Art ‘from’ Latin America

Latin America suffers from an inflation of national representations that contrasts with the disaster of its nation states. It is like a refuge on the symbolic plane, sacralized as a grandiose and uncontaminated space. In contrast to our critical reality, it is surprising the lack of healthy cynicism in the continent towards the nation and its founding myths. We have written our histories and constructed our countries, both real and imaginary, through the figure of the hero and in the manner of a Hollywood movie. And we continue to believe in these constructions, often geopolitical inventions, because the history we learn is a tale of good guys and bad guys. Even worse, we persist in identifying our emancipation and progress as linked to some new caudillo. We find it difficult to achieve civility, consensus, legality, patriotic construction, not so patriotic showmanship, populism, corruption, violence, nepotism and hurried “solutions”. The unavoidable task of critically rethinking our nations has had little chance against icons and mythologies based on nationalism and collective inferiority complexes.

In this context, Latin American culture has suffered from an identity neurosis that has not been completely cured, and of which this text itself is a part, albeit by opposition. However, already in the late 1970s, the critic Frederico Morais linked our obsession with identity to colonialism, and suggested a “plural, diverse, multifaceted” idea of the continent,[1] the fruit of its multiplicity of origin.

Even the very notion of Latin America has always been highly problematic: does it include the Chicanos, the Nuyoricans and the Dominican Yorks? Does it include the English-speaking and the Dutch-speaking Caribbean? Does it include the indigenous peoples who sometimes do not even speak European languages? If we recognize the latter as Latin American, why not the indigenous people north of the Rio Grande? Is what we call Latin America part of the “West” or the “Non-West”? Does it contradict both, highlighting the schematism of such notions? In any case, the United States, with more than 55 million inhabitants of “Hispanic” origin, is undoubtedly one of the most active Latin American countries.

José Damasceno, ‘Cartograma’, 2007

However, the idea of Latin America is not rejected, as some African intellectuals do with the notion of Africa, which they considered a colonial invention.[2] The self-awareness of belonging to a historical-cultural entity misnamed Latin America is maintained, but problematized. Nevertheless, Mudimbe’s “What is Africa?[3] is becoming more and more valid every day when transferred to our area: what is Latin America? Among other things, an invention[4] that we can reinvent. Now we see ourselves a little more in the fragment, the juxtaposition and the collage, accepting our diversity and even our contradictions. The danger is to create, in the face of modernist totalizations, a postmodern cliché of Latin America as a realm of total heterogeneity.[5]

In general, we have been much less cynical than Africans about the idea of a continental identity. As early as 1965 the writer Chinua Achebe deemed identity notions about an African literature or an African culture as “scenographic elements that we have constructed at different times to help us stand on our feet. When we do, we won’t need them anymore.”[6]

The colonial era in Latin America ended before the great British and French colonial enterprises —of capitalist sign— took shape in the 19th century. In our continent, the colonizers settled, adopted native ways and mixed, making it impossible to clearly distinguish between the imposed colonial cultures, the indigenous cultures, and those of the Africans brought as slaves. In other words, the bipolar interaction between a traditional and a Western sphere, whose ambivalences have been discussed in postcolonial theory, does not prevail, as in Africa and Asia.[7] At the same time, in the Americas there are large indigenous communities that remain largely excluded from national projects based on narratives of miscegenation.

This cultural-historical process has greatly helped that the idea of Latin America as an integral notion could persistently survive criticism. Similar to what happens in the Arab world, with respect to cultural identity, macro-cohesive factors tend to prevail over diversity and conflict, even though differences are recognized and emphasized. Thus, despite the diversity of Latin America and the tendency towards balkanization in its history, the geographical, historical, economic, cultural, linguistic and religious affinities that constituted the region, and its ambivalent positioning vis-à-vis the West, have meant that we continue to identify ourselves as Latin Americans. It is a real consciousness that can lead us to solidarity as well as to provincialism.

Yeguas del Apocalipsis (Francisco Casas y Pedro Lemebel), ‘Las dos Fridas’, 1990

The entity we call Latin America can continue to be useful as a much-needed resource of solidarity, and function as a strategic alliance that inclines us to unite in a “we,” a collective self. Now, segregation will only disappear through the universal circulation and appreciation of art created around the world, a process in which remarkable progress has been made in the last fifteen years.

Does the art created in Latin America possess an axiomatic identity? Today we are inclined to answer in the negative. This was not the case until recently. We Latin Americans had tended to construct totalizing narratives as a means of discoursing on a unity that would allow us to affirm our complex identity vis-à-vis Europe and North America. Notions such as the “cosmic race”, miscegenation, baroque, magical realism, etc., have been used in the past. This effort was the result of the diverse and contradictory panorama that we tried to summarize in order to position ourselves in the face of the hegemonic centrality.

After the postmodern opening, we have tended to see things in a more complex way, thinking ourselves more in the fragment and the multiplicity. The great plurality of the art created from Latin America, and its global framework, have made it more plausible to discuss it as art without labels, that is, as art in itself. It is not that we denied the formation and the context, or that art does not participate in the context, but this is also presented as a locus from where the international is constructed. As a result of the processes of internationalization of art, it now seems more fruitful to approach art first and go from it to the context, and not the other way around, as it was commonly done and sometimes still is.

To break with a reductive label is convenient for the Latin American art in order to emphasize its rich diversity, to get out of the comfortable exclusion of the ghetto, to be able to play hard in the international arena, and to break the hegemonic wall of the art hierarchized as “universal.” But the label can help in the transition to global action and recognition of the previously excluded, through the use of spaces and events organized by regional institutions that, nevertheless, have great power of international diffusion.

“Latin American art” has not always existed as such. It was “invented” by the Argentine-Colombian critic and writer Marta Traba —especially through her critical discourse— and the Cuban-American critic and curator José Gómez Sicre —especially through his practical work as head of the visual arts unit of the Organization of American States, within the policy of Pan-Americanism, updated as Inter-Americanism after World War II— in the 1950s and 1960s. Before them, individual, national or movement-centered approaches to art created in Latin America prevailed, without a true vision of the whole. This is the case of the exhibitions organized by Alfred H. Barr Jr. at MoMA in New York during the war. Traba and Gómez Sicre worked independently and initiated —from different positions— the “Latin Americanism” that would prevail in the sixties and seventies, largely under the influence of the Cuban Revolution, its confrontation with the United States and its encouragement of armed subversion in almost the entire continent.

Although without an explicit agenda, Traba approached Latin American art in a general and canonical way, and was the first critic to work with a knowledge of what was happening in the region’s major art scenes. Her work was fruitful in affirming a particular identity of Latin American art, legitimizing its own character against the stereotype of considering it simply as a derivative of European art, a widespread dismissive view at the time. But in doing so she emphasized too narrowly the expression of context and traditional culture, though without falling into folklorism. She did not realized how context could act in art in a non-explicit, internalized way. Nor did she considered that the artists of the continent could make valuable and original propositions within the prevailing hegemonic language, without strictly contextual modulations.

Antonio Caro, ‘Colombia’, 2003

When in an old 1996 text I said that Latin American art was ceasing to be Latin American,[8] I was referring to two processes I observed in the continent. On the one hand, the overcoming of the identity neurosis among artists, critics and curators. On the other hand, Latin American art was beginning to be appreciated as art without labels. Instead of being required to declare the context, it was increasingly recognized as a participant in a general practice, which did not necessarily have to explicitly state the context, and which sometimes referred to art itself and facilitated a way out of the ghetto circuits.

Since the Conquest, Latin American culture has appropriated hegemonic tendencies to use them from the individual inventiveness of the artists and the complexity of their contexts. In the 1980s and 1990s, critics emphasized these “anthropophagic”[9] strategies of resignification, transformation and syncretism. But a Copernican volte-face was needed: to discuss how art in Latin America has enriched “international” trends within themselves, as part of a process of plural and interacting modernisms.

“To stop being Latin American” also referred to the problematic totalization that the term “Latin American art” entails. Some authors prefer to speak of “art in Latin America” as a de-emphasizing convention that seeks to underline, at the very level of language, its rejection of the dubious construction of an integral, emblematic Latin America and, beyond that, of any globalizing generalization. To stop being “Latin American art” means to move away from simplification in order to highlight the extraordinary variety of the continent’s symbolic production. Today, the statement that gives title to this article prevails.[10]

Contrary to Traba’s preaching, art has advanced further in this direction. Today it responds to our age of internationalization and global communication, with a tendency to participate in an international artistic metalanguage from its difference. The contents of culture and place, so dear to Traba, tend to function now in a more internal way, modulated by the subjectivities of the artists, who have come to the fore in many cases, to the detriment of prioritizing a more “objective” cultural and social documentation. Even more significant is the fact that one’s own culture, place and experience are reflected more in the particular way of creating artistic texts than by the expedient of representing specific contents, contexts and imagery.

Artists today tend more to participate “from here” in the dynamics of an “international artistic language,” expanding its capacity for dense and refined meaning in order to deal with the complexities of societies and cultures where multiplicity, hybridity, contrasts and chaos have introduced contradictions as well as subtleties. This is one of the changes with respect to the aforementioned totalizing paradigms that sought to achieve a characteristic Latin American language from the beginning. The new artists have broken with the connection between art and national or regional identity cards, previously so ubiquitous.

Rather than representing the contexts, these become a place of enunciation from which the works are constructed. Identities and physical, cultural and social environments are now more operated than shown, contradicting the expectations of exoticism. They are often concurrent identities and contexts in the construction of the “international” artistic metalanguage and in the discussion of contemporary “global” issues. Their interventions introduce anti-homogenizing differences that construct the global from positions of difference, underlining the emergence of new cultural subjects in the international arena.

Cover of ‘Arte desde América Latina (y otros pulsos globales)’, Cátedra, 2020.

* This excerpt is included in Gerardo Mosquera: Arte desde América Latina (y otros pulsos globales), Ediciones Cátedra, Madrid, 2020, pp. 37-44.

[1] Frederico Morais: Las artes plásticas en la América Latina: del trance a lo transitorio, Casa de las Américas, Havana, 1990, pp. 4-5.

[2] Olu Oguibe: “In the Heart of Darkness”, Third Text, nº. 23, Summer 1993, pp. 3-8. However, Walter Mignolo, in his book The Idea of Latin America, 2006, proposes leaving behind an idea that he sees as the fruit of the nation-building mentality of 19th century Europe.

[3] Cf. V. Y. Mudimbe: The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge, Indiana University Press, 1988.

[4] Cf. Edmundo O’Gorman: La invención de América, Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico City, 1958.

[5] Mónica Amor: “Cartographies: Exploring the Limitations of a Curatorial Paradigm”, Gerardo Mosquera (ed.): Beyond the Fantastic. Contemporary Art Criticism from Latin America, MIT Press, 1996, pp. 247-257.

[6] Chinua Achebe: “The Novelist as Teacher” (1965), quoted by Bart Moore-Gilbert, Postcolonial Theory. Contexts, Practices, Politics, Verso, London/New York, 1997, p. 179.

[7] Cf. Homi K. Bhabha: The Location of Culture, Routledge, London/New York, 1994.

[8] Gerardo Mosquera: “El arte latinoamericano deja de serlo”, ARCO Latino, n.º 1, 1996, pp. 7-10.

[9] In reference to Oswald de Andrade’s influential Manifiesto Antropófago, Revista de Antropofagia, year 1, n.º 1, May 1928.

[10] Gerardo Mosquera. “Good-bye identidad, welcome diferencia: del arte latinoamericano al arte desde América Latina,” in Rebeca León (comp.), Arte en América Latina y cultura global, Facultad de Artes, Universidad de Chile / Dolmen Ensayo, Santiago de Chile, 2002, pp. 123-137 and 123-137; “Del arte latinoamericano al arte desde América Latina,” Art Nexus, n.º 48, v. 2, April-June 2003, pp. 70-74; “From”, in Okwui Enwezor, Carlos Basualdo, Ute Meta Bauer, Susanne Ghez, Sarat Maharaj, Mark Nash and Octavio Zaya (eds.): Créolité and Creolization, Ostfildern-Ruit, Documenta 11_Platform3, Museum Fridericianum and Hatje Cantz Publishers, 2003, pp. 145-148; “Against Latin American Art,” in Contemporary Art in Latin America, Black Dog Publishing, London, 2010, pp. 11-23; “From Latin American Art to Art from Latin America,” Héctor Olea, Mari Carmen Ramírez, Tomás Ybarra-Frausto (organizers), Resisting Categories: Latin American and/or Latino?, Houston, Critical Documents of 20th Century Latin American and Latino Art, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, International Center for the Arts of the Americas, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 2012, pp. 1123-1132.

Gerardo Mosquera (Havana, 1945). Curator, art critic, art historian and freelance writer. Advisor to the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten, Holland, and other cultural institutions. Member of the boards of several international art magazines and art centers. Co-founder of the Havana Biennial and co-curator of its three initial editions. He has also been curator of the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York, artistic director of PHotoEspaña, Madrid, the IV Trienal Poli/Gráfica de San Juan, the III Documents, Beijing, and the XXI Bienal de Arte Paiz, Guatemala. He has organized other biennials and numerous international exhibitions around the world. He has published several books and more than 700 texts in other books, catalogs and magazines in many countries. Among other topics, he has reflected on issues of art, globalization and cultural dynamics, and on the notion of Latin American art. He received a Guggenheim Fellowship, New York, in 1990.


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