by Keith Widyolar
Chosen Memories: Contemporary Latin American Art from the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Gift and Beyond is a major exhibition of Latin American artists who have used history as inspiration during the contemporary period of the last 40 years.
That’s an interesting title. These artists were inspired by Latin America’s rich past, so they chose some memories to work with. By organizing them into this exhibition now, the curator Inés Katzenstein, with Julia Detchon, is reversing those memories into inspiration for future work. If you’re a Latin artist in New York who doesn’t go see this exhibition, I’m sorry but you’re not much of an artist. This is an exhibition of inspiration. Go see it. Go and smell the haystack, and see if you can find the needle of thought hidden inside it.
Videos, photographs, paintings, and sculptures gifted by Phelps de Cisneros over the last 25 years are shown in conversation with MoMA’s own collection, a new commission and selected loans. There are works by Alejandro Cesarco (Uruguay), Regina José Galindo (Guatemala), Mario García Torres (Mexico), Leanrdo Katz (Argentina), Suwon Lee (Venezuela), Gilda Mantilla (Peru) and Raimond Chaves (Colombia), Cildo Meireles (Brazil), Rosângela Rennó (Brazil), Mauro Restiffe (Brazil), José Alejandro Restrepo (Colombia), and others.
And we highly recommend taking a guided tour of the exhibition. Most of the guides are art faculty at regional universities. They expand your appreciation of the art exponentially. You will never forget a guided tour at MoMA.
Museum of Modern Art
April 30 – September 9, 2023
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Get tickets to the exhibition at moma.org
Latin Art is Often Not What You Think ~ At First
If you spend time in New York and Latin America, you eventually realize that we have completely different world views. You can’t look at Latin American art the same way you look at European art. We live in different pairs of eyeglasses.
Points of View
A famous British artist once covered a skull with diamonds. Oh wow. It’s unlikely that a Latin American artist would do the same. We’d be just as likely to cover the skull with dirt. Its artistic value wouldn’t be any different, but it takes a different way of seeing to understand that. In general, we are much less invested in wealth, and much more invested in communal family life.
To be Latin American means having been colonized which is an experience that most Americans choose not to understand. It means being stripped down to nothing but your nakedness and your spirit, and forced to pretend to be someone else, while everything you love is stolen, you are told from childhood that you are a devil, and violated with unending abuse.
That changes the way you express yourself. You learn to speak, hear and read in code. So a lot of this work has a conceptual narrative. You might have to get out of yourself to understand it because that is the Latin American experience. We were forced to get out of ourselves (and it’s still happening).
The art world has recently learned this lesson. It’s quite wonderful that a bunch of academics has learned to become transcendental.
Indigenous Art is a Spiritual Container
Another important consideration when looking at Latin American art is that in spite of the forced Europeanization of the region, we are largely an Indigenous people. Most Americans don’t understand that because of the Indigenous genocide committed in the United States and across the Americas, often in the name of the European god. What kind of god does that? Indigenous Americans were removed from their land and those that remain went silent because stealth is a strategy for survival.
Yes it was shamefully bad, and you may hear the cries of the dead and disenfranchised in some of this art, but the point we want to make is about Indigenous artistic tradition. Indigenous art is not decorative in the way that European art is. In all the ancient traditions around the world, art, religion, family and community were one interconnected thing. When Indigenous peoples paint or scar our faces, we are not just decorating. We are changing our own life force in connection with our family, the community, and the universe.
Indigenous art is spiritual. It may have aesthetic value, but even a series of arcs carved into a rock or painted on canvas is a spiritual container. It contains the living energy of the universe or whatever it represents. European art is just art, but Indigenous and African Diaspora art is spiritually alive.
For example, when pre-Columbian Indigenous Colombians did their strikingly beautiful gold work (which you can see over at the Met), they used a bamboo or similar pipe to breathe oxygen into the fire to heat the gold. But they weren’t just oxygenating the fire, they were breathing human life force into the metal. That’s why its so beautiful. It’s not just molded metal. It’s alive.
One of our clients is one of the top pre-Columbian art dealers in the world. They told us that some art on display would inexplicably fall over repeatedly, until they rearranged the display. Explain that.
(By the way the similarity in distinct African and Indigenous traditions is striking. And in the Americas, we mixed together escaping the colonizers.)
Bales of Hay or the Communal Life Force?
So Cildo Meireles’ bales of hay, the iconic image of this exhibition, probably aren’t just bales of hay. They may represent and contain the life force of all the people who prepared the land, farmed and harvested the grass, and made the bales. The art represents the life of the community itself.
The golden needle and thread pulled through the bales probably aren’t just a golden needle and thread. They may represent the gold lust of the Europeans who pillaged their way through Indigenous communities. They were looking for material riches without understanding that the richness of life lives in the community itself.
A Series of Arcs or Death and Rebirth?
Cuban artist José Bedia’s “Mamá Kalunga” has a horizon with arcs below it. You can translate the title as “Mother Water.”
The Kalunga is the watery horizon of the Atlantic Ocean in the Kongo spiritual tradition of Central Africa, one of the three great African traditions that rooted in the Americas. The Kongo peoples knew that those who crossed the water never returned, so the Middle Passage was a terrifying journey to the land of the dead.
But it turned out there was life on the other side. You can’t kill African spirit. It’s the root of all humanity. “Mamá Kalunga” represents the westward journey to the land of the dead and rebirth through a mother’s amniotic fluid, the human sea.
In Cuban Yoruba tradition (another of the three great African traditions), we say, “Somos hijos del mar.” We are children of the sea, because whether you think you are Spanish or African, that’s how we all got to Cuba. We crossed the Kalunga.
Even Cuba’s Indigenous peoples came across the sea. We came from the Yucatan in what is now Mexico. Some also came from what is now Haiti in a reverse migration across the sea from the Indigenous Taíno heartland. More came later during the upheaval of the Haitian Revolution. And from all this we got what we now call jazz and Latin music, the rhythms of life in America and Latin America.
It’s all there in a series of arcs made from acrylic and wood on canvas.
Choosing Our Memories Together
You might have to change your glasses to see it, but this exhibition functions on another spiritual plane. It’s a really special moment in art history because now in the Latin way, a mix of Indigenous, European and African traditions (Arab and Asian too), we are learning to choose our memories together.
Patricia Phelps de Cisneros
Patricia Phelps de Cisneros was collecting contemporary Latin American art long before most anyone else cared. And she wasn’t just buying for her living room walls. She was building relationships with artists. She now holds one of the world’s most important collections of Latin American contemporary art, and has been gifting works to MoMA for decades.
By founding the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Art from Latin America, she turned MoMA into one of the world’s most important Latin Art institutions. You might not expect that to be in New York, but here it is.
Oh and she is Venezuelan. Venezuela has a strong tradition of modern and contemporary art. It even shows up in Venezuelan rock bands in New York. Their music in performance has a strong visual component that derives from these traditions.
Patricia is making art history. There is no need to go looking through contemporary Latin American art for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Ms. Phelps de Cisneros already found it.
The Cisneros Institute is at moma.org