What associations do you have when you hear the phrase “Latin American artist”? I bet it’s Frida Calo with the monkeys on her shoulders or her husband Diego Rivera, who takes out the faces of Communist leaders in the corner of a giant mural. The most educated will remember the Colombian Fernando Botero with his rounded characters – that’s all. And the art of Latin America today is one of the main trends in the international art scene.
Latin America has long found its own classics, whose works are kept in the collections of the world’s largest museums. The international art market records: the works of one Botero in the spring of 2017 was bought for $ 6.2 million – a third of 19 million of total sales at Sotheby’s. This trend was determined only 10-15 years ago, although authentic artists in Latin America appeared in the early XX century. Why did this happen?
Latin American art has for many years been marginalized in the context of the global art scene – primarily for political reasons.
In addition, most art movements emerged in Europe and the States, and this left not only Latin America, but also Asia and Africa. There were no good art schools at home, and artists had to go to Europe to study. Many of them, withdrawn in the Eurocentric system, could not find their own voice, while others managed to turn the European experience into Latin American artistic realities.
Starting with mystical realism: the mysterious visions of Chilean Roberto Matta, the political surrealism of Mexican Alberto Gironella, the geometric abstractions of Argentinean Roberto Aizenberg and the tropical cubism of Brazilian Tarsila do Amaral – Latin American art is building its own trajectory — and gradually becoming political.
The moralism of Mexicans Jose Clemente Orosco, Jose Alfaro Siqueiros, and Diego Rivera was an artistic manifesto against art elitism: at the beginning of the XX century, only representatives of wealthy classes in Mexico could get to the museum, the poor were strictly forbidden to enter the temples of art.
Mexican moralist artists painted public buildings in order to make art accessible to all.
Contemporary art in Latin America today keeps pace with American and European art: postmodern longing, conceptual sarcasm, and silent protest have become a leitmotif even in the stuffy Brazilian tropics.
The past experience of the cultural traditions of these countries is being actively theorized and conceptualized. God died, and now everyone reads Boris Grois instead of the Bible.
In this article, through the prism of central political and cultural phenomena, we will examine the most important artistic trends and the most prominent artists from four countries: Mexico, Brazil, Cuba, and Argentina – processes that have taken place in these countries have had a significant impact on the development of contemporary art in the rest of Latin America.
Dictatorships, tropical art, shit notebooks, the Parthenon from banned books, Viennese actionism in Cuba, and art supermarkets are the most important developments in the local art scene over the past six decades.
In the 1990s, the USA, Canada, and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the economic field began to globalize actively. This agreement also affected the artistic scene of the country, which throughout its history was famous for the authenticity of visual and plastic traditions. Mexican artists learned about the existence of an international art market, or rather, they were given the opportunity to become part of it.
Authenticity in this context turned into a flaw – the beauty of lube Mexico was not of particular interest to international curators, collectors, and auctioneers.
Local artists had to build a worthy discourse about the country’s contradictions in a language that could be understood from New York to Shanghai. This was when artists such as Gabriel Orozco, Abraham Cruzvillegas, and Yoshua Okón appeared. Mocking, politically serious, and very well sold, the works of these artists have become symbols of the new conceptual art of Mexico.
The main argument of those who are skeptical about them is that they exist at the expense of the same capitalist system that is criticized in their art.
For example, for his latest scandalous work by Oroxxo, Gabriel Orosco rented the rights to temporarily open a Mexican chain store Oxxo, selected 300 products on which he stamped his brand name, and sold these products at a price as if they were works of art. This is a criticism of the consumer society.
But the essence of contemporary Mexican art for the people lies in the artist Francisco Toledo: not so much in his work as in his life. The 78-year-old artist was born in Oaxaca, a state with a large indigenous Indian population, also famous for its social activism.
Toledo has a reputation as a radical with the idealism of a teenage anarchist. He never received the IFE, the country’s main document allowing Mexican citizens to vote, and is also used by Mexicans as an identity card. Toledo comments: “I will die without a vote. My father never voted because he didn’t trust anything called “democracy”.
In 2008, he organized a protest against the opening of McDonald’s branch in Oaxaca. With the help of several non-profit cultural heritage organizations in Toledo, he managed to win back independent Oaxaca from an international fast food corporation. This is impressive, given the fact that even the Champs-Elysées in Paris lost the McDonald’s lawsuit and the restaurant was built there.
Toledo is also famous for having once paid taxes with his series of works called “Shit Notebooks”: 27 volumes with 1500 drawings of defecating skeletons, dogs, demons, fish, men, women, ducks and horses. These works are now in the collection of the Contemporary Museum of Oaxaca (MACO).
In the 1960s the text of the catalog for Toledo exhibitions in London and New York was written by the American writer Henry Miller. Despite international recognition and numerous awards, which he does not, however, recognize, Toledo continues to live in the state in which he was born, always wearing a simple white shirt and linen pants and says: “I am like a handyman – I work eight hours a day.
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The fertile Cuban soil produced not only famous revolutionaries and dictators but also a huge number of excellent artists who, living in exile, had to create their own language and invent new figures of visual narrative. The Cuban surrealist cubist Wifredo Lam is considered a classic of Cuban art. However, Cuban contemporary (in the context of contemporary rather than modern) art does not belong to painters at all.
One of the most provocative artists in the Latin American art scene, Cuban Ana Mendieta, has become a key representative of Cuban art outside the country. At the age of 12, Mendieta and her sister were exiled to the United States: their father joined the counter-revolutionary troops against the Castro regime and later spent 18 years in prison for political prisoners. Anu was soon adopted by adoptive American parents, but her separation from her family, as well as violence, rituals, and communication with her own body, will be fundamental elements in her work. Through performances, photographs, and videos, Ana asserted her body as a powerful tool to influence the public.
In 1973, Sarah Ann Ottens, one of Ana’s fellow students at the University of Iowa, was brutally raped and subsequently murdered. Mendieta’s reaction to this event was a shocking performance Untitled (Rape Scene) – “Untitled” (“Violence Scene”).
In it, the artist invited all students and professors to her home at the appointed hour. As soon as the audience crossed the threshold of her house, they found the artist’s naked body, covered with blood and tied to the living table. Mendieta carefully examined the details of the murder from the police and faithfully reproduced them in her performance. The spectators had nothing left to do but sit around and start discussing what was happening. Mendieta spent about an hour in that position.
In the same year, Mendieta did another project in which she also used blood as a material. In Untitled (People Looking at Blood, Moffitt), or “Untitled” (“People Looking at Blood, Moffitt”), the pavement in front of the artist’s house was covered with animal blood so that it seemed to flow from under Mendiet’s door. Ana hid on the back of the street, filming the reaction of people passing by on a Super 8 camera.
Mendieta’s experimental film attracted a lot of attention: it was the first time that it clearly demonstrated our willingness to ignore the signals of violence that we face daily.
Ana’s life ended in the midst of her career: in 1985 she fell out of the window of her New York apartment, located on the 34th floor. The cause of death is still in dispute, but most experts are inclined to believe that Anna was pushed out of the window by her drunk husband Carl Andre during the altercation. Andre himself claims he can’t remember anything. There were small scratches on his nose, but the investigation did not consider that there was enough evidence to bring charges. Mendieta’s death still serves as an occasion for various conspiracy theories: the leitmotif of her work followed the artist to the grave.
A cultural movement that has succeeded in combining art, music, fashion, literature, theatre, and cinema, in Brazil, has been called “tropicism” or “tropicalism”.
From 1967 to 1972 Brazilian intellectuals produced curious cultural hybrids, crossing American psychedelic rock with sensual and melancholic melodies of samba and bossa nova, Brazilian traditional art with international art trends, political stoicism with hedonism.
Around the tropics, there was an atmosphere of cosmopolitan, libertarian optimism that Brazilian cultural life had not known until then.