Glosses on coloniality, art, Latin America and Brasil, by Maria Angélica Melendi for SP-Arte special publication
20 May 2019, 4:03 pm
“(…) There will be a time when we will no longer be Peruvian, Bolivian, Argentinian, Dominican, Haitian, Uruguayan, Venezuelan, Ecuadorian, Colombian or Central American… We are all going to be Latin American!”
José María Torres Caicedo
“My Latin blood/my captive soul…”
João Ricardo and Paulinho Mendonça
Under the Same Sun
In 1987 New York’s tourist centre Times Square was a hub for porn-theatres, prostitutes and junkies. On a large billboard above the long strip that broadcasts stock market news, yellow lights stretched across the outline of a map of the USA announcing, ‘This is Not America’. This was followed by the sentence ‘This is Not America’s Flag’, over a glowing image of the flag of the USA. Finally, the word ‘America’ appeared over a map of the American continent. A Logo for America: an animation work on an electronic billboard created by Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar and exhibited for the first time that year, was later reproduced in Times Square in 2014. In 2016, the work also appeared in Piccadilly Circus, London, as part of Under the Same Sun, an exhibition of Latin American contemporary art at South London Gallery.
A Logo for America evokes La trahison des images (Ceci n’est pas une pipe) [The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)] (1929) by Belgian artist René Magritte. Jaar’s animation turns its statement into political commentary. Despite what most people in the United States think, the USA is not America because America is the name of a continent, not a nation. A continent where several Americas are multiplied: the home of innumerable survivors of the original populations and descendants of enslaved Africans, of Spanish and Portuguese colonisers and of the many waves of immigration that occurred in the 20th century.
Patria Grande, Nuestra América, Indo-América
It is understood that the concept of Latin America was created in France in the 19th century as a complement to the idea of ‘Latinity’. This was in opposition to the persistent expansion of the United States towards the south of the continent. However, scholar Walter Mignolo argues that Latin America is the political project of the local creole and mestizo elites:
« The idea of ‘Latin America’ was the sad way the creole elites found to celebrate their inclusion in modernity, when in fact they were becoming even more entrenched in the colonial rationale. (…) The word ‘Latinity’ encompassed an ideology that incorporated the identity of former Spanish and Portuguese colonies into the new order of a modern/colonial world, for both Europeans and Americans. »
In the last half of the 19th century (and until recently), in South America and the Caribbean, Latinity came to identify an educated section of society that, as well as speaking Spanish or Portuguese, was also fluent in French and always looked to France culturally whilst ignoring the Iberian Peninsula. The idea of integrating Latin American peoples beyond national frontiers was also present in Venezuelan Simón Bolívar’s project, which was ultimately unsuccessful. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the concept became more lyrical than practical: expressions such as Patria Grande and Nuestra America were complemented by the term Indo-America, created by Peruvian theorist Víctor Raúl Haya de la Torre, who revisited Bolívar’s concept of a united continental force against imperialism.
Inmensa luna, cielo al revés…
The physical configuration of Latin America is marked by its triangular and isthmic shape. An imposing mountain range, the Andes, straddles the continent from Venezuela’s Pacific Ocean all the way down to the Strait of Magellan, like a long wall extending toward the South. According to French historian Pierre Chaunu, this configuration contributed to the ‘Atlantic vocation’ of these nations and their ‘difficulty in becoming fulfilled as a whole’. As such, the elongated verticality accentuated the links with Europe and was one of the reasons behind the isolation of its countries.
This same ‘Atlantic vocation’ played a key role in the way the continent was populated: large and prosperous coastal cities in contrast to almost deserted inland areas. Not even Brasília’s modernist enterprise – geographically distanced from everything and everyone – managed to solve this original problem. In turn, the Pacific coast, sandwiched by the Andes, experienced a different type of development. For a long time, Latin America sought in Europe its inverted mirror.
We’ve Always Had Paris (or New York or Berlin…)
During the colonial period, the splendour of the baroque expanded in the Viceroyalty of Mexico and Peru (and on a smaller scale, Guatemala, Ecuador and Brazil) boosted by Spain and Portugal. Artists and architects from Europe trained new local masters that ‘contaminated’ the European baroque with traces of local culture, creating a new baroque: an-other-baroque, which would come to define a heterogeneous historical-structural moment in the complex formation of the modern/colonial world. Following the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Spanish Empire in 1767, the Academy of San Carlos was founded in Mexico in 1781. In line with the European model of academies, its original name was Academy of the Three Noble Arts of San Carlos, emphasising architecture, painting and sculpture from New Spain. In Brazil, the Royal School of Sciences, Arts and Crafts – which was active between 1816 and 1822 and would later become the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts that operated until 1989 – was founded by a decree signed by the Portuguese King Dom João VI, under the auspices of the French Mission. At the time, the wealthiest Viceroyalties of the Hispanic Americas established art academies before the livestock-based strongholds of the south of the continent.
As early as the 19th century, scholarship holders spent time in Paris or Rome, where they studied painting techniques that were used to produce their nations’ foundational paintings. Later, Latin-American modernists also enjoyed extensive periods of time in Paris. During their stay in the French capital, Mexican artist Diego Rivera and Brazilian painter Tarsila do Amaral were always surrounded by other Latin-American painters and artists, including Chilean Manuel Ortiz de Zárate and the Mexicans Gerardo Murillo and Roberto Montenegro. Rivera frequented the artistic milieu of Montmartre and Montparnasse, where he met Amedeo Modigliani, Piet Mondrian and Pablo Picasso. During his time in Paris, the painter also had contact with Russian immigrants, which explains his friendships with Leon Trotsky, Igor Stravinsky and Ilya Ehrenburg. Tarsila de Amaral’s studio, on Rue Hégésippe Moreau, was the meeting point for European and Latin America avant-gardes. It is believed that it was during these meetings that Tarsila and Oswald de Andrade got to know the concept of Indigenism that propelled the literary and pictorial production of many Latin American artists at the time.
Movement toward France continued. In 1926, Uruguayan painter Joaquín Torres García moved to Paris, where he met Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg and members of the De Stijl movement, including Piet Mondrian. In 1929, in collaboration with these artists and Michel Seuphor, Torres García founded the group Cercle et Carré, which published a journal of the same name. According to his carte de séjour [French residency card], from 2nd February 1953 to 2nd February 1954, Argentinian Edgardo Antonio Vigo also lived in Paris as a scholarship student. In the French capital, Vigo met a group of intellectuals, musicians and artists led by Venezuelan artist Jesús Rafael Soto. In those years, Soto made a living as a guitar player in a Parisian cabaret where, in between performances, he discussed art and music with his colleagues: ‘the cafés in Paris, like universities, were real. We didn’t have to attend the Grand Chaumière or the École des Beaux-Arts, or any of these places’. It was the era of dodecaphonic music, the Groupe de Recherche de Musique Concrète and Elektronische Musik, which Soto followed closely, aligning the concept of twelve-tone music with his plastic language.
The Argentinians León Ferrari, Alberto Greco and Martha Boto; the Brazilians Cícero Dias, Arthur Luiz Piza, Lygia Clark; Cuban Wifredo Lam; Chilean Roberto Matta; Mexican Rufino Tamayo; Venezuelan Carlos Cruz-Diez and many others contributed to the construction of the unique image of the Latin American artist in Paris. To some extent, they also helped to establish a familiar landscape: Latin American artists were never in their homelands but always in Paris. However, a few years later, the French capital would no longer be the place where the intellectual classes converged. From the 1960s, artists started to move to New York City, where – as noted by art historian Serge Guilbault – the idea of modern art was stolen from Paris after the Second World War. The combined efforts of the Brazilian Ministry of International Affairs and the Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations attracted to the United States artists such as Luis Camnitzer, Liliana Porter, Hélio Oiticica, Rubens Gerchman, Abdias Nascimento, and many others.
However, historian Daniel Emilio Rojas points out the existence of a secular distinction between Brazil and the remaining Latin American nations as far as cultural movement is concerned:
« Except for the journal Le Brésil and the painter Tarsila do Amaral, the split between Hispanic and Portuguese Americas is still considerable and it would be a mistake to think that continental conviction would be enough to overcome it. The sporadic contact between Brazilians and Hispanic Americans has not been sufficient to conclude that there has been effective dialogue and interpenetration. »
Throughout the years, this distinction became a tense yet productive relationship. Robert Patrick Newcomb argues that the relationship between Brazil and Hispanic America can be defined, on the one hand, by the strong projection of the idea of union – Nuestra / Our America –, and on the other hand, by the Brazilian affirmation of national singularity. While Hispanic American intellectuals, such as José Enrique Rodó and Alfonso Reyes, stressed the unity between Brazil and other Latin American countries, the Brazilian writers Joaquim Nabuco and Sérgio Buarque emphasised the peculiarities of their home country. Both cultural traditions still persist, often impregnated by false ideas, contradictions and misunderstandings.
It was probably in the 1960s and 70s that Brazilian art identified more meaningfully with the rest of Latin America. Rubens Gerchman’s artwork A Nova Geografia / Homenagem a Torres García [New Geography/Homage to Torres García] (1971) reintroduces issues of Latin American identity to debates of the second half of the 20th century. The same can be said of Antonio Manuel’s installation Soy loco por ti [I’m Crazy for You] (1969) and several of Claudio Tozzi’s paintings that allude to the continent’s situation. Popular music also emphasises common roots, often combining Portuguese and Spanish.
Somewhere between l’Extrême-Occident and the Global South
Diplomat and scholar Alain Rouquié decided to give his book about Latin America the subtitle Introduction à l’Extrême-Occident [Introduction to the Far West] (1987). However, in the field of art history, art produced in Latin America is often referred to as ‘non-western art’.
Western art (and the history of art) is a European invention. The exhibition Westkunst. Zeitgenössische Kunst seit 1939 [Western Art, Contemporary Art since 1939] shown in Cologne in 1981, proposed to bring together art produced after 1939 and claimed the existence of a ‘non-exhausted’ modernity during the Second World War. In this exhibition, curators Laszlo Glozer and Kasper König called upon the continuity of a universal modernity. Despite its interruption during the Nazi regime, such modernity flowered in North America in the hands of immigrating artists. According to German art historian Hans Belting, the exhibition represents the moment when European ‘suspended modernity’ was complemented by the participation of the United States, whose art production was consequently integrated into the Western art canon. Latin America’s late modernity (modernity with no modernisation), whose ideas were brought from Europe and the United States by returning artists or European modernists (such as Marinetti, through his travels across the American continent, and Blaise Cendrars, through his trip to Brazil), introduced an industrial-modern imaginary to countries that still relied on the extractive industry. The Bienal de São Paulo is another telling example of this, as for a long time it highlighted the art production of European countries.
In 1984, however, the first Bienal de La Habana concentrated its research on artists from Latin America, including the Caribbean. Since its second edition in 1986, the focus has been expanded to artists from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Its programme became a meeting point for ‘non-Western artists’. For the first time, the emphasis was on artists from the South, whose works present situations and conflicts that are common to these regions. We could argue that, after this biennial, the West began to look beyond its frontiers, toward what we understand today as the Global South. We should also mention here the proliferation of large-scale exhibitions – from Venice to Berlin – which opened the door to non-western art.
Brazil is ¡Latin America!
In his drawing-manifesto Mapa invertido [Inverted Map] (1943), Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres García produced an atypical image of the American continent. According to Walter Mignolo, to represent an upside-down map of South America with the south placed at the top was a good start but not enough: the updated representation changes the place of enunciation, but the terms of the dialogue between south and north and the gaps generated by the loss of indigenous and Afro-American cartography still persist. In Mapa invertido, Brazil was included; whilst in Jaar’s A Logo for America – the artwork that launched this discussion –, the country was excluded, along with the rest of Latin America and the Caribbean. Even though for Spanish-speaking Latin Americans, Brazil has always been a part of Latinity, most Brazilians would disagree. The difference in language can be explained as a critical barrier, as well as a deliberate historical distancing from Latin American neighbours that began during the process of Brazilian independence in an effort to curb Republican aspirations.
In 2018, young artist from Minas Gerais Randolpho Lamonier presented Profecias [Prophecies] in the exhibition MitoMotim [MythMutiny] hosted by Videobrasil. The artwork consists of a series of panels made of colourful fabric in the shape of banners that reveal ironic presages that oscillate between desire and utopic fantasy. In one of them, huge letters on a multi-coloured background with flowers, weapons, skulls, snakes, Umbanda necklaces and Christian symbols read: IN 2050 WE DISCOVERED: BRAZIL IS ¡LATIN AMERICA! Lamonier’s work is an ironic response to a debate that seems to have lasted centuries. Do we really need to wait until 2050 to achieve a long-overdue unity? Between questions, propositions and premonitions, the southern territory continues to drift: the cartography of a desire, a space of projection, margin, frontier and orientation.
Maria Angélica Melendi is a researcher and lecturer at the Post-Graduation Art Programme at Escola de Belas Artes (UFMG). She investigates the relationship between visual art, memory, violence and politics in Latin America. She is the author of Lorenzato (C/Arte, 2011) and Estratégias da arte em uma era de catástrofes (Cobogó, 2017), which was shortlisted for Prêmio Jabuti (2018); and organised Diálogos entre linguagens (C/Arte, 2009), amongst others.