 190 million people - and 13.4 per cent (some 76 million people) in conditions of 'extreme poverty’. In 2006, there were 20 million people living in poverty in Mexico and 40 million in Brazil. At the same time, Mexico City and São Paulo are among the ten cities highest ranked in the world in terms of GDP and number of multimillionaires.’

Although the figures above are not up-to-date, since Iria Candela’s Art in Latin America book was published in 2013, the extract demonstrates the shocking chronic issues relating to social inequality in the continent. In spite of the deep, grim and shameful social inequalities in both São Paulo and Mexico City, the incredible accumulation of wealth in these two vibrant Latin American cities, may well have created the appropriate entrepreneurial conditions for the establishment of many internationally renowned art galleries. Out of the sixteen galleries showing at Frieze London in 2018, two were from Mexico City - OMR and kurimanzutto, and five were from São Paulo - Luisa Strina, Galeria Vermelho, Mendes Wood DM among others. 

It is fair to argue that re-democratisation and prosperous economic performances have drawn the world’s attention - especially from Beijing, Washington and European capitals - to Latin America as a rich commodities supplier and a place for investment from the mid-1990s onwards, however, it would be reductionist to assume that only political and economic factors have created this increasing interest in that region and the art produced there. 

3. Untitled, Fernanda Gomes, 2016. Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo. Image: Pat Kilgore. Courtesy of Galeria Luisa Strina.

During a conversation that I had with Luisa Strina - a successful and influential Brazilian gallerist from a prominent Italo-Brazilian family of art connoisseurs - in her gallery space at the art fair Frieze London in October 2018, the gallerist points out that ‘perhaps due to the lack of traditional and established art academies’ [in Brazil] paving the road for the artist, makes the art produced in that country more transgressive’. Strina possibly alluded to some ‘freedom from the academy’ as one of the main motives why the globe’s established centres began to pay attention to Brazilian art, for instance. While many specialists would probably counter-argue Strina’s statement, based upon the fact that there are more professional art colleges and institutions in Brazil as well as in other Latin American countries, it would be appropriate to say that the Brazilian gallerist may be partly right. Her inspirations come from the streets and travel experiences, meeting artists who would not have necessarily had a formal and academic education in fine art or visual arts, certainly in previous decades. Albeit some of these artists would propose unique, fluid and skilled methods to work with materials and shapes, particularly in sculpture, while in connection with the socio-economic, political and cultural context, without institutional constraints holding them back. The art produced in Latin America would be many times simply articulated outdoors, through intervention and performance, in direct or indirect response to scenes of everyday life, temporarily leaving the art institution, studio space and galleries as the exclusive places to convey artistic expression. 

4. Figa, Pedro Reyes, 2017. Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo. Courtesy Galeria Luisa Strina.

Luisa Strina established her own gallery in 1974 in São Paulo, shortly after exhibiting Pop Art names such as Andy Warhol and Roy Liechtenstein. Prior to that in the 1960s, Strina was part of a group of progressive artists and intellectuals, she was also well-acquainted with Brazil’s Neo-Concrete artist Hélio Oiticica during the oppressive years of military dictatorship in Brazil. Her gallery was the first to be invited to represent Latin America at the prestigious Basel Art Fair in the early 90s. Today Luisa Strina represents a varied scope of international contemporary artists mainly from Latin American countries, with around 70% of her clients coming from outside Brazil - mainly from the United States, whereas Paris and London are the most important centres for her gallery to trade in Europe.

5. Elementos de un salón de clase para la improvisación, Nicolás Paris, 2018. Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo. Courtesy of Galeria Luisa Strina.

The contemporary art historian and curator specialising in Latin American contemporary art, Kiki Mazzucchelli, highlights that ‘even before Latin American countries had embraced globalisation in the early 1990s, Brazilian artists such as Hélio Oiticica, had a traveling solo exhibition in the United States’. I would also add to that, Oiticica’s exhibition at London’s Whitechapel Gallery in 1969, which presented the Neo-Concrete artist’s installations, including Eden - featuring a combination of materials such as sand, crushed bricks, dry leaves, water, cushions, foam flakes, books, magazines, straw, matting and incense - against the backdrop of Brazil’s new military dictatorship, which had taken over political power five years prior to Oiticica’s daring show at the London gallery. Mazzucchelli also recognises that it was after Latin American economies started opening to the rest of the world in the early 1990s, that art gallerists from the region began to be invited, and, could afford to show at some of the world’s most renowned art fairs, therefore promoting and representing artists from Latin America in Europe and the United States.

Everton Barreiro in conversation with London-based Brazilian curator specialising in Latin American contemporary art, Kiki Mazzucchelli.

While many Latin American contemporary artists continue to implicitly develop on the legacy left from the artistic movements that preceded the re-democratisation period in the 1980s, many others choose to engage with global affairs across different geographies. Issues related to national and cultural identity in Latin America seem obsolete to many artists from the region or those who found a new home in the diverse continent. The Mexican artist, Gabriel Orozco, who achieved international reputation in the 1990s and has worked across drawing, photography, sculpture and installation argued his case on the topic of national and cultural identity in 1998, 

‘Everyone is talking about nationalism, about being Mexican or being international. I refuse to talk about this, [because] the interesting thing today is the way in which an artist behaves in the world, how he or she lives, and what political position he or she takes’.

Perhaps many artists would disagree with Orozco regarding his statement, ‘what political position he or she takes’, as many art practitioners would not necessarily choose to translate their ‘political position’ in their work. The question of examining Latin American national and cultural identity through works of art could easily fall into a dangerous nationalistic and reductionist theory, just as it occurred with the Brazilian avant-garde modernist Anthropophagic Movement in the early 1930s, after its manifesto was published in 1928 by the Brazilian artist and poet Oswald de Andrade. And nonetheless, Andrade’s antropofagia which proposed a new racially and culturally hybrid civilisation in the tropics, may well still resonate in contemporary discourse when looking at how contemporary artists relocate, live, study, work, travel to different countries within Latin America and beyond, absorbing influences from places where they practice whilst responding to the realities of the local environment and space - this is surely a process of cultural and intellectual hybridisation which would reflect in the themes that these artists decide to work with.

The Peruvian artist, Lucia Monge, the recipient of a Brown University Social Innovation Fellowship, is currently based in the United States, and has travelled globally taking her project entitled Plantón Móvil to different geographies and environments - including London, during the Nocturnal Creatures Summer show curated by the Whitechapel Gallery in 2018. Monge’s Plantón Móvil, plays with the double-meaning of the Spanish word plantón, one definition means a sapling and the other means sit-in or peaceful protest. After performing Plantón Móvil in her hometown, Lima in 2010, Monge went on to explore how different global cities would respond to her performance, resembling a procession or a peaceful march, originally conceived to bring public awareness to the importance of nature, green spaces, trees and plants within the urban environment. The artist expands on her project, 

‘It is about giving urban plants and trees the opportunity to walk down the streets of a city that is also theirs. People and plants move together in a "walking forest" that culminates with the creation of a public green area.'

6. Plantón Móvil, Lucía Monge - Nocturnal Creatures show - Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2018. Courtesy of the artist Lucía Monge.

By mobilising ordinary members of the public to actively take part of the performance whilst engaging with and carrying plants during the walk, Monge’s Plantón Móvil encourages its audience to notice trees and plants, reflecting upon environmental issues, such as the preservation of forests and the creation of green spaces in urban environments. Plantón Móvil calls on the march participants to claim the urban space back for the natural world, with the performative act ending with a ritual which asks the participants to hold each other’s hands and close their eyes, in order to meditatively connect with each other and nature whilst surrounded by glass, steel and concrete high-rise. The audience becomes one with the plants, as the latter may be intricately entangled with straps on human bodies. Lucia Monge’s performance clearly demonstrates the artist’s preoccupation with an issue that is not only Peruvian or Latin American, but intercontinental, by dealing with global environmental problems, such as deforestation. Plantón Móvil also takes art out of the studio space and gallery to the outside world through the performative act, democratically bringing art out to the streets and to the people, as opposed to the other way around. Though Lucia Monge’s art project is global in reference as well as in reach, she identifies herself as a Latin American practitioner,

‘I am Peruana wherever I go, not only because I was born here but because it is part of who I am. It's like being a tree, the further outwards the branches expand, the deeper the roots will grow.’

7. Plantón Móvil, Lucía Monge - Nocturnal Creatures show - Whitechapel Gallery, London, 2018. Courtesy of the artist Lucía Monge.

Another strong example of cultural hybridisation and geographic transience in relation to artistic inspirations, is the Italian artist Andrea Galvani originally from Verona, who has been located between New York and Mexico City. Galvani is currently represented by international galleries such as Marso Galería in Mexico, Y Gallery in New York, The RYDER in London, Artericambi in Italy and Revolver Galería which is based in Lima and Buenos Aires. He has exhibited internationally, including at the Whitney Museum and the 4th Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art among many other institutions and galleries, having one of his works of art purchased by the Deutsche Bank - the official sponsor of the Frieze fairs. 

8. Instruments for Inquiring into the Wind and the Shaking Earth, Andrea Galvani, 2018. For Revolver Galería (Lima/Buenos Aires) at Frieze London, 2018. Courtesy of Revolver Galería.

9. Instruments for Inquiring into the Wind and the Shaking Earth, Andrea Galvani, 2018. For Revolver Galería (Lima/Buenos Aires) at Frieze London, 2018. Courtesy of Revolver Galería.

For the 2018 edition of Frieze London, Revolver Galería decided to focus solely on Andrea Galvani’s installation, Instruments for Inquiring into the Wind and the Shaking Earth, specifically created by the artist for Revolver’s space at the art fair. The installation is an explosion of suspended and incandescent symbols, resembling mathematical equations and stars in the emptiness of space, resulting in a compelling and poetic work of art which earned extraordinary attention from visitors to the art fair. Galvani focuses on themes relating to the geometry of gravity, space and time, drawing from his profound interest and research in science, mathematics, physics and the universe. Though scientific in reference, Galvani executed a meticulously designed and made installation which embodied beauty while carefully considering the architectural and interior space of the environment.

Everton Barreiro in conversation with artist Andrea Galvani by his installation, 'Instruments for Inquiring into the Wind and the Shaking Earth', for Revolver Galería at Frieze London 2018.

During a conversation with the artist by his installation, Galvani reflects on Latin America, and on how Mexico and its capital have enchanted and inspired him, ‘after twelve years living in New York City, I decided to move to Mexico City…’. ‘But Latin America in general is a place of possibility, that’s what I perceived from the first week’. He carries on to say, ‘I fell in love with Mexico City… have access to technology, but in two hours I’m in the desert’. Galvani highlights the fact that Mexico’s nature, landscape and people constantly inspire him. The artist also suggests that he has access to much more space to work in his practice in the Mexican capital than in New York, which is an important factor due to the architectural aspect of his works, since his installations take up substantial physical space. Andrea Galvani works with global themes taking the best advantages of being based between New York and Mexico City while constantly travelling within Latin America and further afield, consolidating a truly international career as art practitioner.

It was clear to me while engaging with Latin American art galleries and artists, that though they might primarily represent artists from the region, they are also keen to collaborate with artists from all over the globe. Like Andrea Galvani, Alexandre da Cunha also lives and works across geographies. Born and raised in Brazil, da Cunha has been based in London for almost two decades, where he was trained at the Royal College of Art. He is currently represented by Luisa Strina in São Paulo and Thomas Dane in London. Although da Cunha has in recent years spent some periods of time in Brazil, having a studio space in São Paulo, the artist and sculptor’s practice is informed by the environments of both London and São Paulo, transforming and elevating found objects that would usually be disposed and neglected in everyday life into stylised sculptures.

10. Tete à Tete, Alexandre da Cunha, 2018. Galeria Luisa Strina, São Paulo. Image: Renato Ghiazza. Courtesy of Galeria Luisa Strina.

Alexandre da Cunha combines and alters straw, textiles, concrete, ropes, mops, glass, cement mixers in his work. At times he intervenes very little on the surface of an object, keeping the focus on the immense material and stylistic possibilities that these objects contain. The artist would not only ‘resuscitate’ forgotten objects by turning them into sculptures, he would also put these objects into a new context with certain sense of irony and wit. A visitor to the galleries at Tate Britain in London could potentially encounter a ‘cement mixer’, or Full Catastrophe (Drum VIII), which was acquired by the word-class institution in 2014. Between summer 2015 and summer 2016, his white-red-blue cement mixer, which would have been originally designed to fit on the back of a track, dominated the park outside of the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the Plaza Project’s series curated by the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago, and commissioned by the institution to da Cunha.

11. Full Catastrophe (Drum VIII), Alexandre da Cunha, 2012 - Tate. Image: Todd White Photography. Courtesy of artist Alexandre da Cunha/Thomas Dane Gallery.

This internationalist element in the contemporary art discourse and scene from Latin America is echoed by Mexico City’s OMR gallery, which has provided local support to institutions such as SOMA, and young artists through the Salón Acme project - having as some of its beneficiaries, the artists Gabriel Rico and Yann Gerstberger. The OMR gallery director, Kerstin Erdmann born and raised in Germany, found Mexico City a new home almost two decades ago. Whilst committed to support and represent Mexican and Latin American artists, the gallery collaborates with art practitioners from all over the world. The gallerist points out that, ‘the Latin American art scene is no longer in the periphery but rather has an involvement on a more global scale’.

12. Galería OMR, Mexico City. Image: Rory Gardiner. Courtesy of Galería OMR.

13. Mecánica de lo inestable, Jose Dávila, 2018. Galería OMR, Mexico City. Image: Enrique Macías. Courtesy of Galería OMR.

OMR believes that the European eye will find that Latin American art is not very different to the art currently produced in other parts of the world - ‘the European eye understands the art produced in the region as it’s based in a visual vocabulary that is not entirely different from what they already know’. Mexican artists such as Jorge Méndez Blake, Gabriel Rico and Jose Dávila, alongside Yann Gerstberger who lives and works in Mexico City, had their artworks receiving a great deal of attention in the gallery space during Frieze London 2018. Kerstin Erdmann comments about the current art market, 

‘The contemporary art scene in Mexico is thriving due to many factors, including the inclusion of art fairs (Zona Maco, Material) which draw a large international crowd, as well as the opening of many new galleries and project spaces by Mexican and international figures alike. The participation of Mexican galleries in the international fair circuit has brought credibility to the region, and its artists on a broader level.’ 

14. By the artist Gabriel Rico - Galería OMR, Mexico City. Courtesy of Galería OMR.

15. Asterismos, Artur Lescher, 2018. Galería OMR, Mexico City. Image: Enrique Macías. Courtesy of Galería OMR.

Márcio Botner - an artist and one of the directors at A Gentil Carioca art gallery, based in Rio de Janeiro - also reinforces the argument that Latin American art became ‘global’, though he interestingly claims that, ‘usually a Brazilian artist living and working in Brazil, of similar qualifications and trajectories of an American or European artist, for instance, would be valued ten times less just because this artist would be living outside of the Northern Hemispheric metropolitan centres, in spite of the quality and history of the artists’ artworks’. Founded in 2003 by Márcio Botner, Laura Lima and Ernesto Neto, A Gentil Carioca participates in nine art fairs worldwide and has celebrated the tenth participation of their carioca gallery at Frieze London 2018, at which his gallery represented the artists Vivian Caccuri - who recently finished an art residency at Delfina Foundation in London - Opavivará, and Pascale Marthine Tayaou.

Adopting a rather more political tone than other gallerists, perhaps due to the fact that Botner is an artist himself, he passionately highlights his deep disappointment and frustration at the lack of public and state support to visual artists and their careers in Brazil, citing an archaic and obstructive fiscal policy which could charge artists up to 60% of the value of a work of art that would have been made by a Brazilian artist while abroad, only on the basis of transporting this artwork, therefore impeding a greater flow of art traveling in and out of the country for exhibition purposes.

17. The Foreigner XXIII, Arjan Martins, 2017. A Gentil Carioca gallery, Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy of the artist Arjan Martins/A Gentil Carioca gallery.

Since its foundation in 2003, A Gentil Carioca has attracted the attention from international curators and institutions such as the Tate and Palais de Tokyo as well as from renowned art collectors - including Catherine Petitgas, who was recently awarded Brazil’s Republican honour, Ordem do Rio Branco, at the Embassy of Brazil in London for her contributions to the cultural sector in the South American country. Petitgas, who is French and used to live in Mexico, is currently based in London where she studied art history at the Courtauld Institute, and has been a long-term specialist, collector and supporter of Latin American art, artists, institutions and professionals. With an impressive resumé and art collection, which is currently being digitalised, Petitgas has ambition, determination and passion for Latin American art, and this is reflected in her patronage work - she is currently part of the Tate Latin American Acquisitions Committee, having also a similar role at Paris’s Centre Pompidou as well as other organisations. Botner describes a moment when the French art collector offered to support one of his projects by asking him, ‘when are you going to let me support one of the walls?’ At the time, Catherine Petitgas was referring to one of the public artistic projects led by A Gentil Carioca, entitled A Parede Gentil, or The Gentil Wall - which, according to Botner, allows artists to make public interventions facing the central streets of the city of Rio de Janeiro, usually provoking a set of mixed responses from the city’s inhabitants whilst passing-by it.

18. Constructive Cloth (Seringueira), João Modé, 2018. A Gentil Carioca gallery, Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy of the artist João Modé/A Gentil Carioca gallery.

During our conversation on the last day at Frieze London 2018, Márcio Botner points out that up to that instance, his gallery ‘had not sold one work of art to a Brazilian client at the art fair’. He also expresses, as a local carioca, his indignation and anger at Brazil’s political authorities at the tragedy occurred at the Museu Nacional in Rio de Janeiro in September 2018, which was almost entirely burned down with its world-class collections of Egyptian antiquities, anthropological artefacts and art, not only belonging to Brazil’s imperial past, but to the world heritage. The artist and gallerist reinforces the importance of ‘engaging with and supporting public museums in Brazil, mentioning that artists, collectors and private galleries should look into ways to donate and sell works of art with a lower monetary value to State-supported museums’, whose acquisition budgets are probably very modest in that country. In fact, according to international critics, Brazilian museums can barely afford the bills, the maintenance of their buildings and collections. This utter and embarrassing negligence by the Brazilian State and society with its cultural sector, in particular the museums, is chronic and is a reflection of how unimportant culture and the adequate preservation of these institutions are for the Brazilian society. The gallerist Luisa Strina echoes the words by Márcio Botner, by saying, ‘we are all responsible for this tragedy with Museu Nacional, the political class does not care, and society remains apathetic’. 

19. Só quando tu tá com as folhas geral gosta de salada da série Pardo é Papel, Maxwell Alexandre, 2018. A Gentil Carioca gallery, Rio de Janeiro. Courtesy of the artist Maxwell Alexandre/A Gentil Carioca gallery.

I would in fact argue that no political parties and governments in Brazil have had a genuine preoccupation and will to properly invest in public museums and galleries in Latin America’s largest country and economy. Brazil’s socio-economic elite has historically been incredibly ‘short-sighted’, as the contemporary Brazilian sociologist Jessé Souza has many times described. And I would add to that, careless, selfish and culturally unambitious. It seems to me, that a section of Brazil’s very wealthy and influential economic elite would rather acquire art to display in their private residential fortresses, partly for investment purposes, than properly support and expand on the public museum collections, following the historical example from both American and European elites.

In a recent article published by Frieze, the gallery director Fernanda Brenner - owner of the Pivô gallery located at Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic modernist edifice Copan in São Paulo - urged that Brazilian ‘museums must become centres for promoting democratic values’. Brenner wrote this article in the light of the election victory of Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, whose long-standing toxic views regarding Afro-Brazilian, indigenous, LGBTQ, and women’s communities, civil and human rights have greatly shocked and alarmed the liberal sections of the Brazilian society and international Western observers. Within the first week after his inauguration as president, Bolsonaro removed the Ministry of Culture from the nation's federal ministries, instead, reducing it into a mere ‘secretariat’ in Latin America’s largest country. If Brazilian museums had already suffered the consequences of political and societal disdain, under Brazil’s current and dangerously imbecile presidency supported by ultraconservative religious fanatics, the military, and the country’s neoliberal financial and rural elite, museums are likely to witness a decrease in funding and political support from the State, not to mention an increase in censorship to art exhibitions and performances that are deemed to be of ‘inappropriate content’. 

20. João de Deus, Dalton Paula, 2018. Afro-Atlantic Histories exhibition at Museu de Artes de São Paulo (MASP). Courtesy of MASP, São Paulo.

Bolsonaro’s malign ambitions to diminish the rights of Brazil’s indigenous communities, in order to fulfil the economic aspirations of the country’s rural elite, is particularly worrying given how already disconnected most Brazilians living in the more affluent industrialised regions feel from the nation’s indigenous causes and cultures. Hence the gallery director Fernanda Brenner’s appeal might be an effective democratic counter-attack, to enhance the indigenous presence within the country’s cultural and art institutions. The artistic director and chief-curator at Museu das Artes de São Paulo (MASP), Adriano Pedrosa, has demonstrated through the museum’s entire programme for 2018 a significant interest in highlighting the art produced by Afro-Brazilian and indigenous communities. The museum hosted talks, released publications and exhibited artists of African descent such as Aleijadinho, Maria Auxiliadora da Silva, Emanoel Araujo, Rubem Valentim, Sonia Gomes, Melvin Edwards and Lucia Laguna as well as Kader Attia, Ayrson Heráclito, Khalil Joseph and John Akomfrah. Adriano Pedrosa comments further on the museum’s focus on highlighting the art made by artists of African descent and the institution’s ambition to diversify its acquisitions and collections, 

‘The yearlong program dedicated to Afro Atlantic Histories has been in the planning since 2014, and these exceptional acquisitions now leave a definite imprint in a collection otherwise well known for its classical European masters. We are responding directly to the museum's mission, which has recently redefined MASP as “plural, inclusive and diverse museum”. The efforts that have been made in terms of artworks by artists of African descent are also paired with female artists, and we will continue to amplify the scope of works we bring into the collection and show in our display.’

21. Rubem Valentim: Afro-Atlantic Constructions exhibition at Museu de Artes de São Paulo (MASP). Courtesy of MASP, São Paulo.

However, now more than ever, Brazil’s cultural institutions and galleries should scream louder and clearer their ambitions to change the discourse by bringing to the forefront artefacts and art produced by marginalised indigenous and Afro-Brazilian sectors of society, particularly against the backdrop of a far-right government. Established in 2004, the Museu Afro Brasil - located in São Paulo’s Ibirapuera Park - houses around six thousand objects conveying the cultural and artistic heritage of African and Afro-Brazilian communities. Museu Afro Brasil collects, curates and exhibits sculptures, paintings, artefacts and documents which help to tell the important narrative of the African diaspora whilst taking African and Afro-Brazilian pluralist identities out of the periphery of the contemporary art dialogue.

The curator Kiki Mazzucchelli and I, during our conversation on film, agreed upon the fact that both non-indigenous Brazilian and European curators, gallerists and museum directors should rather give Brazil’s indigenous communities agency by allowing them to write about and discuss their own rich and diverse body of works. It is no longer appropriate to continue shutting out those voices, by treating those communities, their ethnographic and artistic works, as ‘the exotic other’. In sharp contrast with Brazil and Argentina, countries such as Paraguay and Mexico are far more developed in tackling these issues. An interesting example of that is how Paraguay’s Museo Del Barro curates indigenous ethnographic objects, as observed by the Mexican curator specialising on Latin American art, Pablo León de la Barra, whose recent visit to the museum which was documented on his social media, interestingly suggests the institution’s curatorial choice to display fine art alongside with ethnographic indigenous objects, elevating the latter into fine art and popular art while attempting to decolonise such artefacts and their meanings. Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Antropología, which owns an extraordinary collection of ancient indigenous ethnographic objects is a fine example of how a cultural institution is able to change this dialogue, by preserving, researching while aiming to remove Eurocentrism away from the narrative told by such objects and curators. 

The growing curiosity and interest in Latin American art has been more apparent in the United States than in Europe over the last decades, perhaps underpinned by closer geographic and cultural ties between the United States and its Latin American southern neighbours. The 2017 Whitney Museum Biennial exhibited quite a few Latin American and Latino artists, such as Raúl de Nieves and Aliza Nisenbaum. Hélio Oiticica had a comprehensive dedicated retrospective show featuring his contributions to the Neo-Concrete movement spanning twenty years of work at the Whitney Museum in the summer of the same year - including his iconic installations and sculptures. On the West Coast, the curiosity and ambition by Californian institutions to feature Latino and Latin American artists is championed by the Getty Foundation, Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, whose programmes have examined the deep-rooted historic bonds between California, with its Spanish colonial heritage, and the art produced by the Latino and Latin American artists. In New York, a key figure who has been supporting MoMA’s efforts to rebalance the collections acquisitions and include Latin American art in the the wider narrative of Western art history, is the Venezuelan art collector, Patricia Phelps de Cisneros and her billionaire husband Gustavo Cisneros, who both donated more than one hundred works of art by thirty-seven artists from the region - Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina and Uruguay. Patricia de Cisneros is not only a trustee to MoMA, she also founded and chairs MoMA’s Latin American Acquisitions Fund and financed a dedicated research centre within the institution which focuses on researching Latin American art and practitioners. 

Though a little late compared to other American cultural institutions, the Guggenheim Museum began devoting more resources to promoting and acquiring Latin American artists, with the initiative of the curator Pablo León de la Barra and the London-based art historian and collector, Catherine Petitgas. Another interesting example of support to Latin American and Latino art in the United States is the Smithsonian Latino Center, which is completely devoted to the promotion of Latino art emphasising this community’s great contribution to the wider cultural fabric of the United States. With significant patronage from the Molina family, The Latino Gallery will have its first physical location opening at the National Museum of American History, which is due to open in 2021, presenting bilingual and cross-cultural voices that will feature multimedia, physical objects and first person voices from storytellers. Significant patronage of this kind is crucial, not only in terms of promoting the art and artists from the region, but also to tackle stereotypes whilst repositioning Latin America as an integral part of the global debate in contemporary art.

22. By the artist Felipe Cohen, 2018. Kubik Gallery, Porto - London Art Fair. Courtesy of Kubik Gallery.

Efforts to demonstrate the ‘internationalisation’ aspect of Latin American art was evident in the British capital during the 2019 edition of London Art Fair. Dialogues - curated by Kiki Mazzucchelli for the fair, aimed at building a ‘bridge’ between art practitioners and galleries based both in Europe and Latin America. With a particular focus on contemporary abstract art across the board, galleries such as Kubik Gallery from Porto, Emmanuel Hervé from Paris, Casanova from São Paulo and Maddox Arts from London, mainly presented artists from Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia and Argentina.

23. Solaris Polaris a, Lina Kim, 2018. Casanova Art Gallery, São Paulo - London Art Fair. Courtesy of Casanova Art Gallery.

Some exquisite artists presented by Dialogues particularly stood out during the fair, such as the artist Lina Kim, represented by Casanova gallery. Originally from São Paulo, Kim is currently based in Berlin and has shown her artworks globally. The Brazilian gallery focused on a series of small acrylic on linen paintings made in 2018 by Kim, which feature cutting-edge abstract architectural references and shapes, beautifully highlighting vibrant yellow and orange hues contrasted with soft sky-blue tones, again echoing Latin America’s tradition and flair for abstract geometric art. Kubik Gallery devoted their booth at the fair mainly to the works of Brazilian artists, Felipe Cohen, who is based in São Paulo and was awarded the Illy prize for best Latin American artist in 2016, and Ana Prata who is also from São Paulo and has exhibited internationally. Cohen’s meticulous skills in burning, cutting and handling ceramics was clear when confronted with two modernist sculpture panels on the wall of the gallery space, referencing semi-figurative shapes in cold shades. The Portuguese gallery also exhibited three small paintings by Ana Prata which explore the boundary between abstraction and figurative art, referencing the great Brazilian modern painter Tarsila do Amaral with a rather whimsical style. 

24. Blue Brut c, Lina Kim, 2018. Casanova Art Gallery, São Paulo - London Art Fair. Courtesy of Casanova Art Gallery.

Perhaps the Paris-based gallerist Emmanuel Hervé, exhibited the most comprehensive and focused body of works of art by an artist shown by Dialogues - the gallerist focused almost solely on the contemporary Brazilian artist Sérgio Sister. Sister who was trained in painting, subsequently studying social and political science in the 1960s in his home city São Paulo, was once arrested in 1970s for political reasons at the height of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Not a coincidence that Sérgio Sister became a master of abstract art, a style particularly explored by many artists of his generation to convey a coded message in response to the oppressive military regime of the 1960s and 1970s in Brazil. The artist harmoniously blurs the boundaries between painting and sculpture, with an extraordinary sensibility to colour and shape producing works of art that embody a poetic simplicity. 

26. Untitled, Sérgio Sister, 2013. Galerie Emmanuel Hervé, Paris - London Art Fair. Courtesy of Galerie Emmanuel Hervé.

The legendary Argentinean artist, Marcelo Brodsky, who showed a series of artworks focused on the 1968 world youth uprisings in Dialogues, reinforced during a talk organised and chaired by Kiki Mazzucchelli at London Art Fair, the fact that Latin American art is international and that ‘culture has no barriers’, though admitted, in his view, that ‘the presence of Latin American art is still low’ worldwide. The artist, who is very political, highlighted the importance of art collectors and patrons in the art sector in supporting the works by Latin American artists, museums, organisations and galleries. Brodsky’s reflections are entirely pertinent, since the political wind seems to be shifting to the right and far-right in the diverse Latin American continent, with Brazil’s Bolsonaro phenomenon potentially spreading across the region, threatening the existence of the cultural sector, and availability of funding, not to mention the threat to freedom of intellectual and artistic expression. 

It is crucial that Latin American, North American and European museums, galleries, organisations, art collectors and patrons should look to Latin American art practitioners coming from countries such as Bolivia, Paraguay, Venezuela, Peru and Central American nations, for instance, whose artists may not necessarily be able to afford education, training and networking abroad or be represented by international galleries. In recent years countries like Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Mexico have certainly had more visibility in the competitive international arena of the contemporary art circuit. Although there have been many non-profit organisations such as the Delfina Foundation and Gasworks in London, the number of artists and curatorial residencies and resources should be increased, financed by public funds as well as more private patronage from Latin America and elsewhere. Increasing the flow of Latin American industry professionals and practitioners from all backgrounds internationally, is absolutely vital to continue to increase the dialogue while promoting the art produced in the region, and by Latin Americans on the global art stage without stereotypes and prejudices. Museums, galleries, curators, gallerists and patrons should ensure that the needs and voices of Latin American art practitioners are properly heard and repositioned within the contemporary art discourse, which has been for too long focused on the artistic production of the Northern Hemisphere due to its political and economic hegemony.

 

Bibliography

Candela, Iria. Art in Latin America: 1990 - 2010. London: Tate, 2012.

Contributors

Essay Co-editing: Author and Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt Museum, New York, Dr. Emily Orr (RCA/V&A History of Design PhD).

Film and Editing: Lara Elliott.

Special Thanks

Dr. Emily Orr @emilymarshallorr

Lara Elliott @lara_elliott

Luisa Strina @luisastrina

Galeria Luisa Strina @galerialuisastrina

Kiki Mazzucchelli @kmazzucchelli

Pablo León de la Barra @pablodelabarra

Frieze Art Fair @friezeartfair

London Art Fair @londonartfair

Lucia Monge @plantonmovil - www.plantonmovil.org

Whitechapel Gallery @whitechapelgallery

Andrea Galvani @andreagalvanistudio

Revolver Galería @revolvergaleria

Galería OMR @galeriaomr

A Gentil Carioca @agentilcarioca

Alexandre da Cunha @casadacunha

Thomas Dane Gallery @thomasdanegallery

Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP) @masp_oficial

Casanova @casanovaartecultura

Kubik Gallery @kubikgallery

Galerie Emmanuel Hervé @emmanuelherve