Inside Malba: a tour of the largest museum dedicated to Latin American art in the world

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It’s not often that you get Frida Kahlo all to yourself. That was my fortune when visiting Buenos Aires in Argentina recently, as well as its celebration of Latin American art, Malba.

I had been invited to see the museum’s new exhibition, Third Eye, which brings together the collections of the Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Aires and its founder, Eduardo Costantini. The day was a Tuesday, when it is closed to the public, and so I happened to be the only guest.

What strikes the visitor immediately is the confidence of the museum, which is the largest dedicated museum to Latin American art in the world. This sense of scale and ambition is epitomised through the building—the work of three young Argentinian architects after a competition involving 45 countries—and the projection of more than 700 works of art that have been acquired from across the Latin American continent.

Chaotic start

The institution could not have opened at a more inauspicious moment, on 21 September 2001, ten days after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and just as Argentina was entering one of its cyclical spells of economic chaos.

Having weathered the waves of international and national instability, Malba recently celebrated its 21st birthday. (The pandemic got in the way of the 20th.)

As it did so, it announced an expansion plan. This time, Costantini has opted for a site 50km outside of Buenos Aires, in the district of Escobar. The location reflects the growing popularity of areas to the north of the city and the wider phenomenon of the flight from urban centres after Covid. “Recent events have made the need to reinvent cities and decentralise the cultural offering a top priority,” Costantini said.

The new site will differ from the existing one in a number of ways. It will focus more specifically on Argentinian art, but will also branch out to include Argentinian music, cinema, theatre and dance. The architect this time is the Spanish practice Herreros, which was responsible for the remarkable Munch Museum (a design that mimics the Leaning Tower of Pisa) on the seafront in Oslo. Malba Puertos, as it will be known, combines three exhibition pavilions and a large transparent roof surrounded by gardens and woods. Construction has begun and the new museum is scheduled to open in March 2024.

From Surrealism to hyper-realism

Back in the Palermo area of Buenos Aires, the crowds keep on coming to Malba, and to the exhibition that runs until 1 September. The star draw is Kahlo, specifically two of her paintings and a series of her photographs, letters and personal effects, which are housed in a special room. In 2021, Costantini paid $34.9m at Sotheby’s in New York—a record for a work by a Latin American artist, for Diego y yo (Diego and me). The 1949 self-portrait portrays Kahlo in tears, her wet hair almost choking her. On her forehead, above her dark eyebrows, is the face of her husband, Diego Rivera, who in turn has an eye on his forehead, symbolising their tempestuous relationship, her obsession with him and her suffering at his hands. It is the first time the painting has been shown publicly for 25 years, having been held in a private collection in Texas.

Frida Kahlo’s 1942 Self-Portrait with Monkey and Parrot, acquired for $34.9m, at the Third Eye show at the Malba
Photo © Santiago Orti

The rest of the first-floor galleries are devoted to a wide array of Central and South American art: 240 works will remain on show, ranging from Surrealism to political hyper-realism, many of which have not been shown publicly for decades.

My highlights from the collection include Tarsila de Amaral’s Abaporu (1928)—a word in the Tupi-Guarani Indigenous language meaning ‘man who eats man’—which uses the colours of the Brazilian flag to represent a humanoid creature with a small beak and giant feet. The Great Temptation (1962), by the Argentinian artist Antonio Berni, portrays an attractive blonde woman holding in her left hand a new-model blue car, while impoverished men, a rabid-looking dog and an ageing sex worker look on. Editor Solitario (2011), meanwhile, is an audio-visual installation by the Colombian Oscar Munoz that offers a reminder of the terrible human rights abuses of military dictatorships across the region.

Acquisition obstacles

Several hundred more works remain in storage. But the museum’s six-person strong acquisitions committee remains active, and is constantly on the lookout for new works—though Argentinian customs rules, always complex and punitive, make the search for new works far harder than it should be. The sheer costs of import duties for goods entering Argentina, including art, further complicates the endeavour. The costs apply to both Argentinian museums and private collections, meaning, across the country, many artworks are often technically registered as long-term loans rather than permanent acquisitions.

Constatini has suggested that it may take up to three decades to complete the transition of the museum from a private space to a public institution. While its status may be in flux, its ambition for new galleries—and new works to fill them—continues apace.

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